NEA Gives Affiliates Option of Joining Labor Federation

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The National Education Association, the nation’s largest labor union, will allow its local affiliates to join the AFL-CIO, which already represents the NEA’s rival union, the American Federation of Teachers.

NEA President Reg Weaver, speaking at the winter meeting of the AFL-CIO in San Diego Feb. 27, just minutes after signing the agreement, said he was “exhilarated” to make the announcement.

“The two groups working together will strengthen the community [at large] and the organization and the quality of public education,” Mr. Weaver said. Some member locals had already asked to join the behemoth labor organization, he added, paving the way for the agreement.

John J. Sweeney, the president of the AFL-CIO, called the pact the “most important step forward for the labor movement since the AFL-CIO merger in 1955.” In an interview, Mr. Weaver sought to underscore that the action does not represent a merger at the national level, and dismissed rumors of a backdoor attempt by the 2.8 million-member NEA to join with the 1.3 million-member AFT.

“This is not about the AFT. This is about the NEA and the AFL-CIO. This enables both sides to work together with meeting the needs of working families,” Mr. Weaver said.

He also said there was no attempt to bypass the 10,000-member Representative Assembly of the NEA, which rejected a marriage between the AFT and the NEA in 1998, even though leaders of both groups backed the merger. Affiliation with the AFL-CIO was one of the major reasons why NEA delegates voted it down. “We felt this was a decision that was for the board of directors to make, … and the board represents all affiliates,” Mr. Weaver said.

The NEA president declined to say how many locals would join the AFL-CIO, saying it was too early to estimate.

The AFT, meanwhile, welcomed the NEA announcement, saying the arrangement would help teachers’ unions become more powerful advocates for quality education.

“This is a historic occasion,” said AFT President Edward J. McElroy, who was also present at the San Diego press conference. “We are proud of the relationship we have with the NEA. … This gives us a greater opportunity at the grassroots, where members can work on issues that confront each of us everyday.”

The NEA Representative Assembly, after voting down the merger in 1998, opened the way for locals to merge with the AFT. At present, teachers in several cities and in three states—Minnesota, Montana, and Florida—are members of combined NEA/AFT unions. Teachers in New York state are also expected to merge into a single union in the near future.

Shoring Up

Despite the absence of any direct reference in the agreement to a merger between the AFT and the NEA, union watchers say the agreement could set the stage for one.

Mike Antonucci, a Sacramento-based teacher-union watchdog who runs an education blog, said it is estimated that up to 1 million NEA members could join the 9 million-member AFL-CIO as a result of the agreement.

“That is huge—it puts roughly a third of NEA’s members in the AFL-CIO, and after this, if NEA wanted to try a merger attempt with the AFT, they would be able to pull it off,” Mr. Antonucci predicted.

“There has been a long history of a lot of foreplay between the AFT and the NEA in terms of a merger. And while this is not a merger, it does bring them closer together,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, co-director of the think tank Education Sector and a co-author of the new book Collective Bargaining in Education: Negotiating Change in Today’s Schools.

The move could also help shore up the AFL-CIO, which lost nearly 5 million members after dissenting affiliates representing nearly a third of the union’s membership left last year to set up a new labor union. Asked why the NEA would choose to collaborate with the AFL-CIO during the labor federation’s stormiest time in history, Mr. Weaver simply said his organization’s leaders saw it as an opportunity to align themselves with working families.

“We are joining forces through a structured opportunity for our locals to participate,” he said. “We hope this will provide many young people with the opportunity to have great public schools.”

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This story should have said Andrew J. Rotherham is a co-director of the think tank Education Sector.

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