Teaching Profession

Despite National Defeat, NEA and AFT Work Toward Mergers in States

By Jeff Archer & Ann Bradley — August 05, 1998 9 min read
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New Orleans

A crucial vote here this summer dashed union leaders’ hopes for an imminent merger, but in a shift of strategy, the two national teachers’ unions are working to allow their state affiliates to unify while pulling together a process to guide future negotiations at the national level.

Delegates took opposing positions on a blueprint for merging at their respective conventions held here last month. The National Education Association rejected the plan, 57 percent to 43 percent, stopping it in its tracks. In a later, largely symbolic poll, 97.7 percent of the American Federation of Teachers’ delegates who voted favored it.

After the votes, though, delegates from both unions adopted similar policies reaffirming their overall support for unity and calling for guidelines to permit state-level mergers. Bob Chase, the president of the NEA, said in a recent interview that he hopes his union’s board of directors can take up the issue of guidelines for state mergers at its October meeting.

“I think it’s important that we deal with it as soon as possible,” he said. “I don’t think we want to place those states [looking to merge] in a difficult position.”

In Minnesota’s case, for instance, the two unions are “living together” and want permission to marry, Sandra Peterson, the president of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers, told delegates to the AFT’s convention here. “States who are ready must have the authority to begin to merge.”

Minnesota leaders had hoped to get the green light to consolidate by Sept. 1. State affiliates in Florida, Montana, and New Mexico also are in varying stages of planning for unification.

Forging an acceptable plan for state mergers could be difficult.

“The guidelines are not going to be easily arrived at because you get at the heart of what a national merger is all about,” said NEA-New York President Gregory Nash, a member of the NEA’s negotiating committee. “But I think that it can be done.”

Negotiators will have to decide, for example, how to structure members’ dues to pay for the services both unions offer. In the past, state mergers were barred altogether, in hopes that national unity would smooth the way.

Linda Bacon, the president of the NEA-affiliated Pinellas County (Fla.) Classroom Teachers Association and a proponent of a combined national union, said she fears a flurry of state unifications could “take the pressure off having a national merger.”

Culture Clashes

The debate over the “principles of unity” that would have created the 3.2 million-member so-called United Organization underscored, meanwhile, the internal differences between the two unions.

Within the NEA, a group of state and local affiliates organized this spring to defeat the document. Members sent out detailed objections to the principles, made one-on-one contacts with delegates here, and orchestrated a sophisticated strategy for the two-hour merger discussion held July 4.

They set the terms of the debate by highlighting all the ways the merged union would depart from such longstanding NEA traditions as secret-ballot voting, minority-representation guarantees, term limits for officers, and independence from the AFL-CIO. (“AFL-CIO Label Is Most Ticklish Of Issues for NEA Members Deciding Union’s Future,” June 24, 1998.)

“We in Louisiana do fear that our past beliefs are being diminished simply for the sake of change,” President Mary Washington of the Louisiana Association of Educators said in a thundering defense of preserving the NEA. “This makes a mockery of our core beliefs.”

In contrast, proponents shied away from the details of the merger accord and argued that unity would help the union defend public education against attacks from conservatives and advocates of vouchers for private school tuition.

In retrospect, Ms. Bacon of Pinellas County said, delegates didn’t see a compelling need to change. “Maybe we bit off more than we could chew for the first vote,” she said. “If we could have found a way to do interim steps, perhaps that would have been acceptable.”

Philip Rumore, the president of the Buffalo (N.Y.) Teachers Federation, an nea affiliate, who helped lead the opposition to the principles of unity, said the anti-merger campaign wouldn’t have worked without the secret ballot. In the 2.4 million-member NEA, delegates vote their consciences in secret; in the 985,000-member AFT, votes are reported to constituents. The secret ballot “allows for dissent,” Mr. Rumore said. “That’s the strength of the NEA.”

The principles of unity called for a blend of the two methods for the United Organization. Individual delegates’ votes would have been kept secret, but tallies of how local and state affiliates voted would have been recorded.

Poor Organization?

At the AFT convention, held July 17-20, many speakers criticized the NEA delegates for repudiating the agreement reached by their top leaders and failing to follow the wishes of the association’s members, whom they asserted favor a merger.

Sandra Feldman, the AFT president, maintained that some NEA delegations “did not come as a cohesive group, accountable to the members.” She also called the sentiment in the NEA against affiliation with organized labor “old-fashioned snobbishness.”

The aft has long been a member of the afl-CIO, the giant federation of unions, and the United Organization would have kept that affiliation.

There was no mistaking the internal political nature of the AFT, which has a dominant caucus that moves issues through the ranks and, in the view of supporters, gets things accomplished. Detractors view the setup as less democratic than the NEA’s and stifling to opposing viewpoints.

