Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #19 July 31, 2001

2 Teacher Unions Draw Closer,
But NEA Isn’t Ready for Marriage

By Harry Kelber

The AFL-CIO’s American Federation of Teachers and the independent National Education Assn. have entered into a partnership agreement that brings them much closer together, but still falls short of an actual merger. The NEA has 2.6 million members; the AFT, one million.

The agreement was approved July 6 by 9,000 delegates at NEA’s annual Representative Assembly, and by AFT’s 11-member Executive Committee five days later. Fifteen representatives of each union will form a joint council, called the NEAFT Partnership, which will promote their common legislative, education and economic agenda.

Both union presidents are enthusiastic about the agreement. NEA’s Bob Chase commented: “There is a world of new opportunities for our members. In this new partnership, the NEA and AFT can work together to make every public school great.” AFT’s Sandra Feldman said: “We can now work together to pursue our mutual goals of quality teaching and high student achievement.”

While many AFT members and leaders have favored a merger for some time, the NEA rejected a resolution to take immediate steps toward one at its 1998 convention. The vote was 5,624 to 4,091 after a heated, three-hour debate. Opponents argued that state and local NEA affiliates would have less input and influence, and some objected to affiliation with the AFL-CIO because they did not want to be bound by its policies and practices. The stereotypical “blue-collar” image of unions in some teachers’ minds is another obstacle that must be overcome.

The NEA initiated the partnership agreement because it felt that closer cooperation would amplify both unions’ voices in the debate over school vouchers, testing, teacher training and related issues where their positions are similar. It also represented a concession to those NEA members who, like President Chase, still hope for an eventual merger.

Within the AFL-CIO, there are mixed feelings about a possible NEA-AFT merger. On the one hand, 2.6 million new dues payers would give an enormous lift to the federation’s membership rolls and income - not to mention its morale. It would signal a remarkable recovery after decades of declining numbers and disappointments in trying to reach organizing goals.

On the other hand, the merger would increase the power of “white-collar” and professional unions within the federation, feeding the resentment of the building trades, Teamsters and manufacturing-based unions that held sway from the ’50s to the ’70s, during one-time plumber George Meany’s tenure as AFL-CIO president.

The NEAFT agreement contains a “no-raiding” provision to sidestep possible conflicts in the two unions’ respective organizing campaigns. It also calls for joint resistance against raids from other unions.

An NEA-AFT merger would create a union of 3.6 million members, nearly equal to the combined membership of the Service Employees, Teamsters and Public Employees — three of the largest AFL-CIO affiliates. Although a merger may still be years away, there is already closer cooperation between some state affiliates. Formal mergers have taken place in Florida, Montana and Minnesota.

Since its formation in 1916, the AFT has functioned as a union, focusing on improving wages, benefits and working conditions. It has more than 2,500 locals and 43 state affiliates. The NEA, founded in 1870 primarily to serve the professional needs of teachers and to improve educational standards, has in recent years increasingly turned to organizing, collective bargaining and other traditional union activities.

“Our two unions have a number of shared goals, so it makes complete sense to have the kind of working relationship that is beneficial to students, teachers, our members and the entire public education system,” says Darrell Capwell, an AFT spokesman.

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