Teaching Profession

AFL-CIO Label Is Most Ticklish of Issues For NEA Members Deciding Union’s Future

By Jeff Archer — June 24, 1998 8 min read
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To the millions of employees whose unions are its members, the AFL-CIO is the pre-eminent crusader for the American worker. But to many teachers, the group represents a blue-collar--and sometimes corrupt--style of labor organization that is incompatible with the aims of professionals.

Such competing views will shape much of the debate as the National Education Association decides whether to merge with the American Federation of Teachers at the NEA’s annual meeting, which gets under way next week.

Despite attempts by NEA leaders to separate what they see as the myth from the reality of the AFL-CIO in recent months, many of the teachers’ union’s 2.3 million members show persistent discomfort at forming new ties to the core of the American labor movement. Affiliation with the AFL-CIO has been a major bone of contention in many of the states where NEA affiliates have recently voted to recommend against a merger--as it was at the national level until recently.

“Some people have got in their minds the old image of labor--the kind of [James R.] Hoffa and corruption image--and they just don’t want to be associated with that,” said Wayne Johnson, the vice president of the California Teachers Association and a supporter of the proposed merger. “It is an issue, and it is going to cost the merger agreement a lot of votes at the [NEA’s annual meeting] this summer.”

Anticipating such hesitancy, the drafters of the “principles of unity,” which union delegates will vote on next month, were careful not to force state and local affiliates to become members of the state labor federations and central labor councils that make up the AFL-CIO’s regional bodies. But they also made it clear that the “goal will be full affiliation with the AFL-CIO at every level.”

Political Punch

Although a merged AFT and NEA would comprise more than 3 million members, it would initially join the AFL-CIO at the national level based on 1.4 million members--just enough to make the educators the biggest single bloc in the labor federation. With per-capita dues of about $5.40, the combined teachers’ organization at first would pay some $7 million annually to the AFL-CIO, although about half of that is already paid by the 980,000-member AFT, which has long been a member.

If state or local affiliates of the merged union sought ties to an AFL-CIO labor council or state federation, they would also pay per-capita dues, which vary by region. According to the principles of unity, locals could join AFL-CIO organizations regardless of what their state affiliates decided to do.

“Will we try to educate state and local affiliates about the AFL-CIO as things go on? The answer is yes,” NEA President Bob Chase said at a recent news briefing. “Will we pressure them to become part of it? The answer is no.”

Despite the dues that unions pay to the organization, the AFL-CIO does not dictate policy to its members, labor experts say. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, for example, endorsed Republican presidential candidate George Bush in 1988 even when the labor federation supported Democrat Michael Dukakis.

“The AFL-CIO is truly a loose federation, despite the public image,” said Charles B. Craver, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington and the author of Can Unions Survive? “I think the AFL-CIO, in terms of the actual power over its constituent unions, has almost zero.”

But the labor federation wields substantial clout in the political arena, which would only add to the NEA’s muscle. While the NEA employed about 10 lobbyists to work the halls of Congress and spent some $1.05 million on lobbying activities last year, the AFL-CIO employed more than 20 and spent about $2.24 million, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.

As important, however, is the federation’s effective use of volunteers from its constituent organizations to run phone banks and other campaign activities to ensure that union members vote come election time. A coordinated campaign of labor groups, including the NEA, the AFT, and the AFL-CIO, this month helped defeat a California initiative that would have made it harder for unions to raise political contributions from their members. The defeated ballot question initially enjoyed about 2-1 support in opinion polls.

Polishing an Image

With an affiliation based on more members than any other organization within the AFL-CIO, a merged teachers’ union also would send more delegates than any other group to the federation’s biennial convention, giving the educators a substantial voice when it comes to choosing a president and other officials. Another benefit of AFL-CIO affiliation is its policy banning member organizations from raiding other’s members.

Though the NEA is now widely recognized as a union, it was formed in 1857 as a professional association. Administrators at one time made up the bulk of its members, and the group opposed union organizing for teachers.

