NEA Delegates Down to Final Days To Weigh Merits of Merger With AFT

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For months, they've been the subject of heated debate--at state meetings, across phone and fax lines, and on World Wide Web pages.

Now, it's almost time for the "principles of unity" to go before delegates to the National Education Association's Representative Assembly. The eight principles, if adopted, would govern the merger of the 2.3 million-member NEA with the smaller American Federation of Teachers.

The outcome of the pivotal July 5 vote will depend on whether delegates think the principles sketch a vision of a dynamic new organization, or agree with critics that their initials--PU--say it all.

If recent votes by state affiliates are any indication, it appears that merger proponents face an uphill battle. But delegates, who don't have to vote their states' positions, are expected to put in long hours in New Orleans mastering the details of the proposed merger.

"I think people will form their opinions at the convention," said Mark Simon, the president of the Montgomery County (Md.) Education Association. "The delegates feel this is a very complicated issue, and they will come wanting to learn."

Mark Simon

While the national teachers' unions may look alike to outsiders, their membership and governance arrangements differ in important ways that are likely to help shape members' decisions. Delegates to the 980,000-member AFT's convention will cast their ballots on a merger later in July.

A Marriage

The United Organization, as the new national union is being called, would look different from either of its parents. But it also would resemble them both in significant ways, seeking to marry the NEA's strong state organizations with the AFT tradition of robust local affiliates.

The national union would have an annual budget of about $292 million and a membership of some 3.2 million, including health-care providers and state and local government employees. The broader membership would mark a notable change for the NEA; some of its state affiliates have members from outside of education, but they don't belong to the national association.

Moreover, the United Organization would be an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, a tie to the giant labor federation that some NEA members have long resisted.

Union leaders say they don't expect to raise national dues, which now are $109 in the NEA and $114 in the AFT. Neither do they anticipate laying off any staff members in either organization.

A framework for drafting a constitution and bylaws for the new union, the principles of unity spell out how it would be governed.

The organization's highest governing body would be its convention. The number of delegates would roughly equal those who now attend the two unions' annual meetings, or about 13,000. They would be elected directly by members at the state and local level.

An executive board, made up of seven national officers and 30 members elected at large by convention delegates, would set policy between conventions. The board would meet seven times a year and formulate and recommend a budget to the convention.

Leadership Council

In addition, a "leadership council" of about 400 members would "advise, assist, and make program and policy recommendations" to the United Organization's convention, officers, and executive board. It would meet at least three times a year.

Many of the members of the leadership council would serve by virtue of their positions as state affiliate presidents, presidents of local affiliates with 2,500 or more members, and the like.

Because those seats would be designated, the leadership council couldn't legally serve as a governing body for the United Organization under federal labor law, which requires such bodies to be made up of members elected on a one-person, one-vote basis.

Some critics charge that the council would amount to little more than a toothless giant, leaving authority in the hands of the 37-member executive board.

Philip Rumore

"This is the classic AFT model," complained Philip Rumore, the president of the Buffalo (N.Y.) Teachers Federation, an NEA affiliate. "It's anti-democratic."

Sandra Feldman, the president of the AFT, argued that the leadership council would be "a really broad-based, representative group of leadership throughout the organization" and "basically the strongest policymaking body."

Sandra. Feldman

Elected leaders in the United Organization, she contended, "will want the support of the leadership council" and will pay close attention to its actions. "How will they get elected if they ignore the decisions of the leadership council?" Ms. Feldman asked.

Neither national union now has a body that parallels the leadership council. The NEA has a 163-member board of directors, whose members are elected in their states, and a nine-member executive committee.

The AFT has a 38-member executive council, made up of its vice presidents, and a seven-member executive committee. Most AFT vice presidents are presidents of local teachers' unions or health-care affiliates, or leaders of other membership groups.

Mr. Simon of Montgomery County sees the proposed leadership council's blend of members as "a more efficient body for policymaking" than the NEA's board of directors, on which he served for six years.

The NEA board conducts "largely ceremonial" meetings and is disconnected from the association's powerful state leadership, Mr. Simon said. "We have an organizational structure in the NEA that is open to being improved upon, and this proposed structure does that."

Questions of 'Focus'

In addition to governance questions, some NEA members are wrestling with the proposed voting procedures for the United Organization. The association has long prided itself on using secret ballots, while AFT members' votes are recorded.

In the new union, convention delegates would vote by secret ballot, but the total results would be recorded by state and local affiliates to let members know how their representatives voted. Voting would also be weighted, meaning that delegates would cast a certain number of votes based on the total number of members they were representing at the convention.

Proponents of secret ballots contend that open voting gives union leaders undue control over their members, who might fear to vote against their wishes.

The Fairfax County (Va.) Federation of Teachers, a 2,400-member affiliate of the AFT, created a World Wide Web page on the merger that argues in favor of secret balloting for the United Organization.

The issue of guaranteed minority representation, another point of pride for NEA members, has generated less debate. Negotiators strengthened language in the principles of unity this spring to say that the United Organization would maintain and "work to expand" current NEA and AFT levels of minority representation in the leadership, governance, and staff.

The NEA's Black Caucus has not yet taken a position on the issue. But Sybil Connally, the chairwoman of the caucus, said she was satisfied with the document's language on diversity.

