WASHINGTON — When some 10,000 teachers get together in New Orleans this weekend, they will decide whether the biggest trade union in the United States is about to get bigger.
If leaders of the 2.4 million-member National Education Association (NEA) can scrape together a two-thirds vote on Sunday, they will be over the biggest hurdle to merging with longtime rival the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
Merger of the two unions will give teachers a stronger base to "champion public education," says NEA President Bob Chase. But critics worry that a giant teachers union will undermine efforts to reform poor public schools.
"It's the biggest event in American education of the year. Such a single, vast organization could bring American education to its knees," says Chester Finn, a John M. Olin fellow with the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
Critics argue that unions consistently blocked change, especially efforts to develop experimental curriculum or reward teachers on the basis of performance rather than seniority. This month, the AFT helped squelch a charter-school proposal in the New York State Legislature. And opponents says that NEA locals have given only feeble support to the national leadership's calls for peer review.
For decades, the NEA and the 975,000-member AFT have been slugging it out for the right to represent teachers in contract negotiations. With criticism of public schools on the rise, it's a rivalry that leaders in both unions say they can no longer afford. With 3.3 million members, this new United Organization would dwarf any other trade union in the United States. It also combines the campaign war chests of two of the most powerful political action committees in American politics. In the 1996 elections, both teacher PACs ranked among the Top 10 in campaign contributions, mainly directed to Democrats.
There is no institutional rival near this stature in the US. The NEA alone spends more than $200 million annually for its national organization and can quickly mobilize lobbyists to influence a key vote.
Support wanes for public schools
But what worries union leaders are the decisions of small players - parents and taxpayers who are fed up with failing schools and are opting out of the public system or cutting back on funding for it. At least 30 states are considering legislation or ballot initiatives that would help students leave local public schools.
Both unions see such proposals as an attack on public education, as well as on the benefits they have won for their own members. AFT President Sandra Feldman calls vouchers and ballot initiatives to cut off funds for union political action "two of the most cynical and destructive schemes" that the AFT has ever faced.
AFT delegates are expected to approve the merger easily at their annual meeting on July 16-21. But the plan faces tougher obstacles within the ranks of the NEA.
Some NEA state affiliates object to a provision that would affiliate the new organization with the AFL-CIO. The AFT already has such ties, but many NEA members don't want to be linked to what they see as a blue-collar union. "We want to lobby for education workers and children, not for corrections workers and construction workers who don't always share the interests of teachers," says Julius Maddox, president of the Michigan Education Association, a NEA affiliate.
Mr. Chase insists that the AFL-CIO connection is a necessary part of the package. "We need that clout on our side in the upcoming battles over tuition vouchers and efforts to slash public funding," he told an NEA audience in Pittsburgh on April 24.
Another stumbling block for NEA members is the difference in cultures between the two unions. The AFT was dominated by the late Albert Shanker, its high-profile president, for two decades. Mr. Shanker led the first great teachers' strike in 1961, which won collective-bargaining rights for teachers. Later, he used his syndicated column, "Where We Stand," to lobby for rigorous academic standards and competency tests for teachers. He was replaced by Ms. Feldman in 1986.
The NEA, with its network of strong and far-flung affiliates, is used to more decentralized leadership. "This proposal eliminates many avenues for democratic input we currently have," says Michael Johnson, president of the New Jersey Education Association, the NEA's second largest affiliate. Some "83,000 of my teaching members will be retired in the next seven years. How do you sell an on-high entity to new people who don't believe that union is a good thing?" New Jersey and a coalition of 10 other state delegations say they will reject the merger, in favor of a more democratic alternative proposal, he adds.
Merging already under way
But even if the July 5 vote fails, the momentum for some form of merger between the two big teacher unions is bound to continue, activists say.
NEA and AFT affiliates in San Francisco and Wichita, Kan., have already merged. And Minnesota unions have already drafted a unity agreement.
"Our members just aren't interested in fighting each other any more," says Judy Schaubach, president of the Minnesota Education Association, an NEA affiliate.
In Wichita, rival unions swapped leadership seven times in 12 years, a costly and battering process. "We'd find ourselves rooting against [our rival's] bargaining group, hoping they would make some bad mistakes we could exploit in the next election. It got kind of ridiculous," says Greg Jones, president of the United Teachers of Wichita and a former AFT activist. "We had convinced ourselves that there were a lot of differences between us, but once we started talking merger, the trust level really went up between hard-liners in the two unions," he adds.
If both unions approve a merger, the next step will be to draft a constitution and unification agreement, to be effective in 2000 or 2001.