Even after embracing collective bargaining, the organization was so suspicious of the AFL-CIO that, until recently, the NEA would agree to merger talks only on the precondition that affiliation with the labor federation would not be part of any agreement. But, said Mr. Chase in a recent interview, “during the course of negotiations, you learn about things, and we came to believe that affiliation would be fine at the national level.”

The AFT, in contrast, has never shied away from association with blue-collar unions, having joined the American Federation of Labor when the teacher group was founded in 1916 and remaining with it when the AFL merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955.

In the early 1960s, the successful effort by AFT members to organize teachers in New York City got one of its biggest boosts when the United Auto Workers, during the presidency of Walter P. Reuther, contributed thousands of dollars to the cause. The campaign became a catalyst for the national movement for unionizing public school teachers.

Even though the two teachers’ unions now advocate along similar lines, many within the NEA still view their organization as the more professionally oriented of the two, Mr. Craver said. In many so-called right-to-work states, where union membership cannot be made a condition of employment, NEA affiliates still reject the union label.

“In many of our members’ minds, the AFL-CIO is a labor union, and they are very concerned with being classified as a labor union,” said Cheri W. James, the president of the Virginia Education Association. “Members worry that if it does pass, then their dues money will be spent trying to convince them to join the AFL-CIO.”

Years ago, in fact, NEA affiliates capitalized on that concern when vying with the AFT for the exclusive bargaining rights of members in school districts. Campaign material implying that the AFL-CIO called the shots for the AFT or quoting the late AFL-CIO President George Meany as saying, “Teachers have the same goals as plumbers,” was sometimes used to sour educators on the federation.

“There are people who think the AFL-CIO will be directing unions, but that’s an illusion that was created,” said John E. Ryor, the executive director of the Florida Teaching Profession-NEA. “And we probably helped create it.”

A former president of the NEA, Mr. Ryor was on the organization’s executive committee in 1974 when he voted with the majority to break ties with its Dade County affiliate because that organization wanted to join its local AFL-CIO. Today, however, Mr. Ryor’s NEA state affiliate has drafted its own merger agreement with its AFT counterpart and is awaiting national unification to go ahead with what would have been unimaginable 25 years ago.

“That was then, but this is now,” Mr. Ryor said. “The question we’re trying to respond to now is how can we create a coalition of like-minded people who believe in the fundamental importance of public education.”

But the recent allegations of money laundering in Ron Carey’s re-election campaign as Teamsters president--which eventually resulted in his ouster--might contribute to the perception of some that the house of labor is a hotbed of corruption. The AFL-CIO expelled the Teamsters in 1957 following revelations of widespread wrongdoing, and only in 1987 did the group return to the federation.

“I know everyone that belongs to the AFL-CIO is not that kind of person,” said Joyce Lewke, a member of the California Teachers Association’s board of directors who voted against recommending a merger.

“But people don’t want to be tied to that kind of tarnished thing.”

A Changing Face

In encouraging members to support merger, NEA officials have pointed out how the face of the AFL-CIO has changed in recent years to include more government-employee unions and professional associations. After the Teamsters, the second largest affiliate is now the 1.3-million member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Of the 13 million individuals in the AFL-CIO’s 72 unions, about 4 million are part of its Department for Professional Employees. They represent one of the federation’s fastest growing constituencies.

In the United States today, 15 percent of employees are union members. About 46 percent of them hold white-collar jobs--up from 25 percent in 1973, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. While the total number of union members has declined slightly in the past decade, the number of professional workers in unions has risen by 28 percent. As a result, the AFL-CIO now includes groups representing physicians, professional athletes, performing artists, airline pilots, and newspaper reporters.

Despite such trends, the public still appears to perceive the umbrella group primarily as a blue-collar organization, said Mr. Craver, the George Washington law professor. By bringing thousands of additional educators into the AFL-CIO, the merger of the two teachers’ unions could do much to change the image of labor in America, he added.

“To me it’s a red herring,” he said of affiliating with the AFL-CIO. “As a lawyer, if the American Bar Association said, ‘We’re a union,’ and joined the AFL-CIO, would that bother me? No. But for [the NEA], it’s a very real symbolic issue.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 24, 1998 edition of Education Week as AFL-CIO Label Is Most Ticklish of Issues For NEA Members Deciding Union’s Future


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