Well over half the delegates to the NEA's representative assembly voted against the merger with the American Federation of Teachers. Sunday's vote was 5,624 against and 4,091 for, or 58 percent to 42 percent. Approving the merger would have required a two-thirds majority.
The outcome was a blow to NEA president Robert F. Chase, who had put the weight of the union leadership behind the merger. Opponents feared the merger would have cost the organization its unique identity and institutions while taking a leap into the unknown.
Chase urged delegates to lay aside their differences and move on with their business.
"The decision was made on an issue. It was not based on personalities," he said. "When decisions are made, families come together and work in a united way."
AFT President Sandra Feldman said she was disappointed in the vote but took consolation in that both groups found they have much in common.
"Certainly, both organizations share the goals of improving education for America's 50 million students, fighting for the dignity and well-being of the nation's educators, and, of course, putting an end to vouchers and other privatization attempts," Feldman said.
Leaders of both unions had said unification would end years of rivalry for members, which NEA figures show cost more than $100 million between 1973 and 1992.
More important, a combined union with 3.3 million members would have given public education a single voice in politics and issues of educational quality.
The two are already working together on teacher quality, school construction and safety and discipline.
The NEA has 2.4 million members. The AFT has more than 900,000 and is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. The new organization would have become part of the AFL-CIO, whose membership is becoming increasingly white collar.
Both organizations have been stressing a "new unionism" that urged collaboration with management on improving schools.
The arguments were not enough to convince outright opponents and those who felt the blueprint for a merger failed to answer many questions about how the new organization would look.
Delegates were to consider alternative proposals along the lines of a working alliance, a "unity without merger," which many favored.
Many delegates also objected to a merger because of the AFL-CIO connection. They felt getting the union involved with nonschool labor issues could dull the organization's focus on education.
By Robert Greene