Unions Forge Partnership

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Once rivals competing for members, the country's two national teachers' unions have created an unprecedented partnership to tackle issues of teacher quality and school safety, discipline, and infrastructure.

A new 30-member NEA-AFT Joint Council will research and promote model solutions, work closely with up to 10 school districts that are making changes, and hold at least two national conferences later this year, National Education Association President Bob Chase and American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman announced at a November news conference in Washington, D.C. "We have been adversaries in the past," Feldman said, "but now we are joining together for our children."

The initiative represents the most noteworthy cooperative venture ever between the 2.3-million member NEA and the 950,000-member AFT. It also underscores the increasing alignment of the two unions on major issues affecting public education. A handful of local affiliates of the AFT and the NEA have merged in recent years, and both organizations participate in larger coalitions involving other groups like the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. But this is the first such collaboration involving just the two unions at the national level.

"It's certainly unprecedented for there to be any formal structural link between the two organizations," says Tom Mooney, president of the AFT-affiliated Cincinnati Federation of Teachers and a member of the new council. "They've both been part of bigger coalitions on lobbying Congress but never together on these substantive professional issues.''

Although Chase said the joint council should "not be viewed in the context of a merger," many observers took the announcement as a clear signal that the two unions were testing their ability to work closely together.

"If the joint council is successful in its work, it will increase the likelihood that a merger would occur sooner," says Adam Urbanski, an AFT vice president and president of the Rochester Teachers Association. "I think it's wise not to get married to a stranger. So think of this as an organizational form of dating."

Since taking office last year, Chase has been calling on the union to broaden its role beyond collective bargaining for better wages, hours, and working conditions. He has said repeatedly that unions should also work in cooperation with—rather than as adversaries against—district administrators and officials to bring about school improvement. "In the Line of Fire," [November/December 1997.] This call for what he terms "new unionism" has brought his organization more in line with the smaller AFT, which over the past decade has promoted high academic standards and other reforms.

"Now there are probably more similarities between the two organizations than there are differences," says Julia Koppich, a professor of education policy at the Claremont Graduate School in California.

The joint council's first conference will be in May on the subject of teacher quality. In the meantime, a work group will look for ways to get more minorities into the profession and more teachers in general to seek advanced certification from the national board. It will also explore avenues for teachers to mentor and evaluate other teachers.

On the school safety and discipline fronts, the council will hold a conference next fall, analyze state laws and districts' policies, and produce a training video on classroom management. No conference is yet planned on school infrastructure issues, but the council intends to convene a group of experts from a number of fields to propose ways to help districts build new schools and fix old ones.

"We need to think outside the box if we're going to provide the children of the 21st century with the schools they need," Chase said at the news conference.

The joint initiatives bode well for union leaders who favor the eventual merging of the two organizations. "I think this is very consciously trying to send the public a message that the purpose of a merger is not to become the biggest union around but to be a better advocate for public education," Mooney says.

The AFT and the NEA have held merger talks off and on for the past five years. Although a single combined national union would wield tremendous clout and eliminate much redundancy, merger talks have stumbled over differences in governance, structure, and culture. NEA elections, for example, are by secret ballot, while the AFT's are not. More important, the AFT is a member of the AFL-CIO, and many within the NEA—especially those who still think of themselves as members of a professional association rather than a union—have resisted joining the massive labor federation.

"These issues are very complex," Feldman said. "But what still divides us are not issues that deal with education."

—Jeff Archer

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