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A Union of Unions?

The National Education Assn. and the American Federation of Teachers are closer than ever to a merger that would create the nation's largest labor organization.


The nation's two largest teachers unions have moved a critical step closer to merging, announcing "conceptual agreement" on several fundamental issues that have stymied previous merger attempts.

If the 2.3-million-member National Education Assn. and the 950,000-member American Federation of Teachers unite, the action would create a mammoth force--hands down, the nation's largest labor union with more than 3 million members.

"It's a very significant announcement," said Julia Koppich, a San Francisco-based education expert who has written extensively about the future of teachers unions. "It brings together two very important forces in education, creating . . . a single, very powerful voice to speak on behalf of teachers and, more importantly, on behalf of public education, which has not had enough forceful advocates."

The heads of each union said this week that they hope to take the conceptual agreements to their respective conventions this summer. The delegates would be asked to vote on what would essentially be a declaration of intent to merge.

In interviews Tuesday, both union chiefs hailed the progress toward a merger.

"I think having a single teachers union that is no longer concerned with fighting among itself will benefit American public education. And that's what we want to do," AFT President Sandra Feldman said.

NEA President Bob Chase said the two unions have gradually closed the deep philosophical gap that had made them bitter rivals for much of the last few decades--disagreeing over whether they should devote more energy to teachers rights or school reform.

"The fact is, here we have two major organizations whose goals are the same, who over the last several years come closer and closer together," Chase said. "It seems to me rather silly to continue to have two major organizations like this who have the same goals to be separate and distinct. It's a waste of effort. If we are able to come together . . . I think we can move our agenda forward."

At the top of both unions' agenda is fighting vouchers and other efforts to privatize the management of public schools. Critics who see teachers unions as obstacles to such reforms acknowledge that a new, merged union would create an even more formidable opponent.

Merging, said Jeanne Allen of the conservative Center for Education Reform in Washington, "is necessary for their salvation. The heat is on. Reform is coming. They're saying, 'We gotta change and we've got to fight and we can't fight separately.' "

Merger has been on and off the table at both unions for decades. The AFT, largely through the efforts of the late Albert Shanker, its president for two decades until his death last year, established collective bargaining rights for teachers in the early 1960s and was long regarded as the more militant union. Its members identified with the struggles of truck drivers and other laborers, a kinship that continues in the AFT's long-standing affiliation with the AFL-CIO.

Under Shanker's leadership, however, the national union gradually began to act more like an agent of educational reform. The larger NEA, in contrast, until recently remained largely focused on traditional labor union issues of wages and benefits. But over the past several years--and particularly under the leadership of new president Chase--the union has begun to pour more of its vast resources into programs to improve schools. But the NEA is not a member of the AFL-CIO, one of the major stumbling blocks in past merger negotiations. Under the tentative agreements announced this week, the new union would be a national affiliate of the labor federation, paying dues to the AFL-CIO for about half of its members. State and local affiliates of the new merged union would not be forced to join the AFL-CIO.

The union leaders also agreed in concept on a governing structure consisting of seven full-time national officers, a 30-member executive board and a leadership council of several hundred local leaders.

The merger would take place only at the national level, leaving state and local AFT and NEA affiliates the freedom to decide whether or not to unite.


State of the Unions

Facts and figures on the two largest teachers groups, which are moving toward merging into the largest union in the nation's history:


Founded: 1916

Membership: 950,000--chiefly elementary and secondary teachers and paraprofessionals, but including some college faculty, public and municipal workers, nurses and other health professionals

California members: 50,000

Structure: 2,100 locals

Governance: Power resides in an elected president, who can serve without limit, the secretary-treasurer and a 38-member executive council. Delegates from local affiliates meet every two years to elect officers and adopt policies.


Founded: 1857

Membership: 2.3 million, including elementary and secondary teachers, college faculty, school aides

California members: 278,000

Structure: 52 state-level affiliates, 50 state associations, 13,250 local affiliates

Governance: 10,000-delegate Representative Assembly is the top policy-making body, meeting annually. There is also a nine-member executive committee and 159-member board of directors.

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