Educators to vote today on merging teacher groups Approval would create largest labor union in history of United States


NEW ORLEANS -- If supporters of the proposed merger of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers had any worry yesterday, it was the hundreds of NEA convention delegates wearing large yellow buttons reading "UWM."

Those letters stand for "Unity Without Merger," the rallying cry of HTC opponents who are urging the 10,000 delegates gathered here to vote down the merger, which would create the largest labor union in U.S. history, a colossus of nearly 3.3 million members.

Even the leaders of the 2.3 million-member education association, who are campaigning feverishly for the merger, acknowledge that the vote today might be a cliffhanger and that they might not get the two-thirds majority required for approval.

Bob Chase, the association's president, argued in yesterday's debate, as he has for months, that the merger is vital because it would create a more powerful advocate for teachers at a time when public education is under unprecedented assault.

"Over the past few years there's been a real close relationship between the goals of the AFT and the goals of the NEA," Chase said in an interview. "We're trying to do things that are amazingly similar to improve schools, improve teaching and make the views of our members better known. To have two separate rival organizations out there fighting for the same things doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

But the merger opponents assert that the two unions can speak with a united voice without carrying out a complicated merger. Delegations from several states, including Chase's home state, Connecticut, have opposed the merger.

These opponents contend that the merger will create an over-centralized, top-heavy, less democratic union. They like the way the NEA is dominated by the annual 10,000-delegate convention. In a merged union, a 37-member executive board would hold much of the power, although a 12,500-delegate assembly would meet every year or two.

"We want maximum cooperation between the unions," said Gary Jones, a merger opponent who teaches history in Troy, Ill. "But I believe this merger will diminish democracy. We go from a democratic-based organization to a rule of oligarchy by 37 people."

Many opponents are uneasy about marrying their longtime nemesis, because teachers' federation officials often used to denounce the education association as ineffectual when the two unions dueled repeatedly in trying sign up teachers from the same school districts. Some say the federation is too confrontational and strike-happy, although in many communities the association is no less militant.

Members fret that the merger would make the education association part of the AFL-CIO, the 13 million-member labor organization. Many NEA members view their organization as a professional association, not a union, and oppose being lumped into a federation with millions of blue-collar workers and with long-corrupt unions like the Teamsters.

The merger's defenders say joining the AFL-CIO will increase the education association's power -- it would be the biggest member -- because the AFL-CIO lobbyists and millions of members will often throw their weight behind the NEA's causes.

Pub Date: 7/05/98

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