Teaching Profession

Labor Accord Signals Shift in NEA View

By Bess Keller & Vaishali Honawar — March 07, 2006 8 min read
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An agreement announced last week allowing local National Education Association unions to affiliate with the AFL-CIO signals that the NEA is willing to tighten ranks with the rest of the American labor movement in the face of formidable economic and political changes.

Once, leaders of the 2.8 million-member teachers’ union may have believed they had more to gain than lose from keeping publicly aloof from other unions, including the NEA’s longtime rival, the American Federation of Teachers. But that time has waned.

“The labor movement nationally has been thrown challenges, and one of its chief, enduring responses has been organizational consolidation,” said Daniel B. Cornfield, a labor sociologist at Vanderbilt University.

The agreement allows the NEA’s 14,000 local affiliates for the first time to officially join and pay dues to the local level of the AFL-CIO. The national labor federation, which represents about 9 million workers, has more than 500 such “central labor councils.”

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.”

With the arrangement, “we will be able to wage stronger campaigns on how families fend off assault, ensure quality health care for all [and] better education for our children,” he said.

Still, if permission for the NEA local unions to join the AFL-CIO’s council is going to help the ailing giant of labor, the material boost will likely be a long time coming.

A split in the AFL-CIO last summer, when some 4 million members in four unions departed to form the Change to Win federation, increased the urgency for the older umbrella group to mount new shows of strength, such as the partnership with the National Education Association, many observers said.

Membership in industrial and private-sector unions has been in decline for decades, battered by economic globalization, mechanization, deregulation, and, some say, success. And in recent years, even public-sector unions, in which membership continues to grow, have lost power in a conservative political climate unfriendly to their views.

‘Positive Relationship’

Despite the perceived need for a more united front, NEA President Reg Weaver was careful to stress last week that the agreement does not represent a merger of his union and the labor behemoth at the national level.

AFL-CIO at a Glance


1955, from a merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations

9 million workers out of a total U.S. unionized workforce of 16.1 million

52 unions, including the Air Line Pilots Association; the American Association of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the Communication Workers of America; the International Longshoremen’s Association; and the United Mine Workers

46-member executive committee elected every four years

John J. Sweeney, elected 1995

State level:
51 state federations

Local level:
543 “central labor councils”

Competitor since 2005:
Change to Win labor federation


SOURCES: AFL-CIO and Education Week

He also dismissed the notion that the decision made by his group’s top leaders amounted to an end-run around the 9,000 members of the NEA’s Representative Assembly, which rejected a merger with the AFT eight years ago, in part over its close ties to the national federation.

Leaders of the AFT also backed last week’s agreement. In the past, the AFL-CIO and the 1.3-million member American Federation of Teachers, which has long been a member of the labor federation, insisted that the only way for an NEA local to join a labor council was by merging with an AFT local.

At present, teachers in several cities and in three states—Minnesota, Montana, and Florida—are members of combined unions, which together already contribute 220,000 members to the AFL-CIO. Teachers in New York state—the only place where the AFT overshadows the NEA on a statewide basis—are also expected to merge into a single union next fall.

The agreement moves the NEA a tad closer to the AFT, if mostly in a symbolic sense.

“The AFT and the NEA have had a very close working relationship for eight or nine years,” said Richard W. Hurd, a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. “This is, in a sense, a reflection of the continuing positive relationship between them.”

Request From Kentucky

The NEA and the AFL-CIO gave a high-profile launch last week to their partnership, calling a press conference at the winter meeting of the labor federation’s executive council in San Diego.

But Mr. Weaver of the NEA was vague about how many of his locals were likely to take up the opportunity to join AFL-CIO councils. He said it was too soon to tell.

Phone calls around the country suggest that few of the union’s affiliates are ready to jump at the offer—which could drop the immediate practical impact of the agreement to nil.

Much of the original impetus for the arrangement seems to have come from the 5,200-member Jefferson County Teachers Association in Kentucky. It sought the NEA’s help in rejoining the AFL-CIO council that it had belonged to for years until getting booted several years ago.

