North Dakota has become the fifth state in which the branches of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have united—and a sixth “merged state” may not be far behind.
The North Dakota merger was approved by both unions’ members during a vote this month on a new constitution and bylaws. And the unions’ respective Wisconsin state chapters recently took a major step toward consolidating, charging a “unity committee” with putting together an outline for a new organization.
“Most of my members say, ‘What took so long?’ ” said Mary Bell, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s NEA affiliate.
The movement is notable not only as the latest sign of attempts by the teachers’ unions to marshal their forces during a period of uncertainty in the profession and, indeed, the labor movement, but also for the different contexts in which the mergers are occurring.
North Dakota’s merger took place in a state that has been relatively unscathed by the recent recession or anti-union legislation. In Wisconsin, membership has fallen in the wake of laws passed in 2011 curbing collective bargaining for most public employees.
In addition to North Dakota, four states have merged unions: Florida, Minnesota, Montana, and New York. A handful of districts, such as Los Angeles and San Antonio, also are home to united locals.
Because of different governance structures, policies, and culture, mergers take two or more years to complete, and the new organization also typically operates under a transition agreement for some time. In North Dakota, several issues will be revisited in five years, including whether officers will be subject to term limits.
Since 1998, state affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have merged in five states. A sixth state has begun the unification process.
Florida Education Association
• 140,000 members
• Year of merger: 2000
• 70,000 members
• Year of merger: 1998
Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers
• 18,000 members
• Year of merger: 2000
New York State United Teachers
• 600,000 members
• Year of merger: 2006
North Dakota United
• 10,000 members
• Year of merger: 2013
Wisconsin Education Association Council/AFT-Wisconsin
• 72,000 members/11,000 members
• Year of merger: Pending
SOURCE: State affiliate estimates
Still, the finalized merger there brings together the NEA-affiliated North Dakota Education Association’s teachers and education support personnel with the AFT-affiliated North Dakota Public Employees association’s civil servants and higher education faculty and staff. The new union, representing more than 10,000 members, will begin to use the name North Dakota United next fall.
According to its officers, the two unions grew closer as they worked together to defeat ballot initiatives in 2008 and 2012 that would have lowered the corporate income tax and eliminated the property tax, respectively.
“I think really it’s about being able to speak with one united voice on issues for all public services,” said Gary Feist, the president of the NDPEA.
His NEA counterpart believes the two groups will also be able to learn from each other’s strengths.
“AFT is very, very good at organizing, and organizing members around issues, and organizing communities, ... whereas NEA has a great reputation for helping its members, in member services,” said Dakota Draper, the president of the NDEA. “There is a philosophy difference there that, when you combine, makes for a very good fit.”
The move in North Dakota also adds another 10,000 members to the AFL-CIO, the national labor council of which the AFT is a member. The AFT’s affiliation with the giant labor group has long been seen as one of the stumbling blocks to a merger of the teachers’ unions at the national level, but an increasing number of NEA members are represented by state or local unions that belong to it.
Although the available figures indicate that the AFT’s membership has held steady, the NEA last summer estimated it had lost more than 100,000 members.
Strength in Numbers
In Wisconsin, the merger was partly born out of an urge to bolster a labor movement under siege. WEAC has seen its membership decline by about 25,000 members—the result, its leaders say, of state legislation that requires unions to recertify annually and that narrows the scope of collective bargaining to wages.
“It’s not a secret that times for public institutions and for public employees, particularly here in Wisconsin, have been difficult,” Ms. Bell said. “Maintaining two structures when we have such similar goals and a good working relationship doesn’t make sense; it just seems like it’s time for us to try again.”
Both teachers’ unions approved the establishment of a unity committee to craft a merger proposal, which will include a constitution, bylaws, and a transition agreement.
WEAC and AFT-Wisconsin had attempted to join forces twice before, without success. One obstacle was the scars from the 1974 teachers’ strike in Hortonville, Wis., during which the district brought in strikebreakers, some of whom much later became AFT members.
As recently as 2008, WEAC’s governing body passed a resolution stating that it would not consider a merger with its AFT counterpart as long as any of the strikebreakers were still employed in the district.
But the move to draft a unification agreement, approved overwhelmingly by WEAC’s Representative Assembly in December, showed that members are ready to focus on the future rather than on past disagreements, Ms. Bell said.
The unity committee is expected to release its proposal this fall; the earliest the groups could complete a merger is in September 2014.
Labor scholars, meanwhile, believe that other mergers could be on the horizon.
“The cultural and internal governance and policy differences that would separate the two unions now seems unaffordable. It seems like a luxury; it seems almost childish, because the forces that want to undo public education are unified, and they’re standardized, and they’re common,” said Robert A. Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“To confront that, you probably need a unified and common counterveiling power,” he said. “And the organizations, in many cases, do work really well together in states.”
The history of mergers tends to be shaped by context, including the extent to which the unions’ members belong to the same field, and whether the groups have a history of raids or competition.
Less clear is what such movement might mean for the national organizations. A bid by the NEA and the AFT to become one failed after a number of state caucuses rallied against it during the NEA’s Representative Assembly in 1998. But the political winds have changed markedly since then, and the NEA, once chary of its status as a union, has moved in recent months to solidify itself within the broader labor movement.
An NEA spokeswoman said no national merger discussions are under way. The AFT did not respond to requests for comment.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2013 edition of Education Week as More Mergers of Teachers’ Union Affiliates Occurring