In a stinging rejection of their leaders' plans, delegates to the National Education Assn. convention voted overwhelmingly Sunday against merging with the American Federation of Teachers to form the largest union in U.S. history.
The plan for uniting the 2.4-million-member NEA with the 985,000-member AFT, its longtime rival, was turned down by 58% of the 9,700 delegates voting.
NEA leaders had acknowledged beforehand that they would have difficulty getting the required two-thirds majority for the merger. Bob Chase, the union's president, had confidently predicted victory, but the merger blueprint he and other NEA leaders had worked four years to create fell far short of winning even a simple majority.
Chase had argued that the two organizations could not afford to continue their decades-old feud at a time when demands for educational reform are growing and popular support for teachers is eroding. He insisted that delegates had not rejected unity with the AFT, and he vowed to continue his efforts to increase cooperation between the two unions.
At a news conference, Chase said the vote reflected dissatisfaction with the details of the plan. "It's very clear to me that the delegates want us to continue talks with the AFT to bring about a unified organization," he declared.
Leaders of the opposition to the merger successfully argued that it would jeopardize the NEA's democratic traditions and would, by including the new union in the AFL-CIO, equate teachers with blue-collar workers.
AFT President Sandra Feldman managed to find good news in the failed four-year effort to merge the unions. "The two organizations learned that, despite their different histories and cultures, they also have much in common," she said in a statement.
The AFT is scheduled to vote on the merger when it meets here later this month. Approval by the AFT, a much more centralized organization than the often-fractious NEA, has been considered almost certain.
Failure to achieve a united front will almost certainly alter the political calculus for some elected officials, especially at the national level.
Some politicians might become less responsive to teachers' views and more willing to consider such proposals as taxpayer assistance to parents of private-school students and use of student testing as a measure of teacher performance--both anathema to the unions.
Nelson Lichtenstein, a University of Virginia specialist in the labor movement, said, for example, that Republican members of Congress representing suburban districts where teachers are potentially strong are likely to read the merger decision as "a vote that says the NEA is not really ready to jump in with both feet on the side of the liberal labor movement."
In California, the NEA and AFT affiliates in Los Angeles and San Francisco have already merged and have demonstrated their ability to defeat at least some measures they oppose.
In other states, where the climate is more hostile to unions and where the NEA and AFT have recent histories of conflict, such effectiveness may be harder to achieve.
And Sunday's vote raises questions about whether NEA-AFT mergers now underway in several states can go forward.
Leaders of the AFT and NEA had been discussing unity since the early 1970s, but approval foundered primarily as a result of deep-rooted differences between the cultures and traditions of the two unions.
The AFT, formed in 1916 at a time when industrial unions were fighting pitched battles to establish their right to bargain collectively, patterned itself after Detroit's militant auto workers.
The NEA, founded before the Civil War as an anti-union professional organization, evolved into an aggressive advocate of collective bargaining in the 1960s. Yet its predominantly suburban and small-town members remained uneasy about the AFT's open identification with industrial unions.
In addition, many NEA members feared that a merger would erode their cherished tradition of participatory democracy. "We reject this merger agreement not because we do not want to work with the AFT but because we do not want to become the AFT," said Bob Haisman, president of the Illinois Education Assn.
Other opponents spoke out against making the new union a part of the AFL-CIO, as the blueprint would have done. Teachers, it was argued, should not be lumped in with factory workers.
Merger supporters, led by California's huge delegation, warned of the outside threats to teachers, pointed to successes local unions have achieved after merging and recounted examples of the high cost of past rivalry.
Lois Tinsun of Los Angeles, president of the California Teachers Assn., said cooperation in California had shown that there was no difference between AFT and NEA teachers.
"We no longer have the luxury of waiting to see what the enemies of public education are going to do," she said. "We have to get our act together."