Irony marks teachers’ meeting; Largest union in nation begins annual gathering in state that shuns label

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 17A

Ten thousand members of America’s largest teachers union are in Dallas this week. But if they start looking for the union label, they could be searching a while.

That’s because Texas’ teachers unions are among the nation’s weakest. A combination of state laws and large nonunion competitors has pushed them further into the background here than almost anywhere else.

“People who are coming from union states are going to have real trouble understanding how different Texas is,” said Ignacio Salinas Jr., president of the Texas State Teachers Association. The 70,000-member TSTA is the state affiliate of the National Education Association, the 2.7 million-member union holding its annual meeting at the Dallas Convention Center.

The biggest difference is the absence of collective bargaining, the traditional contract negotiation that goes on between a teachers union and schools. Bargaining over issues such as salary, benefits and working conditions is a given for teachers in most states.

Texas is one of six states with no collective bargaining for teachers and one of two states that explicitly ban the practice by law. That makes some wonder why the National Education Association is coming to town.

“Why are we bringing 10,000 delegates and millions of dollars of convention business to a state that denies the basic right of collective bargaining to its teachers?” said Louis Malfaro, president of Education Austin, that city’s teachers union.

Nationally, the NEA and its smaller, friendly rival, the American Federation of Teachers, dominate the world of teacher associations. The vast majority of local and state teacher organizations are affiliates of one or the other. Some, such as Education Austin, are affiliated with both.

Texas is different

But in Texas, four state organizations compete for teachers’ attention. The largest is the Association of Texas Professional Educators, with almost 100,000 members, and it is vocally anti-union. The 44,000-member Texas Classroom Teachers Association is also opposed to collective bargaining. TSTA and the 40,000-member Texas Federation of Teachers represent the unionized side.

Having four groups means that the Legislature sometimes hears opposing arguments from opposing teachers groups – a far cry from some states, where a single state union dominates the conversation.

Representatives from all four groups say that when they unite on an issue, they can be an effective force. They cite the new teacher health insurance plan passed in the last Legislature and the $3,000 pay raises given in the previous one.

“When we do link arms and go to the Legislature, it can be very powerful,” said Jeri Stone, executive director of the nonunion TCTA.

But unity is often hard to come by. Each side regularly refers to the other as “the enemy,” and the bad blood seems to run deep. “It’s a very real divide between the two sides,” said Larry Comer, spokesman for the nonunion ATPE.

Officials cite various reasons that nonunion groups have had such success in Texas, including Texan ideals of individuality and conservatism. There’s also a financial incentive: annual dues for unions are often three or four times higher than for nonunion groups.

Texas unions hope that the state will repeal its ban on collective bargaining, but they say the political climate in the Legislature isn’t likely to make that possible soon, if ever. In the meantime, some teacher unions have settled on a half-measure called exclusive consultation.

If a district agrees to exclusive consultation, its teachers hold an election to select a local union as its sole representative in negotiations with the district. That group negotiates with the school board.

District can go own way

There’s one big difference from collective bargaining, though: The district is not obligated to listen to their demands. There’s no system of mediation or arbitration if the sides can’t reach an agreement. And teachers can’t strike if they don’t like what the district is doing.

“Collective bargaining makes a huge difference, but we’ve been able to make some major advancements with consultation,” said Aimee Bolender, president of Alliance/AFT, the local union that has consulted with the Dallas school district since 1997. “There’s one clear and focused voice speaking for everyone.”

Most big-city districts across the state use exclusive consultation, something nonunion groups oppose.

“Consultation is just a pale shadow of collective bargaining, and it’s not something we’re supportive of,” Ms. Stone said.

The two state unions, TFT and TSTA, have been in on-again, off-again merger talks for several years. A merged union could be more forceful in pushing for collective bargaining and other issues, Mr. Malfaro said, and it could be stronger financially. But Mr. Comer said he wouldn’t expect a merger to change the sometimes-icy relationship among the state’s teacher groups.

“That would just mean we’d have one fewer enemy,” he said. “We’d only be looking over one shoulder.”