Although union leaders argue that they need to unite to strengthen public education and defend it against attacks, the United Organization's membership would be far broader than just education employees.

Timothy Humphrey

Timothy Humphrey, the president of the Maine Education Association, whose members opposed the principles of unity in a recent straw poll, said he worries that the union would "lose our focus" with health-care and nonschool government workers as members.

"For 34 years, I've been a member," Mr. Humphrey said, "and I have always been very proud to represent public school employees and public education."

Similarly, union leaders who represent noneducation employees have sought assurances that they won't get lost in the United Organization, said Ann Twomey, the vice chairwoman of the Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, an AFT affiliate. She also serves as a vice president of the AFT, which has a separate division for its more than 50,000 members who work in health care.

The merged union would have councils for health-care and government employees that would serve as a forum for making recommendations to the executive board.

That structure--along with a letter from Ms. Feldman and Bob Chase, the president of the NEA, committing to continue organizing health-care workers--allayed her concerns, Ms. Twomey said.

'Core' Members

In addition to teachers, the United Organization's "core" membership would include education support personnel, administrators, and higher education employees.

Local and state affiliates of the new national union would be required to grant "full membership rights" to all members in this core group. The provision means that states such as California--which has resisted doing so--would have to grant education support personnel an equal role in the union. Currently, they belong to local California affiliates and to the NEA, but not to the California Teachers Association.

In North Carolina, education support personnel qualify only for associate membership in the North Carolina Association of Educators. "A very vocal minority in our state does not want to belong to an association that represents anyone but certified educators," said John I. Wilson, the executive director of the NEA affiliate.

But states in which NEA doesn't organize these employees, such as Connecticut, wouldn't be required to do so.

The principles also would allow administrators who belong to local affiliates of the United Organization to align directly with the national union. A number of Southern state affiliates of the NEA, in particular, already grant membership to administrators.

State affiliates of the new union would not, however, have to take in health-care and government workers.

If they were shut out, such nonschool employees could form a state council that would function as a state affiliate of the United Organization.

Strong State Groups

Delegates also will have to ponder questions of how the United Organization would relate to its state and local affiliates. They would not be required to merge, but unity would be "the ultimate objective," the principles state.

Guidelines for state unification, to be crafted by the United Organization, would encourage the creation of state affiliates that reflected "as much as possible and practical" the national union's structure.

The negotiators who hammered out the principles were clearly intent on preserving the NEA's state-level strength, which is largely due to the UniServ program. Under this system, the national union returns more than $40 million in dues to the states annually to pay for staff members, called UniServ directors. These employees assist the locals in bargaining, handling grievances and arbitrations, and providing training, among other duties.

The United Organization would keep the NEA's formula for sending money to the states. At the same time, it would preserve the AFT's smaller "organizational assistance program," meaning that affiliates wouldn't suffer budget cuts. The AFT program uses a formula to send money to state and local affiliates, but they have broader discretion over its use than NEA affiliates.

The principles also try to retain the AFT's tradition of local autonomy, in which locals hire and pay for their staff members with dues money, rather than relying on state organizations for staffing.

But critics say that AFT locals would be forced to hike members' dues to the level the state NEA affiliates charge. In Minnesota, where the teachers' unions are set to merge, members of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers saw their dues go up $45, or 19 percent, to cover state-level expenses. ("Minn. Unions Eagerly Await Merger Voting," April 29, 1998.)

"They've promised local autonomy, but the national gets the power and the state gets the dues," charged Rick Nelson, the president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers and one of the few AFT leaders to publicly voice opposition to merger. "Under that system, local autonomy is not worth much."

In Virginia, AFT members, such as those in Mr. Nelson's local, pay $32 a year to belong to the fledgling state organization.

In contrast, the Virginia Education Association's dues are $180 a year.

By using local dues to hire their own staff members or pay elected officials to do specific jobs, AFT locals have been able to chart their own courses more than those in NEA, which are dependent on the professional UniServ staffers, Mr. Nelson said.

"Sending money and power upstairs, for a teacher organization, is suicide," he said.

But Albert Fondy, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, disputes the argument that AFT locals would have to hike dues. He noted that many already pay state dues of about $200 a year.

Negotiators, however, would have to figure out how to structure dues to reflect the fact that some local affiliates pay for their own staffs, Mr. Fondy said.

Mr. Fondy and David Gondak, the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, sent a joint letter to their members in April addressing those concerns and endorsing the national unification.

Any state merger, the letter says, would both preserve the level of service for NEA locals and "respect the established AFT model of local service as it applies to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia."

The intense feelings on all sides promise a passionate discussion on Independence Day, when the NEA delegates are scheduled to debate a motion endorsing the principles. They will vote yes or no; they cannot amend the principles or vote on them individually. To pass, the motion must garner two-thirds majorities of the NEA and the AFT delegates.

If both unions give the nod, teams will begin drafting a constitution and bylaws for consideration by their respective governing bodies either next summer or in 2000.

"Whatever the vote is," Mr. Humphrey of Maine said, "we'll move on, and we will have grown because of the debate."

Staff Writer Jeff Archer contributed to this report.

Vol. 17, Issue 41, Pages 1, 16-19

Published in Print: June 24, 1998, as NEA Delegates Down to Final Days To Weigh Merits of Merger With AFT
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