Public employee and teacher unions will vote on merger

2012-12-23T11:00:00Z 2012-12-23T22:50:28Z Public employee and teacher unions will vote on mergerBy JESSICA HOLDMAN | Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune

Members of North Dakota’s two main lobbies for teachers and public employees will vote on whether to merge.

The North Dakota Education Association and North Dakota Public Employees Association, whose members include state and university employees, could become North Dakota United if members vote for the partnership on Feb. 2

If the merger goes through, the new group will have more than 10,000 members. North Dakota would be one of five states where the two lobbies have joined.

NDEA President Dakota Draper and NDPEA President Gary Feist are hosting information sessions around the state to inform members about the vote and answer questions. Feist said he also has done several one-on-one meetings, and the two groups plan to host several Internet conference calls.

Draper and Feist both said the feedback they got from people at informational meetings has been mostly positive.

“They have some concerns and questions, but those tend to go away once we address them,” Draper said.

Allen Kihm, a geosciences professor at Minot State University and an NDPEA member, said he’s heard fears that some public employees will be overlooked in a larger organization.

“We are very diverse organization in terms of membership,” he said. “Say if you only had seven or nine people from your particular job field, their concern is they won’t be as represented.”

Kihm said he is confident, though, that North Dakota United will still address all public employees’ issues.

“I know that people from the NDPEA line — it is part of their genetic code,” he said. “I think they will make sure smaller demographic groups will still be represented and heard. NDEA has the same phenomenon in their organization as well, with school support employees.”

The February vote will take place at the Radisson Hotel in Bismarck. It must pass by two-thirds in both associations. If it does, the actual merger will take place Sept. 1.

Kihm said he plans to vote for the merger.

“I think that it will strengthen both organizations,” he said. “The new (group) will be stronger than either was, separately.”

Formal talks on the merger have been going on for 21/2 years, Draper said. He and Feist said they think it would benefit both groups by making them more unified in their message.

The groups have worked together on common interests like Measure 2, a proposal to abolish property taxes, this year.

Feist said a merger will be beneficial to his organization in particular because it will give a “stronger voice to talk about our professions and things we (public employees) do.

“Them knowing our issues and us knowing theirs creates a bridge to get things done,” he said.

Mike Stebbins, a snowplow driver, NDPEA member and North Dakota Department of Transportation supervisor in Underwood, said he sees the benefit in numbers and having more people speak on behalf of public employees.

Stebbins said plow drivers make up a small portion of NDPEA membership, but he is confident under North Dakota United, drivers will still be well represented. He said drivers’ concerns are like those of other employees, including collective bargaining for wages and benefits.

“Without me, no one in the state could get where they need to go,” Stebbins said. “I’m out on the road basically 24/7 in the winter. I deserve to be compensated for when I’m out there risking my life on the road.”

Feist said the issue of making sure state officials understand the importance of paying a fair market wage is an issue for NDPEA and NDEA alike.

By joining forces, North Dakota United members also will get the benefit of being members of two national organizations, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Feist said the merger also has benefits for North Dakota residents. Most members of the NDEA teach in kindergarten through high school and a large portion of NDPEA membership is made up of college and university professors. Having those teachers united will help students and parents, Feist said.

“It will allow us to address the issue of transitioning from high school to higher ed,” said Nick Archuleta, an NDEA member and teacher at Bismarck Century High School. “So, when we send a kid from public school, say in Bismarck, to, like, the University of North Dakota, we’ll have good understanding of what they (college professors) are expecting and what we should be teaching to transition over that divide.”

Feist said public employees also handle a lot of quality of life issues in the state. Combining the two unions will allow for better services “from cradle to grave,” he said.

Draper said there will be some changes if the unions join forces. The groups will go from one representative assembly a year to one every other year.

There will be regional assemblies during the off years to address professional development and issues specific to different sides of the state.

“That’s one thing they find very exciting,” Draper said.

Other minor changes will include higher dues and changes in the way members are elected in assembly, Draper said.

If the merger goes through, North Dakota United will model itself after Montana, a state that has a similar balance of primary, secondary and university educators along with state and local employees, Draper said.

Feist said union leaders from other merged states like Montana and Minnesota have told him the partnership has been positive and he expects the same in North Dakota.

Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261or jessica.holdman@bismarcktribune.com.

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