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Unions Apart

The NEA and AFT often get clubbed together as the "national teachers' unions," but the differences between them are stark and many.

Take the conventions, for instance. Compared with the NEA, the AFT's convention looks decidedly less education-focused and more about issues ranging from labor and organizing to international relations and human rights. It is also much smaller—less than one-third the size of the NEA convention—and its delegates are a much milder, less noisy lot.

This year, one of the high-profile events of the AFT convention was a labor rally held in support of the workers of Resurrection Hospital in Chicago whose attempts to organize have been thwarted by the hospital's authorities.

Delegates at the convention also took up resolutions on issues like highly skilled worker migration, renegotiating NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), protecting collective bargaining rights, and organizing workers at the Smithfield Packing Plant in Tar Heel, N.C.

A good number of the delegates were from professions outside teaching: I ran into dentists, nurses, and government employees. According to the AFT, 68 percent of its members are K-12 teachers; the rest are paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel, higher education faculty, federal, state, and government employees, and nurses and other health-care workers. The union has also organized private school workers, including those from schools with religious affiliations.

Contrast that with the NEA, whose delegates, after protracted debate at this past convention, refused to admit private K-12 workers into their membership ranks, claiming it would cause the union to lose focus of its mission to improve public schools.

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