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2 Top Teacher Unions Near Vote on Merger

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The nation’s two most powerful teachers unions stand poised to vote on a merger that, if approved, could end decades of bitter feuding and give teachers a potentially powerful voice in reforming America’s troubled schools.

The National Education Assn., the country’s largest teachers’ union, and its arch-rival, the American Federation of Teachers, together would form the largest union in U.S. history. The 3.4- million-member organization would represent 80% of public elementary and secondary school teachers, including those in the Los Angeles Unified School District, as well as about 25% of college and university teachers.

Faced with eroding popular support and outside pressure to shake up the schools, many delegates to the NEA’s annual convention here say they can no longer afford the costly and divisive turf wars that have long preoccupied the two organizations.

Both groups seem sold on the need for, and even the direction of, reform. NEA President Bob Chase and AFT President Sandra Feldman have been leading a campaign in support of higher standards for teachers, more teacher training, smaller and better-equipped classrooms and renovation of run-down schools.

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Delegates to the NEA’s annual meeting are debating the merger proposal today, with a vote scheduled for Sunday. The AFT will follow suit when it meets in New Orleans later in the month. Both bodies require a two-thirds majority to approve a merger at the national level, but the NEA vote is considered more in doubt than the AFT balloting.

Delegates from the California Teachers Assn. of the NEA voted overwhelmingly to support the merger during their caucus Wednesday. “We have to let go of some of the anger from the past,” said Patty Arvin, who teaches severely disabled children in the Fairfield-Suisun schools in Northern California. “Teachers need to be working with teachers in unity instead of against each other.”

“There are a lot of people out there trying to destroy public education and public education is good for kids,” she added, noting that NEA and AFT affiliates had worked together in California to defeat a proposal to allow taxpayer-supported vouchers for private school tuitions.

On-Again, Off-Again Talks to Combine

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The two unions have had on-again, off-again merger talks dating to the early 1970s, all without success. And, officials say, the vote will be close this time, especially among NEA members who are uneasy about the more militant unionism of the AFT. But union leaders, as well as many outside experts, now predict success.

One reason is that teachers recognize there is enormous disenchantment with education, with critics of public schools demanding such innovations as taxpayer-supported vouchers so parents can send their children to private schools and standardized tests of children to measure teacher performance.

“There is an unprecedented assault on public education today,” says University of Virginia historian Nelson Lichtenstein. “A unified defense of it is important.”

Stanley Aronowitz, a sociologist at the City University of New York who has studied the unions, puts it more bluntly: “Their backs are to the wall.”

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But winning approval for the merger and, beyond that, melding the two groups, will not be easy. The cultural gulf separating them is deep.

The larger and older NEA began in 1857 as an anti-union professional organization dominated by administrators and local officials. Its roots are in suburban and small-town regions, not the big cities where the AFT sprang up. The NEA’s 2.4 million members have traditionally seen themselves as professionals, more akin to doctors and lawyers than to factory workers. And they are passionate about bottom-up unionism, preferring local democracy to centralized leadership.

The AFT’s founders, on the other hand, deliberately patterned their 1916 organization on the confrontational, tightly disciplined industrial unions that grew up in Detroit’s auto industry. “These are different cultures,” says Stanley Aronowitz, a sociologist at the City University of New York who has studied the unions. AFT’s founder, he says, “built a military machine on the presumption that ‘we have enemies out there, we need unity and we need to suppress differences.’ ”

NEA Is ‘Like Debating Society’

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Although today’s AFT, with 985,000 members, is less controlled from the top than that description implies, the NEA by comparison “is like, I guess, a PTA, a debating society,” Aronowitz says.

“You’re going to hear one voice for education” if the merger carries, says Aronowitz. “You may disagree with what they say, but they will be a powerful voice.”

A united teachers union, with its already well-developed political arm and its huge network of organizations in every community and state capital, will be in a strong position to influence the course of reform.

And while its critics are divided in their advocacy of a host of different approaches to reform, Aronowitz says, a combined teachers union “can begin to conduct unified campaigns around specific reforms.”

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A merger of the two national unions also could have political impact. Already, the NEA and the AFT are among the most active contributors to candidates at the state, local and national levels--with the bulk of their dollars going to Democrats. In the last congressional election cycle, for instance, the two unions together gave $3.9 million to Democratic candidates and $40,000 to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. A unified organization, freed from the costs of competing for members at the local level, could do even more.

The idea of uniting is not new for teachers in Los Angeles. AFT and NEA affiliates merged in 1970, along with organizations representing school support staff, to form United Teachers-Los Angeles. The UTLA’s experience is a reminder, however, that unification is no panacea for the problems of teachers or students.

The UTLA won its first contract in the spring of 1970 after a five-week strike. But courts struck down the agreement on grounds that the California law did not empower school boards to engage in collective bargaining. It took the union five years to get the law changed. And soon afterward, the tax-cutting initiative, Proposition 13, began to squeeze school budgets so much that the union had to fight hard just to stay even.

And, after winning substantial gains from a nine-day strike in 1989, Los Angeles teachers were forced to accept major salary reductions--including one 10% cutback--during the recession of the early 1990s. Indeed, so weak was the UTLA’s bargaining position during most of this decade that a contract ratified last fall represented the first real pay increase for city teachers in seven years.

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In fact, some of UTLA’s greatest successes have been political. The union played a leading role in defeating a statewide voucher plan that would have provided aid for private school tuition, and it campaigned successfully against efforts to break up the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Denise Rockwell, who teaches at Palms Middle School in Los Angeles and serves on the NEA executive committee, said “it’s fundamentally ridiculous” for teachers’ organizations to fight each other. “In L.A. we’ve proved we can do it. We’ve been merged for 28 years.”

But she conceded the issue remains in doubt here. “I’d be lying to you if I told you it’s going be a slam-dunk.”

Skeptics worry that such a huge union, operating in a field as sensitive as public education, could trigger a backlash. Creating a monopoly, they argue, will make change more difficult and confrontation more likely as teachers fight to preserve the status quo. Some also scoff at the idea of teachers leading a reform effort.

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“NEA/AFT efforts to advance teachers’ welfare are daily occurrences in every state,” Myron Lieberman, a former union activist turned critic, wrote in a recent analysis of the unions’ impact on student achievement. “It would be the coincidence of all time if the pursuit of teacher welfare turned out to be the way to foster educational achievement.”

While acknowledging that higher pay and other benefits will remain top priorities, AFT’s Feldman agrees with the NEA’s Chase that the two organizations are already committed to a “new unionism.”

“People talk about us being in the way” of reform, she said. “We are not in the way. . . . We are in the lead. I know teaching and I know teachers. It’s a rare teacher that feels good about just getting by, and none feel good about failing.”

“We need to focus less of our time and resources on waging war on one another,” says Linda Bacon, president of one of the NEA’s largest locals, the Classroom Teachers Assn., representing about 4,800 teachers in the St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Fla., area. A single union, she says, can concentrate on “pooling our resources to win back the public’s confidence and support for public schools.”

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