Closer To The Altar

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"There's no question that what happens in the American labor movement impacts on our organization," Chase said. "And there's no doubt that a positive labor movement would be a help to our members."

Without divulging details, Chase also confirmed that the leaders of the two unions have reached general understandings on two other key merger issues: The combined union would have some form of voting by secret ballot, which the NEA has and the AFT doesn't; and minority-group representation, which the NEA guarantees on governing bodies, would continue in some fashion.

The NEA's agreement to affiliate with a bastion of old-fashioned unionism comes at a time when Chase is urging his own members to embrace what he calls "a new unionism" that emphasizes education reform along with traditional bread-and-butter labor issues. Ultimately, the AFL-CIO matter must be decided by a vote of the NEA's Representative Assembly. It's not yet clear whether the issue will be put to delegates at this summer's convention.

Still, any sign that the NEA may be turning the corner on the issue of AFL-CIO affiliation raises questions about what such a relationship could mean for the teachers' unions, the American labor movement, and public education. The NEA is already the largest single union in the country. A merger with the 950,000-member AFT would create an organization representing more than 3 million workers. It would for the first time make educators the greatest single bloc within the AFL-CIO. Currently, the largest organization in the 70-union coalition is the 1.4 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Observers say the teachers would achieve a tremendous synergy in power by becoming such an influential force within the AFL-CIO. "Its major implication from the NEA's standpoint is that it gives it a new political platform," says Leo Troy, a professor of economics at the Newark campus of Rutgers University in New Jersey. "The implication for the AFL-CIO is that it will continue that group's move on to greater public-sector domination. The NEA will be the leader as the largest single union in the world in pushing that public-sector agenda."

Others point out that affiliating with the AFL-CIO could also have important symbolic implications for the NEA. "Affiliation had been a sore point because it would move the NEA into the mainstream of the labor movement," says Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. "My impression is that a lot of NEA members didn't want to think about themselves as a union but as a professional association."

In Alabama, members may be uncomfortable associating with the AFL-CIO because the state has little history with strong unions, says Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association. "In Michigan, you've had the auto workers, and they've put a lot of bread on people's tables. But we haven't had that strong of a union background."

Hubbert, who acknowledges the benefits of merging with the AFT, says the NEA's national leadership is wise to allow state and local affiliates to decide for themselves on the AFL-CIO matter. "We have 300 or so delegates to the Representative Assembly, and I think the vast majority of them would support merger with the AFT," he says. "I don't know if I can say the same thing would be true with affiliation with the AFL-CIO."

As for the AFT, union members have long viewed their relationship with the AFL-CIO as a logical alliance. "The AFL-CIO has always fought for full funding and equity in education," AFT President Sandra Feldman says. "They're pretty much on the same side of the issues as we are. And these are the working families whose children go to our schools."

—Jeff Archer

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