One of the biggest marriages in modern politics almost took place this summer, the merger of the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). But when the NEA delegates met in New Orleans in June, they rejected the prenuptial agreement and recommended a longer and more cautious engagement.
The prospect of merger was tantalizing, in part because the scale was so impressive and the logic of unity so compelling. Here would have been a union of 3.3 million members, over 2.3 million from the NEA and over 900,000 from AFT. Collectively, the two unions represent 85% of all public school teachers, the most highly unionized sector of the workforce. Members are based in primary and secondary schools in every community – urban, suburban, and rural – and operate the second largest sector of the economy, generating $348 billion annually, right behind the health care industry.
Public education is also at the heart of contemporary social politics.
Schooling is not only the oldest and largest government entitlement program. It is also the bedrock institution of the public sector, embodying core ideals of opportunity and our collective responsibility for social needs. While it has long been contested whether the dominant needs that public schools serve are corporate or democratic, utilitarian or civic, the concept of the public school as a necessary community institution has not been at risk for most of this century.
But the concept and the institution are at risk today, in at least three arenas. First, public education is under unrelenting political assault from the Right and its privatization agenda. Nothing has better unified entrepreneurial, libertarian, and religious conservatives than their quest for a market-based education system through school vouchers and the repeal of educational entitlements for children of color.
Second, there is an ongoing crisis in urban education. Social neglect and government retrenchment have combined with a dramatic polarization of wealth over the past two decades to structurally erode urban districts, placing nearly 40% of inner city children at risk of school failure.
Third, too many schools, across all states and districts, have not evolved past the factory model of the last century to become learning organizations in the information age. Even for decent school systems, the status quo in the face of rising expectations has produced a decline in public confidence and willingness to invest in public education, at a time when only one in four households has children at school.
The prospective NEA-AFT merger was put forth as a vehicle for teachers to take initiative in addressing these challenges, particularly the threat from the Right. For its proponents, the merger promised to reconcile a bitter rivalry, break down each union’s insularity, and shift the focus outward. The consolidation of political capital would have been especially formidable – the new union would have exceeded the Christian Coalition by two million members.
More time needed?
For all of its promise, the merger failed overwhelmingly in the hands of NEA delegates. Only 42% supported the proposal, far short of the 67% required for ratification. Did the partners suffer irreconcilable differences? Or did they just need more time?
Reports on the vote focused on what delegates perceived as critical differences between the two unions. Some felt the merger threatened NEA’s democratic representative assembly process; some were threatened by AFT’s history of militant strikes, and others by the fear that AFL-CIO affiliation would degrade their professionalism.
What is striking is not just that opposition spanned a wide spectrum of political consciousness, from concerns about union democracy to class snobbery. It is also striking that so many of the reasons cited were superficial and misperceived. The reality is that the two teacher unions are not profoundly different.
To be sure, the NEA and AFT have traveled different paths. The NEA is a century old and most of that time has been spent as a professional association and advocacy organization. The AFT was forged as a union in the public employee recognition struggles of the 1960s.
NEA is a sprawling network of powerful and autonomous state associations, run by a permanent cadre of staff (sometimes labeled bureaucratic), with its largest base in suburban districts. The AFT has had, until recently, one leader (sometimes labeled autocratic) presiding over a chain of centralized locals in the big industrial cities. The NEA has stood outside the rest of the labor movement and has, by and large, espoused the most consistently progressive social platform of any union. The AFT has been in the thick of AFL-CIO politics, on the side of Cold Warriors as well as social liberals. The two unions also have different organizational cultures. Stylistically, the AFT is from Mars, the NEA is from Venus.
But in their core constructions, both the NEA and AFT are quite similar. Both are large, relatively strong trade unions and have been for 30 years. Their power has been built around collective bargaining muscle, legislative brokering, and the scale of their memberships. Both have mounted militant strikes, both have strong and weak locals, both have progressive and reactionary forces, both have hierarchic and democratic practices. While AFT represents the old line cities, NEA represents at least half the large and new cities, and its suburban districts now have funding crises just like the cities.
