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NEA Locals Slowly Start to Join Giant Labor Federation

By Vaishali Honawar — August 27, 2008 5 min read
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When the National Education Association gave its affiliates the green light to join the AFL-CIO two years ago, there was no stampede to the giant federation of labor unions, and it looked as if the national teachers’ union was more eager to take the step than its state or local groups were.

But in recent months, a steady trickle of NEA locals, many with long-standing informal relationships with AFL-CIO central labor councils in their areas, have begun to affiliate formally with the umbrella group as economic and political pressures on teachers grow.

Today, nearly one-third of the NEA’s 3.2 million members are dues-paying members of the AFL-CIO, partly as a result of those bonds but mostly because of state-level mergers of NEA and American Federation of Teacher affiliates. The forerunner of the AFT has belonged to the labor federation since 1916.

Labor experts say that both state and local affiliations are set to increase as teachers seek strength in numbers to fight battles over tenure, salaries, health care, and No Child Left Behind Act mandates.

“For years, teachers [in the NEA] felt that if they were in the AFL-CIO, it would feel unprofessional,” said Charles B. Craver, a professor of labor law at George Washington University in Washington.

But today, he said, as districts under a budget squeeze seek to make changes in areas including tenure and health care, teachers are beginning to see the importance of aligning with a larger labor coalition to protect their interests.

Earlier this month, three NEA locals became affiliated with the AFL-CIO. In March, six others did, bringing the number of NEA-only affiliates in the AFL-CIO to 13 locals with 14,000 members.

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The four merged NEA-AFT state affiliates, in Florida, Minnesota, Montana, and New York, share 650,000 teachers’ union members.

“It’s important to know that close to 30 percent of NEA members are already part of the AFL-CIO by being members of AFT,” said Nancy Mills, the deputy chief of staff for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the formal name of the AFL-CIO.

Richard W. Hurd, a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., said he would not be surprised to see more state affiliations in the future. They are, he added, more significant than local affiliations because of the much larger numbers of members involved.

“It is misleading to look just at locals. ... You need to look at the total picture here,” Mr. Hurd said. “The act of allowing locals to affiliate is more symbolic,” he added.

When the NEA announced in 2006 that it was willing to allow members to join the AFL-CIO, many saw it as a willingness on the part of the nation’s largest teachers’ union to tighten ranks with the rest of the American labor movement in the face of economic and political changes.

Membership in industrial and private-sector unions has declined over the decades, under pressure from globalization, mechanization, and deregulation. In recent years, even public-sector unions have faced a political climate unfriendly to their views, and while their membership continues to grow, the increase is slower than before.

Shift in Thinking

Assaults on the interests of workers and the overall decline in the numbers of people joining labor unions have led to a slow shift in the thinking of teachers’ unions, making them more amenable to coalitions, union officials say.

Michael Edwards, the director of labor outreach for the NEA, pointed out that five decades ago, one in three workers in the country belonged to a labor union. Now, only 12 percent of workers do. “There is a greater sense of urgency than in the past [because] as the numbers in unions dip, this has implications for working people and their families,” Mr. Edwards said.

More recently, attempts to alter or eliminate teacher tenure as states come up with performance-pay plans could also be giving impetus to such associations with bigger federations, observers say. Even some Democratic policymakers, who are usually considered natural allies of labor, have joined in calls for merit pay, which teachers’ unions have long opposed.

Being part of a larger labor federation, said Mr. Craver, gives local unions access to better legal expertise as they grapple with such issues in collective bargaining. Smaller locals, which until now might have seen themselves more as professional associations, may want to learn more about how to begin arbitration, something they haven’t had to do in the past, he said.

Union officials say that one of the chief reasons it has taken a while for locals to sign on with the AFL-CIO after the NEA made its announcement two years ago is the increased cost because of the dues the union must pay to the labor coalition. Although it is as low as $1 to $1.50 per member per month, in many cases the cost does not fit into the local’s budget, and they have to pass it on to members.

Further, said Ms. Mills of the AFL-CIO, it has taken a while for the news of the pact to trickle down to locals. She said she is now aware of around half a dozen NEA locals that are in different stages of affiliation.

Despite their lack of a formal alliance, the NEA and the AFL-CIO have had long-running collaborations both at the national and local levels, observers say.

“The NEA has for at least since the mid- to late ’80s coordinated its national political program with that of the AFL-CIO. They don’t always agree, but they tell each other what to do. And this year there will be even more of that because both want to try to increase the influence of Congress on education,” said Cornell’s Mr. Hurd.

NEA officials agree that there has been a long history of collaboration, but stress that they remain a strongly independent union.

“This is a partnership and not a merger,” Mr. Edwards said.

Balancing Interests

Olga Addae, the president of the 3,000-member Seattle Education Association, which joined earlier this year, said her organization has always considered itself a professional association. But it is also an organization interested in protecting member interests.

“We have to always ask ourselves two questions: Is what’s happening fair to our members. Is this good for students?” Ms. Addae said. “We go back to the saying that educators’ working condition is a student’s learning condition. To me, it’s a question of that balance.”

And building stronger coalitions with all allies is important, she said. “One thing we know about labor is that they have an intrinsic interest in a well-educated populace,” she added.

Chris Perillo, the president of the 1,900-member Kenosha Education Association in Wisconsin, which affiliated with the labor federation this month, said the fact that another teachers’ union, the AFT, was already a member of the AFL-CIO encouraged him in into forging a formal alliance.

Besides, Mr. Perillo said, his local had already been working with the Kenosha County AFL-CIO labor council on several issues, under an agreement in 2003. The new pact, he said, only formalizes that relationship.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as NEA Locals Slowly Start to Join Giant Labor Federation

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