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Labor president says Montana helping set national precedent

Bob Chase looks at the successful merger of Montana's two teachers unions as a precursor to what is likely to transpire nationally.

"It's only a matter of time," said Chase, the president of the National Education Association. "How soon it happens, I don't know. But I would prefer to see it happen sooner than later."

Chase was in Missoula on Friday to help delegates from the Montana Education Association and the Montana Federation of Teachers officially kick off their first joint representative assembly. About 400 delegates from around the state are spending two days in Missoula, ironing out final details, electing officers and celebrating the formation of the new 15,000-member union, which will be known as the MEA-MFT.

Chase said he believes the merger in Montana, which along with Minnesota are the only states in the nation to unify affiliates, serves as a fine example of what the NEA and the AFT could accomplish if they were to unite on the national front.

"This merger took willingness to embrace change, something that is never easy," Chase said at a press conference at the Doubletree Hotel. "They are paving the way for other state affiliates to follow. I honestly believe that one day the two national organizations will unite as well.

"We share the same mission, the same vision. By working together, we can dramatically improve public education."

Sandra Feldman, the president of the AFT, was out of the country Friday and unable to attend the merger ceremony. But her press secretary, Gregory King, said Feldman also believes the Montana unification sets a good example for other associations around the country.

"The people in Montana are pioneers. They are working together in common cause," King said in a telephone interview. "We think that when voices are joined together, they communicate better than when speaking alone."

Chase has been president of the 2.4 million member NEA since 1996. Originally a middle school social studies teacher in Danbury, Conn., Chase was at the helm of the NEA in 1998 when its members voted down a proposal to merge with the AFT. Delegates from the AFT approved the same proposal, after the NEA vote was taken.

But Chase said NEA leaders, who endorsed the initial merger attempt, have continued to pursue merger possibilities.

"Two years ago, when the merger failed, we passed a business item that called for working toward unity," Chase said. "The original proposition failed because it did not meet the needs of some of those voting. They wanted more specificity."

Chase admitted that there are some voting blocs within the NEA that still do not approve of a merger.

"Obviously some folks would rather not see a merger occur," Chase said. "But they are in the small minority."

And just as at the state level, Chase believes a larger unified voice can be much more effective than two smaller voices.

"When we work together, we can prevent negative legislation from being enacted and promote positive legislation for education," Chase said. "The more our members see this go on … the less resistance there will be to merger."

Both Eric Feaver, the MEA president, and Jim McGarvey, the MFT president, agreed with Chase that a unified teachers association was more effective than two competing bodies.

"In the past, politicians liked to wedge one organization against the other, even though we wanted the same things," Feaver said. "We decided that didn't make sense. … In effect, we think one voice for public education and public employees makes more sense."

McGarvey said that many people in Montana have waited a long time to see the two organizations unite.

"This is a big day for us. After 10 years of building toward a merger, it's going to be a festive occasion," McGarvey said. "In essence, we've been working together for a long time. … Now it's our intention to use our political might in a positive force."

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