Both NEA and AFT locals are typically reactive to the school systems they operate within and both tend to reflect the strengths and pathologies of those systems. Both have achieved substantial bread-and-butter gains for teachers, both have defended public education, both have neglected the communities that schools belong to.
Over the last decade, as the ground has shifted profoundly in education politics, the paths of the unions have converged even further. Both are being challenged to engage in education reform as a matter of survival for their membership and for public education itself. The national leaders of both unions have concluded that the era of adversarial collective bargaining and special interest clout has left them isolated and vulnerable in this new era, which requires rebuilding school communities and broad political coalitions.
So both NEA and AFT leaders have recast their unions as reform agents. NEA President Bob Chase calls it “The New Unionism,” stressing professional issues of teacher empowerment that go beyond traditional employee rights. Generally consistent with the positions of AFT President Sandra Feldman, Chase’s new unionism strives to get past the era of centralized and adversarial collective bargaining and move toward a “quality of work life” or co-management role within the local school and an active voice in retooling the profession .
If the differences are not particularly current or fundamental, did the merger fail tactically, because it wasn’t adequately sold to the membership? Was the problem that NEA delegates wanted to go forward but couldn’t shake old perceptions of the AFT? This interpretation is reinforced by the fact that the day after rejecting the merger proposal, NEA delegates reaffirmed their commitment to the concept of unity and authorized a new round of merger discussions.
However, there seems to be a deeper lesson here, captured precisely by the delegates’ ambivalence: NEA wasn’t ready for the merger because there is not yet a solid center in the union that accepts or understands the new paradigm in education politics and is ready to face the multiple challenges implied.
Merger is just one challenge, and perhaps the most technical. The overall challenge is to embrace a much enlarged mission of educational entitlement for children as well as professional empowerment for teachers. Without this new paradigm, there is no assurance that if or when the merger goes forward, it will produce the positive outcomes intended.
The challenge of a new mission impacts the AFT just as forcefully as it does the NEA. The AFT delegates, meeting a month after the NEA, overwhelmingly ratified the principles of unity. But they too had mixed motives. Some AFT locals represent a broader mission for teacher unions, others are fixed in the power politics of a bygone era, some are simply looking for tactical allies in the midst of a siege.
To better picture the forces shaping both unions – and their potential merger – we can imagine multiple scenarios. One scenario flows from the progressives in both unions who embrace both union reform and school restructuring. A second could be directed by the old guard in each union who want to keep their fiefdoms intact. And a third could be built around the center forces in each union which have focused on teacher professionalism.
Where are the “new unionists” in this? They range from progressive to centrist, depending on the balance they strike between the issues of equity and professionalism.
Many progressives saw the merger as a historic opportunity to reorient the unions internally as well as externally, locally as well as nationally. In a progressive scenario, the institutional change process would give activists a catalytic role. The new union would continue as a major line of defense against the Right’s agenda, but it would also cultivate a growing awareness that organizing and coalition building within communities is essential in sustaining public schools educationally as well as politically.
A progressive version of the new union would link teacher interests in the decaying urban systems, the core of AFT, to the concerns of teachers in the suburban systems that dominate NEA. Teaching conditions would be more strongly identified with learning conditions for children, putting equity and social justice issues more clearly at the center of the union’s agenda. The merger would provide openings for school reformers in both unions to push school restructuring – local school decision-making, professional development, peer review, community linkages, attention to learning styles, child centered instruction, multiple approaches to assessment and accountability – efforts that would rebuild public credibility, collaboration, and investment.
Who are these progressives? In both unions, they are an amalgam of teacher activists who have focused on union reform and those who have focused on school reform. The two strands have increasingly overlapped, particularly in besieged urban systems.
They find their most coherent expression in the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN), a discussion group of union leaders from 21 locals in the NEA and AFT. Drawn largely from major urban districts, TURN leaders represent some of the strongest models for unions helping teachers and their schools become more pro-active, professional, accountable, and responsive. These leaders also share an implicit equity perspective that school reform must address the alarming condition of urban schools and serve those most at risk.
