NEA's Chase Travels Nation To Lobby for a Single Union

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Bob Chase first ruffled feathers with his "new unionism" speech urging teachers and administrators to bury the hatchet and work together for school improvement. Then he broke with his association's longstanding opposition to peer review by supporting plans allowing teachers to mentor and evaluate each other.

Now, the president of the National Education Association is waging his most high-stakes campaign yet, as he tries to convince his members of the benefits of merging with their longtime rivals in the American Federation of Teachers.

Since January, when the two unions announced the "principles of unity" to govern a merger, Mr. Chase has crisscrossed the country to answer the concerns of members and--he hopes--pick up votes.

To go forward, the principles must win approval from at least two-thirds of the 10,000 delegates to next month's NEA Representative Assembly in New Orleans. Judging from the state-level discussions that have taken place on the issue recently, winning that supermajority may not be easy.

The extent of his challenge was evident as Mr. Chase met earlier this month with about 70 Kentucky delegates here at a hotel near the state Capitol. During a three-hour grilling, he tried to allay their fears about affiliation with the AFL-cio, of which the combined national union would be a member; full membership rights for support-staff members; and the possibility that individual teachers would get lost in an organization of 3.2 million people.

"I know there are people who are concerned because they feel we are giving up our heritage," Mr. Chase said in trying to reassure his Bluegrass State members. "But we on the negotiating team believe the principles we've put together will allow us to continue on with our heritage, and expand on what we believe in, and make us even stronger than we have been."

Common Enemies

The Kentucky Education Association called Mr. Chase here after delegates to the 37,000-member affiliate's state meeting voted 126 to 113 against a resolution supporting the proposed merger, leaving the state group without an official position.

"We are so accustomed that the NEA are the good guys and the AFT are the bad guys, and the NEA taught us that well," said KEA President Judith Gambill, explaining some members' hesitancy. "It is a big jump, especially when you look at it as a lifelong, loyal NEA member, and they're even giving up the name. It's almost like a personal loss."

Conceding that he, too, fought the AFT when he was an elected official in Connecticut, Mr. Chase nonetheless told the Kentucky delegates that the national teachers' unions stand to lose more by failing to unify.

To make his point, he read from a list of "extremist" organizations--most of which support vouchers--that he said had supported a California ballot initiative this month that would have made it harder for unions to raise political contributions. It included such conservative groups as the Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the Eagle Forum, and Americans for Tax Reform.

"Look, people who are anti-union or anti-labor, they don't differentiate between those who are members of the AFT and those who are members of the NEA," Mr. Chase argued, garnering murmurs of "That's right" from his audience. "It just makes no sense to have two organizations, two structures, out there trying to achieve the same goals."

An Unclear Outcome

Such appeals have shown mixed results.

A few of the states with the biggest delegations to the Representative Assembly already have voted to recommend against a merger, including Michigan and New Jersey. Recognizing that affiliates in places like Connecticut, Illinois, and Iowa also were opposed, Mr. Chase still addressed their state conventions, where he hopes he won a few converts even though the majority went against unification.

The California Teachers Association, which will account for about one-tenth of all the delegates at the nea's annual meeting, weighed in on the side of a merger this month, when its state counsel voted in favor of the principles of unity.

Other big states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, have yet to take a position, while Florida, Minnesota, New York, and Oregon are among the supporters.

In Kentucky, Mr. Chase pointed out that delegates are not bound by such state recommendations when they cast their votes--by secret ballot--in New Orleans. He urged delegates to use the time before the vote to go back to their members and continue discussing the issue.

"By the time the vote comes around on July 5, you will have had a lot more information to sift through and a lot more opinions to evaluate than will the folks who've chosen you to represent them, but that makes sense," he said. "That's why we've got a representative form of governance."

Vol. 17, Issue 41, Page 18

Published in Print: June 24, 1998, as NEA's Chase Travels Nation To Lobby for a Single Union
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Web Resources
  • Read Bob Chase's statement, Feb. 11, 1998, on the first anniversary of the launch of his "new unionism" initiative.
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