Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Leaders of the nation’s largest teachers union will allow local affiliates to join the AFL-CIO.

Allowing locals of the 2.7 million-member National Education Association to align with the AFL-CIO will help the labor federation boost membership after last year’s split within the labor movement that led to the departure of five unions and the loss of 5 million workers and an estimated $25 million in funding.

Perhaps more important, the decision made over the weekend to join forces gives the AFL-CIO greater strength to carry out its politics program during an election year.

Under the proposed deal, the international union of the NEA will remain apart from the AFL-CIO, but its local unions may apply for membership in the AFL-CIO’s 520 central labor councils, which represent scores of unions within a geographic area and are largely responsible for grass-roots political activity.

NEA international leaders have declined to discuss the plan, but state officials support the proposal.

“We would absolutely pursue affiliation if it becomes available,” said Robert A Walsh Jr., executive director of NEA-Rhode Island.

Leaders of the NEA, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the AFL-CIO all support the plan and helped craft it.

The proposal marks a departure from the long-standing policy of the AFL-CIO and the AFT, each of which has said that members of the independent NEA should join the labor federation only through a merger with the 1.3 million-member AFT.

Both the AFT and the AFL-CIO changed their stance after the defection of the unions that formed the rival Change To Win Federation. Unions including the Communications Workers of America and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees also began pressing for ways to boost membership after labor’s internecine war and the departure of five unions from the AFL-CIO.

“I think it’s possible this whole debate started with the Change To Win unions when they left and caused the AFL-CIO to discuss what to do. But it’s not just about numbers. It was about coming up with a new strategy. You have some people saying it’s silly to leave any union out and you need to build the labor movement one city at a time,” said Robert Bruno, associate professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois.

Leaders of the AFL-CIO’s executive council will examine the proposal during their annual winter meeting in two weeks in San Diego. AFL-CIO leaders declined to comment until the executive council ratifies the plan.

Allowing NEA locals to join the AFL-CIO makes sense because the union shares common political goals with the AFT, Mr. Bruno said, and the new arrangement will allow for greater cooperation on issues from vouchers to charter schools to No Child Left Behind, the law supported by President Bush to improve student achievement.

It is not clear whether the proposal is a first step toward a merger of the AFT and NEA, he said. A proposed merger of the two teachers’ unions fell apart in 1998 when the NEA rejected the deal.

NEA and AFT unions are unified in some states. In Florida, Minnesota and Montana teachers have formed an alliance and effectively are a single union. In New York, AFT and NEA teachers unions are scheduled to unify in September.

The proposal could provide a significant amount of money for the AFL-CIO. The NEA has 14,000 unions.

The deal resembles the solidarity charters introduced last year that allow local unions affiliated with the Teamsters, Unite Here, United Food and Commercial Workers, United Farm Workers and Service Employees International Union to maintain membership in the AFL-CIO central labor councils. Those unions all have left the AFL-CIO to form the Change To Win Federation.

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