Progressive viewpoints with a forceful focus on equity are articulated through the journal Rethinking Schools and the union caucus in the National Coalition of Education Activists (NCEA). The latter group convened 30 leaders from both unions to issue a draft platform, “Social Justice Unionism,” that clearly expresses the identity crisis facing the NEA and AFT. While many progressive teachers also march under the banner of “new unionism,” they worry that the emphasis on professionalism has tended to marginalize social equity issues.
Some NEA progressives opposed merger on the grounds that the new structures were less formally democratic and the decision-making more centralized. But most seemed disappointed by the merger vote. Whether a new merger plan goes forward or not, progressives in the NEA and AFT are left with a series of challenges:
- How to forcefully safeguard employee rights and teacher gains while being a partner in building new school communities. There is a delicate balance in being an advocate but not adversarial, and being collaborative but not coopted. The NEA and AFT locals best able to play leadership roles in reform efforts have been strong and well-led unions with solid collective-bargaining histories, that are also not locked into their collective-bargaining identities.
- How to address the gap between teacher interests as employees seeking higher reward and professionals seeking autonomy, and larger issues of accountability and equity that would improve learning conditions for all children. That gap is glaring in underfunded or restructuring school systems, where real trade-offs are demanded. Many teachers and their unions have been reluctant to broaden the bargaining table at those moments.
- How to bridge the two sets of concerns with social justice activism as well as vision. This task requires organizing strategies for moving the majority of union members beyond their immediate career or classroom concerns to an investment in the success of the system as a whole.
- How to increase the number of districts and schools with union involvement in school restructuring. There is a respectable roster of models, but not a critical mass. The danger is that collaborative reform efforts will remain isolated as showcase schools and districts, without shifting the overall balance of educational or union practice. Progressive reformers need to be in the thick of union politics, regardless of merger prospects, if the center is to move in a new direction
- How to play active and integrative roles on many fronts at once: internal union politics, external social politics, systemic and local school reform, peer organizing, instructional innovation, and for many, day-to-day jobs in the classroom as well.
- How, on a local union level, to cultivate member participation, broaden union democracy, develop new leadership in teacher ranks, and expand the support network for activists. It seems especially important that strong locals develop organizational cultures that sustain more women and people of color in leadership, better reflecting both the teaching corps and urban communities
Progressives do not operate in a vacuum. There are significant old guard forces in both unions, resisting a new paradigm for education politics and a new union mission. They are found in some of the AFT’s big city locals, with their highly centralized leadership structures, and a fair number of the larger NEA state associations, run by presiding bureaucrats. They are clinging to the tradition of craft unionism, whether militant or utterly coopted, which still exerts a powerful pull on the labor movement.
The old guard represent the prior power base of both unions, forged in the era of union recognition and expanding education budgets. For years, they have relied on rich coffers, hardball lobbying, campaign donations, and narrow agendas to pursue their interests in the statehouses, where they used to dominate the “education establishment” of administrators, elected officials, contractors, and support personnel. They built expedient coalitions at the leadership level around single issues, and only appealed to the public at the district level during contract disputes or votes on parcel taxes, levies and bond issues. Their response to the call for teacher unionists to engage in educational improvement: “Children don’t vote.”
The old guard have also functioned with high levels of autonomy from the national offices, which nonetheless rely on them for firepower in the states. They can be equally distant from their membership, which is generally passive and often equally parochial. They embrace a narrow “them or us” mentality, that ironically may coincide with spirited union action against enemy school boards, administrators, or parents. “Them or us” coincides powerfully as well with the siege mentality of many teachers who find themselves isolated in classrooms, outsiders to their students’ communities, and/or devalued as frontline professionals.
Within the NEA, the anti-merger charge was led by several state delegations dominated by old guard forces seeking to retain their internal power. There is another sticking point: the AFT cities. The NEA old guard may well be concerned about the hefty voting blocs that large urban locals might bring to a merged state union from cities like New York, Chicago, Newark, or Detroit.
The old guard and much of their member base also seemed concerned about acquiring some responsibility for dealing with the educational failures of the old urban systems. Several reports from NEA’s convention confirm a reactionary fear among some delegates that inclusion of the AFT cities will weaken their separate defense of suburban public education. It is a version of the “them or us” worldview, with troubling segregationist undertones around race and class.
