Teaching Profession

NEA Board OKs Principles for AFT Merger

By Ann Bradley — May 13, 1998 4 min read
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The National Education Association’s board of directors has approved, by exactly a two-thirds majority, the “principles of unity” that would govern its steps toward merging with the American Federation of Teachers.

The more than 9,000 delegates to the NEA’s Representative Assembly, which will meet in New Orleans in July, will now be asked to approve the principles. They must do so by a two-thirds majority for merger talks to move forward.

Members of the board voted in favor of the guidelines 106-53 after a five-hour debate on the issue, one of the most significant to face the organization since public school teachers began to engage in collective bargaining some 30 years ago.

While board members were only required to approve the principles by a simple majority, the two-thirds vote was seen as a key signal to delegates to the Representative Assembly.

Bob Chase

“I am pleased by the strong vote for unity by our board of directors,” Bob Chase, the president of the NEA, said in a statement released after the vote. “Board members thought hard and long about this vote, and their individual decisions reflected considerable personal soul-searching.”

Before board members made their decision, the NEA’s nine-member executive committee unanimously approved the principles of unity. The document also was endorsed 12-3 by the executive board of the National Council of State Education Associations. The council represents the presidents and executive directors of the NEA’s state affiliates.

The executive council of the American Federation of Teachers will meet later this month to vote on the same document. AFT members will then vote on the question at the union’s convention, also to be held in New Orleans, later in July.

Minor Changes

Several changes were made to the 21-page document spelling out the principles for uniting the two national teachers’ unions into what is being called, at least for the time being, the United Organization. But for the most part, the changes were minor.

New language clarifies the “minimum standards” proposed for local affiliates of the United Organization. It states, for example, that all local officers must be elected by secret ballot according to a formula that guarantees members’ representation on the basis of one person, one vote.

By next year, or 2000 at the latest, delegates to both unions’ policymaking bodies will vote on the proposed constitution, bylaws, and unification agreement. The time line says that the United Organization will hold its founding convention in either 2000 or 2001 and will function under an interim governance structure for three years.

Opinion Divided

Meanwhile, the merger issue continues to be debated at NEA state affiliate meetings.

Members of the NEA-New York, with 41,000 members, voted 201-140 in favor of a merger at their delegate assembly last month.

The NEA affiliates in Georgia, with 32,200 members, and Nebraska, with 25,000, also officially went on record in support of the principles of unity.

But the Virginia Education Association, which has 56,000 members, voted to oppose a merger. So did delegates to the Indiana State Teachers Association’s representative assembly and the Michigan Education Association’s meeting.

J. David Young, the president of the 46,600-member ISTA, noted that the referendum was not binding on Indiana delegates, but added that delegates were “overwhelmingly opposed” to combining the two unions.

The NEA has 2.3 million members, while the AFT, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, has 950,000. The United Organization would be an affiliate of the labor federation, a fact that continues to draw criticism from some NEA members.

Indiana educators are particularly worried about the size of the 400-member leadership council that would govern the United Organization, Mr. Young said. Members also are concerned about the proposed voting procedures, which would be a blend of the NEA’s secret balloting and the AFT’s open system. Individual delegates would vote by secret ballot, but vote counts would be recorded by state and local affiliates.

In general, many teachers don’t see the need for such a dramatic step. “The NEA has been fairly successful over the last few years,” Mr. Young said, “and when they look at the document, membership feels like they gave up too much of what is the NEA to create the new organization.”

In Michigan, which has produced so many NEA leaders that they were referred to as the “Michigan Mafia,” members of the 146,000-member Michigan Education Association took a voice vote against a merger.

Margaret Trimer-Hartley, a spokeswoman for the Michigan union, said leaders support the concept of a merger but not the particulars. The MEA and the Michigan Federation of Teachers formed a joint council this spring and have begun to work together on issues of common concern, such as school safety and high academic standards.

In several other states, including Arizona, Colorado, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, merger was a topic for discussion. But none of the state affiliates took an official position on the issue.

A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 1998 edition of Education Week as NEA Board OKs Principles for AFT Merger


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