Day Higuchi, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, attended both conventions because his local is affiliated with both national unions. Many NEA delegates “didn’t have a clue” about what the principles of unity meant, he told his AFT colleagues.

“It was shocking not so much because the promotion of the principles of unity was badly organized, as much as the perception that it didn’t need to be organized,” he said.

AFT delegates at the convention suggested organizing a caucus in support of unity, drawing heavily on members from merged local affiliates such as the UTLA and from states with good working relationships.

In the other camp, Mr. Rumore has pledged to continue dogging the merger issue, including demanding budget data from both national unions to assess the financial impact of merger.

Rank and File Input

Although guidelines for state mergers could be approved within the next year, the forecast for national unification remains hazy.

“I think that it’s not going to happen very immediately,” Ms. Feldman of the aft said here, “because we just visited this process, and the only mandate we really have right now that would be mutual would be for state mergers to go forward.”

It took more than three years of talks between the unions’ negotiating teams to hash out the merger principles. The NEA’s merger resolution, passed the day after the unity vote, calls for future negotiations to be more strongly directed by members’ concerns.

Specifically, it requires that NEA negotiators analyze a survey of this summer’s delegates, and that they regularly consult an advisory committee to be made up of leaders from large and small state affiliates with varying views of the principles of unity.

Mr. Chase, the union’s president, said he hopes an advisory panel of about 15 members can be appointed this month. Its first task will be to review a draft of the survey, to be sent to delegates this fall.

“It’s going to complicate things, but it’s going to do it in a helpful way,” former NEA President Keith B. Geiger, a merger supporter, said of the survey. “You’ve got to be constantly assessing how far your members are willing to go out on that plank.”

The new process is less cumbersome than an alternative NEAdelegates considered, which would have required future merger talks to “safeguard the democratic,governance, and representational structures of the NEA.” It called for a constitutional convention to draft the United Organization’s governing documents.

Faced with both proposals, NEA delegates voted 53 percent to 47 percent in a rare roll-call poll to consider the less restrictive merger policy, which they went on to pass by a wide margin.

Most observers agree that the two unions are destined to become one. The only question is when.

“In the long haul, it has to happen,” said Bruce S. Cooper, a professor of educational administration at Fordham University in New York City.

Despite the contention that public education is under attack, Mr. Cooper doubted that many NEA delegates felt threatened enough to join forces with their old rivals in the AFT. But if school vouchers become more widespread--and Mr. Cooper is confident they will--the old rivalries will seem less significant, he suggested.

“The press to unify will probably not come from the inside, but from without,” Mr. Cooper said.

Union critics hailed the rejection of the unity principles as a victory for teachers because it will preserve a measure of choice in representation. Gregory Fossedal, the chairman of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution in Arlington, Va., asserted that the focus on merger misses union members’ real concerns.

“There is dissatisfaction with what they’re paying [in dues], a lack of accountability for where it goes, and with the single-issue fight against school choice and vouchers,” he said.

Truce Lives On

Both union presidents pledged that their organizations would not go back to fighting each other.

The NEA’s merger resolution calls for reauthorizing the national “no-raid agreement” that had sought to end battles for representation. Approved in 1996, the agreement expired in May. Ms. Feldman said the AFT’s executive council would consider renewing the agreement in October.

“We certainly do not intend to go to war,” she told her delegates last month.

The unions will continue their Joint Council, a committee of 15 leaders from each organization that was formed last fall to focus on teacher quality, safety and discipline, and infrastructure needs.

“The NEA and the AFT need to find more common areas to work together in,” said Mark Simon, the president of the Montgomery County (Md.) Education Association, an NEA affiliate. “There were too many delegates who had never met anyone from the AFT, and they were more likely to believe a lot of the misinformation.”

As part of their cooperative work, the unions will sponsor a joint conference on teacher quality next month.

The NEA’s resounding rejection of the merger plan could raise questions about members’ support for Mr. Chase and his push to link unionism with concern for the quality of teachers and public schools. He is up for re-election next summer.

But many observers doubted that the vote reflected dwindling support for Mr. Chase or his reforms. “I think Bob Chase’s leadership cachet is very high even though he was defeated on this issue,” Mr. Simon said.

After the vote, the NEA president vowed that his advocacy for teacher quality would continue. “We’re not going to back away from that at all,” he said.

Many of the NEA affiliates at the forefront of those efforts, however, lamented what they saw as a lost opportunity in the merger vote.

“Our problem is that for a while we’ve been sort of a lonely voice within the NEA, but often the most receptive people we’ve found are in the AFT,” said John Grossman, the president of the Columbus (Ohio) Education Association. “And so we’ve been looking forward to a new day of synergy.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 1998 edition of Education Week as Despite National Defeat, NEA and AFT Work Toward Mergers in States


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