Teachers Truce in the Offing?

July 24, 1992

In the charged world of education politics, news that the nation's two main teacher organizations could merge into a single entity is being compared to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Washington-based National Education Association and the New York-based American Federation of Teachers have long been arch rivals, divided sharply over substance and style. The NEA, with some 2.1 million members nationwide, traditionally viewed teaching as a white-collar profession with little to gain in the rough and tumble world of labor politics. The AFT, by contrast, relished its links to the AFL-CIO, to which its 750,000 members pay dues.

Moreover, for most of the past 20 years the AFT has been virtually synonymous with its feisty, autocratic leader, Albert Shanker, who runs the organization with the iron-fisted discipline of an old-fashioned ward boss. The more sedate NEA has been guided by a succession of widely respected consensus leaders, such as current president Keith Geiger and predecessor Mary Hatwood Futrell, whose terms are limited by charter.

Yet delegates to the NEA convention in Washington early this month voted to consider merging with the AFT, apparently prompted by a sense that the rivalry has become counterproductive. The two organizations frequently clash in collective bargaining disputes. Mr. Geiger said some of his local associations and state affiliates "are just tired of the fight and they are saying to us, 'we don't want to keep this battle going. Can you find a way to allow us to do something?' "

The vote authorized a one-year study of the proposed merger and review of the organization's 16-year-old policy against mergers. Results will be reported at the next annual meeting.

Under the best of circumstances, a merger wouldn't be easy. Some NEA delegates question the role the AFL-CIO would have in a merged organization. New York delegates, for example, recall that when their local joined with the AFT between 1972 and 1976 the result "was a disaster." Yet times change. With federal, state and local education spending dropping precipitously, teachers in both camps may decide more unites than divides -- and vote to make common cause on behalf of their beleaguered profession.

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