“There were two people running for [AFL-CIO] labor-council president, and one of them turned us into the national AFL-CIO,” which ruled that the teachers’ union could not belong, said Stephen B. Neal, the executive director of the local NEA affiliate, which represents teachers in the school district that includes Louisville.

In a city with a strong union presence such as his, Mr. Neal said, teachers benefit from collaboration with other unionists whether lobbying in the state capital for more education funding or campaigning for school board candidates.

At first, he said, the AFL-CIO and the AFT seemed immovable about allowing the formal affiliation, but after the Change to Win defection in the summer, “it became a higher priority” for the national federation, according to the union leader.

He said the union paid $1.20 per member annually to the labor council for a yearly dues bill of about $6,200.

From Mr. Neal’s perspective at the local level, membership in an AFL-CIO council neither advances nor retards a merger between either the two national teachers’ unions or their state or local affiliates. He said the Jefferson County association opposed the national merger eight years ago largely because of concerns about losing secret ballots and minority-group protections that NEA rules afford in elections for officers.

“I don’t see a merger happening anytime soon,” the veteran unionist said. “Too much of rural NEA just doesn’t see any need for that.”

Pragmatic Concerns

NEA-affiliate officials in five states told Education Week that they were not expecting an onslaught of requests from local unions to join labor councils.

“I’ve had no expression on their part of wanting to join,” said Jeffrey H. Trout, who provides services on behalf of NEA-New York and the NEA to 11 small locals in central New York. In the past few years, he has taken those unions’ presidents to meetings of the AFL-CIO’s Finger Lakes Labor Council without igniting much interest.

“If there’s a common interest and a common action, I say, ‘Let’s work on it,’ ” Mr. Trout ventured. “But their concerns tend to be more pragmatic, such as a good contract that’s well enforced and the most value for their dues dollar.”

The union representative added that in rural New York, members do not necessarily share the political positions of the state and national teacher organizations, so that coalitions to fight for those positions can be of scant interest.

The director of the Iowa State Education Association, Jan Reinicke, likewise said she didn’t see the new arrangement making a difference in her territory. “It caught me by surprise,” she confessed, “because I figured we could already do it.”

At least two local affiliates of the Iowa teachers’ union meet regularly with AFL-CIO councils, she said, though she wasn’t sure whether the teachers’ groups were official members or paid dues.

Underscoring the complicated play among aims at the local, state, and national levels of the National Education Association, Ms. Reinicke said she agreed that other unionists were valuable partners in “keeping public education strong.”

She added that “a lot of [our] members have moved beyond” a negative reaction to unionism, which was often cited as part of the reason for the defeat of the proposed NEA-AFT merger in 1998.

The reasons the Iowa union opposed that move remain, however. Ms. Reinicke said members feared that their midsize state affiliate might get less attention in a merged union with giant locals, such as characterize the AFT’s heavily big-city membership. She also cited differences in the two national unions’ election rules. Such divergence can’t be smoothed over by the mere fact that locals of both unions belong to AFL-CIO councils.

‘Not About the AFT’

Last week, Mr. Weaver sought to strip any mention of merger between the two teachers’ unions from the discussion surrounding the new partnership.

“This is not about the AFT. This is about the NEA and the AFL-CIO. This enables both sides to work together meeting the needs of working families,” he said in an interview.

At the same time, the AFT’s president, Edward J. McElroy, attended last week’s press conference to endorse the pact, saying his union “was proud of the relationship we have with the NEA.”

Jamie Horwitz, an AFT spokesman, acknowledged that once his organization might have been reluctant to share its prerogative of participation in AFL-CIO councils, but no longer.

“The reality of it is that the times have changed. People play for keeps now in education, what with charters, vouchers, [the] No Child Left Behind [Act],” he said. “It helps to have more educators inside the labor movement and get the labor movement even more focused on the issues.”

Mr. Horwitz said it would take time for NEA locals to find their way to the labor councils. As the fall’s state, local, and congressional elections draw nearer, he said, the AFL-CIO will likely reach out.

“Probably going into the election cycle, you’ll see more of a need to cooperate and work together,” agreed Eduardo Holguin, the president of NEA-New Mexico. “In many cases, we’re working with central labor councils unofficially now.”

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