NEW ORLEANS -- Delegates at the National Education Association's convention voted overwhelmingly yesterday against merging with the American Federation of Teachers, frustrating plans to create a stronger organization to fight what union leaders see as an unprecedented assault against public education.
The vote, which would have created the largest union in American history with 3.3 million members, is a serious blow to the leadership's designs of creating a unified voice to combat a wave of critics, most notably supporters of vouchers, a growing movement to allow use of taxpayer money to pay for students to attend private schools.
The merger needed a two-thirds vote for approval. The delegates stunned the NEA leadership -- and themselves -- by casting only 4,091 votes for the merger, or 42 percent.
Acknowledging his disappointment, Bob Chase, president of the 2.3 million-member association, said that he would continue pushing for a merger, although with many details changed, because in his view his union's members still support the goal of unification with the teachers' federation.
At a news conference after the vote, Chase said: "The vast majority of delegates are in favor of unity. They do want to see the two organizations come together. Obviously they didn't think this plan was the best way to do it."
In a statement, Sandra Feldman, president of the 950,000-member American Federation of Teachers, said she was disappointed by the vote.
Delegates gave a host of reasons for rejecting the merger. Many said that under the agreement, the combined union would be undemocratic. Others said the teachers' federation was too militant for their tastes. Many said they did not like the fact that the merger would make the education association part of the AFL-CIO. And many said they were happy with the association as it is.
Explaining his vote against merging, Bruce Jensen, an elementary school teacher in Moulton, Iowa, said: "The members have taken great pride in the history, autonomy and independence of the National Education Association. They were worried that this would reduce its independence."
On Saturday, opponents of the merger had predicted that they might block it by obtaining 40 percent of the vote. Yesterday, many opponents acknowledged they were shocked when they got far more than 50 percent.
Chase said that notwithstanding the vote, he would continue with policies under which the union has shifted away from its us-vs.-them emphasis on wages and benefits and toward a focus on working with school districts to improve education.
At the convention today, the nearly 10,000 delegates will consider whether to authorize renewed negotiations with the federation to produce a merger agreement more to their liking.
Yesterday's vote follows three decades of on-again, off-again efforts to merge the two unions. For decades they were archrivals, but in recent years however, the unions have signed a nonaggression pact, pledging not to raid each other and agreeing to discuss a merger.
Pub Date: 7/06/98