Can you imagine being a pro-public school and pro-union state legislator and have to deal with competing teacher unions as you move legislation that will help all teachers and education support professionals? Louisiana and West Virginia come to my mind as two prime examples. I am sure there are state legislators who feel they walk on eggshells when trying to work with the local and state affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
Recently, this issue emerged at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Dennis Van Roekel, President of NEA, and Randi Weingarten, President of AFT, were on a panel espousing collaboration and "doing things with their members, not to their members." One legislator was channeling his personal experiences and threw out to the union presidents a challenge of "coming together with a common voice."
It must have surprised Van Roekel when Weingarten picked up that challenge and stated that NEA and AFT should try again to merge. The word on the street had been that AFT was unlikely to support merger during Weingarten's term. Van Roekel responded, "That's a discussion for another time." When you look at the attacks on public sector unions, that time may be now.
A lot has changed in the ten years since NEA delegates to their Representative Assembly turned down a merger agreement supported by the leadership of both unions. Now almost one million members belong to a merged local or state. Merged states include New York, Florida, Minnesota, and Montana. Locals like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Wichita, Austin, and San Antonio, and several others are merged. Folks, that proverbial train has left the station.
Now, take the current situation. The attacks on teacher unions are unprecedented. It has taken its toll on the economic security of unions. Wasting resources is no longer an option. Every dime is needed for organizing, protection, and advocacy for a world class public education for every student. Duplication of services is wasteful. Teachers and education support professionals deserve better.
Finally, I have been in the front rooms and the backrooms of merger discussions. Ten years ago, the opposition was well organized and, in many cases, right about challenging some specifics of the agreement. Today, opposition has waned, and members want the strongest possible union they can have.
Leaders should have learned that the first vote should be a very simple one to gauge whether there is substantial support for merger. Next, practice working together in areas that do not require a change in governance documents. And then change those documents to seal the deal.
Who wins? Labor always wins when there is solidarity. Members win when union dollars are spent more efficiently, especially in tough economic times. Public Schools win when there is one voice for protecting our public schools, the institution that assures our democracy and a well-educated workforce. Children win when teachers and education support professionals can concentrate on their students' interests first.
Dennis and Randi, it is time to set the table...the merger discussion table.