Three years after rejecting a marriage proposal, the National Education Association has agreed to “go steady” with the American Federation of Teachers.
Delegates to the NEA’s annual meeting here last week approved the creation of a new partnership with the AFT by a comfortable, though not overwhelming, margin. The “NEAFT Partnership” agreement, which AFT leaders almost assuredly will pass in a vote scheduled for July 11, launches an ongoing effort by the two groups to collaborate in projects ranging from education conferences to political and legal campaigns. It also promises to assist state and local affiliates seeking to forge similar joint ventures.
In the long run, the cooperation could ease the way for the eventual full- fledged merger that leaders of the 2.6 million-member NEA and 1-million member AFT have worked toward for almost 10 years. In the meantime, the partnership provides new opportunities for the two groups to present a united front in areas of common concern.
“If you were in a legislature, and two lobbyists from the NEA and AFT came in, and they were arm-in- arm, you’d probably pay closer attention,” said Bruce S. Cooper, a professor at the graduate school of education at Fordham University in New York City. “They’re on the right track, if power is the issue. And as they work together, I think they will realize they will gain more than if they fight each other.”
The new agreement brings the two national teachers’ unions closer together than they’ve been since 1998, when fewer than 43 percent of delegates to the NEA’s annual meeting voted in support of a framework for merging the two organizations—a plan that required two-thirds approval to pass. (The AFT voted overwhelmingly in favor of the so-called “principles of unity.”)
At the time, many NEA members worried that the unification plan would mean giving up many of the association’s hallmarks, including the NEA’s guarantees of minority representation in leadership positions, its independence from the AFL-CIO, and its use of secret-ballot voting. Embracing the merger plan was also hard for many NEA veterans, who recalled the days when relations between the two groups were characterized by often-bitter competition for members. (“Despite National Defeat, NEA and AFT Work Toward Mergers in States,” Aug. 5, 1998.)
The top leadership of the NEA still strongly supports a merger, believing that a single, massive organization would be more effective in advocating for public education. Merger talks restarted last year, but when negotiators realized that this summer was too soon for another vote on a full-scale unification, they instead offered the partnership plan. Leaders of the two national unions also recently approved a new “no raid” agreement, pledging not to help affiliates in the raiding of each other’s members for at least two years—a pact that goes into effect with the passage of the new partnership.
Under the partnership plan, joint projects will be directed by a 30-person committee, with each union appointing 15 members. The agreement itself does not specify what collaborative efforts the panel will implement, but there was no shortage of ideas at the NEA meeting here. Many delegates interviewed, for instance, said they would like to see the NEA and AFT launch coordinated campaigns advocating more federal funding for special education and Head Start programs.
“Both the AFT and the NEA have been talking about ‘priority schools,’ about helping schools that are low-performing,” said Judy L. Schaubach, the president of Education Minnesota, a state affiliate of the union. “This is, for me, a classic example of where the two organizations ought to be working together, not having two separate strategies, but having some benefits coming from the resources of both organizations.” A spokeswoman for the AFT said the union’s leaders would not comment on the partnership until its executive council votes on the proposal.
‘A Change in Thinking’
In another sign that hard feelings about the AFT may be starting to soften, delegates to the NEA’s meeting here last week also approved a measure forgiving the group’s Minnesota affiliate for merging with its AFT counterpart before national leaders could spell out the rules for doing so. Such guidelines were established in 1999, and since then, state mergers also have taken place in Florida and Montana.
Having essentially jumped the gun in the minds of some within the NEA, the Minnesota affiliate had to pay the equivalent of one year’s dues to the NEA based on the combined organization’s membership. The quirk amounted to a financial obligation of more than $2 million, of which Education Minnesota has paid about $400,000 so far.
Now that guidelines for state unification have been established, merged locals needn’t pay the NEA for members who came from the state’s AFT affiliates.
Last week, the NEA’s Representative Assembly, by a tally of 3,682 to 3,175, approved language that releases Education Minnesota from paying the balance. In an indication that the issue was still a sensitive one for many within the NEA, however, the decision required a “roll- call vote,” a rare, time-consuming procedure for the body.
Indeed, the margin of approval on the new partnership itself also revealed some continuing mistrust of the AFT. The NEA’s Representative Assembly first voted to decide the issue by secret ballot— instead of by voice vote—and then passed the partnership proposal with 59 percent in favor and 41 percent opposed. The results suggest that had the issue been a full-fledged merger, the proposal almost certainly would have failed to have gotten the needed two-thirds approval.
Still, many here felt the NEA has come a long way since 1998.
The partnership “genuinely does reflect a change in thinking,” said Michael Johnson, the New Jersey Education Association president, who opposed the merger but supported the new alliance. “If everybody were still where we were three years ago, it wouldn’t have passed. So I think that people are opening their minds to the idea that the status quo is not in everyone’s best interest.”