NEW ORLEANS, LA - Delegates to the National Education Association's annual convention decisively rejected a proposal to merge with the rival union, the American Federation of Teachers. The secret-ballot vote was 57.9% opposed and 42.1% in favor. A two-thirds majority was required for approval. The NEA currently has 2.4 million members, the AFT more than 900,000. A merger would have created a union twice as large as any in the country and made the NEA part of the 13-million member AFL-CIO.
Observers view the defeat as a major blow to NEA officers and particularly to its president, Bob Chase, who spent more than a year crafting the merger agreement known as the "Principles of Unity."
"Momentum is building and I am confident," he said just two days before the vote. In a speech to convention delegates on July 3, he compared the Principles of Unity with the Declaration of Independence, noting that the merger agreement was "just a first step," and that the principles "describe the basis of the new union."
On the afternoon of July 4, speakers representing individual state delegations debated the merger. Mary Washington, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said the Principles of Unity "make a mockery of our core beliefs." Ohio Education Association President Mike Billirakis drew groans and catcalls from the crowd when he likened a vote against the Principles of Unity to a vote against the Declaration of Independence.
After the results were announced, both Chase and AFT President Sandra Feldman released statements promising their continued commitment to the eventual union of the two unions. Chase said that he felt "the vast majority of our delegates want unity in some form," and insisted that the NEA leadership is "absolutely in touch with our members."
Critics of the merger say that NEA members have long favored their independence from traditional labor unions, and that many consider themselves members of a professional organization such as the American Medical Association. They reject what they view as the more urbanized and politicized image of the AFL-CIO-backed AFT. Some NEA state affiliates claim they are working to establish a more bipartisan political strategy, and that membership in the AFL-CIO would neutralize that strategy. Still others fear the merger would transfer more power to union leadership at the expense of the rank and file.
On July 5, competing factions for and against the merger presented separate proposals to convention delegates to continue merger talks with the AFT. A voice vote on the two proposals proved inconclusive, as did a standing vote. A rare roll call vote was then taken, and the pro-merger proposal was approved by 53% of the delegates. One convention observer noted, "Add up everything that's happened here, and you've got a recipe for disaster. I can hear the opposition speakers now: 'If you thought the Principles of Unity were scary, wait until you see Principles of Unity II: The Sequel.' "
What if the merger had been approved?
There is agreement in many circles that a unified NEA and AFT would create shock waves in education, labor and politics. Unity would create a single giant union of more than 3.2 million members, with the potential for adding hundreds of thousands more in a relatively short period of time.
According to Charlene Haar, president of the Education Policy Institute in Washington, DC, writing in the July issue of the Capital Research Center's newsletter, Organization Trends: "This mega-union would continue to pursue the liberal political agenda of the NEA and the AFT, including increased federal funding for public schools, collective bargaining rights for education employees at all levels, and opposition to all forms of privatization - including school choice, education tax credits or deductions, contracting out and home schooling." One of the unions' publicly-stated reasons for merging is to repel "attacks" on public education, meaning any efforts to restrict public-school funding or approve voucher programs for private schools.
Haar observes that heightened public awareness of the political and labor activities of the teacher unions could cause them to lose "their public image as associations devoted to the common good." She points to the recent concerted effort of the NEA and the AFT to defeat Proposition 226 in California as an example. Proposition 226, called Paycheck Protection, was a popular idea, giving union employees the right to authorize or refuse the use of their dues for political purposes. It was defeated because of a well-funded and misleading counterattack by the unions. Haar writes: "Despite their victory, the teacher unions' profligate spending against the measure demonstrated to the nation how closely the NEA and AFT are allied to the broader labor movement."
If the two unions were to merge, funds available to union leaders would be increased. According to Haar, the new mega-union's annual revenues at local, state and national levels could exceed $1.3 billion, not counting the revenues of PACs, foundations and other organizations under its control. Expenses would be reduced, but because competition for members would no longer be an issue, the savings would likely benefit union leaders, not the rank and file, whose dues would likely go up.
Haar adds that a merged union would almost certainly continue the NEA's practice of championing issues such as federally-funded early childhood services (hoping to add daycare and pre-school employees to its rolls) and comprehensive nationalized health care. The NEA also strongly supports "U.S. participation in and equitable financing of the United Nations."