The old guard and their base may prefer the status quo of separate unions. But one shouldn’t underestimate their ability to influence a merger if their autonomy is secured under new terms. Nor should one underestimate their ability to dominate a new union, especially if the center is weak.
Then one can imagine a worst case scenario. The merger would consolidate the stonewalling postures of the old guard toward reform. Or it might consume both unions in petty power politics inside the new institution – a process akin to wrangling over who will play first fiddle as Rome burns.
The primacy of warlord politics would likely set the union agenda at the lowest common denominator, meaning narrow teacher self-interest around pay, tenure, professional credentials, and veto power in the school change process. It would signal a retreat to parochialism and hand the high ground of reform to the numerically smaller, but far more strategic, activists of the Republican Right.
Does the Center Hold?
The center, and probably the majority force, within each union appears to be a patchwork of tactical and strategic allies, drawn from both the “new unionists” and the old guard.
Although the “new unionism” camp has been bold in recognizing the new paradigm and seeking merger, it is cautious in staking out ground around school restructuring, the centrality of equity issues, and grassroots alliances with school communities. The more pragmatic and astute members of the old guard connect with the new unionists in recognizing that there has been a climate shift. Believing the best defense is offense, the pragmatists are willing to combine forces to project an image of teacher collaboration and improving schools. If this alliance prevails, it seems we would get the middle ground scenario: the unions, merged or merely parallel, would continue along current trajectories.
The unifying agenda of this emerging center is actually “the new professionalism.” Its attraction is that professional status issues allow union leaders to appeal to members’ self-interest and career aspirations, while offering more to the public by way of national standards and accountability, and offering administrators and politicians the prospect of collaboration. The professional standards agenda gives the unions a central focus that can be simultaneously linked to reform and membership demands.
But in several key respects, this seems too narrow an agenda to meet either the external challenges facing education or the harsh realities facing many classroom teachers. The professionalism agenda has many of the elements of sophisticated craft unionism, including the concept of teachers as licensed contractors, with too few elements of social unionism, including how to change learning conditions for kids.
How will professional empowerment take place in classrooms of 40 children speaking 10 different languages? Will the career ladder reach high enough to fix the leaking roof in the computer lab? Will team teaching restore the after-school sports program or in-school family services? Will national accreditation create time for parent consultations or teach teachers how to talk with the community?
The professionalism agenda is not matched by an agenda for reconstructing urban schools, revising state funding formulas, integrating the increasingly white teaching corps, restoring affirmative action and language rights, combating the trend toward test-driven teaching, resisting the trend toward tracking and creaming, and so much more. Most crucially, it does not include a commitment for standing together with local communities, across some difficult race and class divides, to oppose the Right’s assault on all public entitlements, that have shredded the safety net for children, and put education on the chopping block as well.
The professionalism agenda is necessary but not sufficient. It embodies a conception of unionism that rests centrally on the self-interest of teachers, rather than on their mutual interests with children and their communities. It sets a political course in which the base remains the education establishment and not the larger public or school children and families. And it relies on the promise of an ever-expanding and inclusive “knowledge economy” to sustain society’s investment in its education workforce, when in fact the knowledge economy rests atop a pyramid of increased stratification and exclusive opportunities.
To make a really historic leap, the center leadership needs to more deeply understand its new social paradigm, and learn from the agenda and practice of its progressive wing. This is not just an ideological preference or an obsession with education’s beleaguered equity goals. What’s most wrong with schools today, what makes them most vulnerable to the Right’s war of attrition, is a crisis of inequality coupled with a failure to establish a holistic and systemic change process. The models and experience exist within the teacher unions to take steps forward in both arenas, but they will not carry the day from the sidelines.
The stakes are very high. There is no more powerful force defending public education today than the teacher unions, but they are still trapped between eras and identities. The hesitation to grasp a new identity in the merger is only symptomatic. Even with a merger, the unions cannot succeed without linking the future of the teaching profession with the future of all the nation’s children.