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Mary Bell

Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, speaks to protesters last year at a rally at the state Capitol in Madison.

The state's two largest teachers unions are contemplating a merger after losing about 30 percent of their members in the wake of new collective bargaining rules and cuts in education funding.

AFT-Wisconsin, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, voted at its annual convention over the weekend to enter formal merger talks with the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

WEAC, an affiliate of the National Education Association, plans to discuss the same proposal at its annual Representative Assembly on Dec. 1.

AFT-Wisconsin President Brian Kennedy said the merger discussion is partly driven by the state's new collective bargaining law, known as Act 10. But the current discussion began in 2010 and the organizations have been gradually coordinating more of their efforts and services since 1991. Before then, the organizations feuded over membership.

"Now that recalls are over and we have a good sense of the future, we recognize that we're stronger together," Kennedy said.

The details of a merger would take at least a year to negotiate, Kennedy said. The earliest the unions could have an agreement in place under rules set by their national organizations would be Sept. 1, 2014.

WEAC President Mary Bell said a merger would allow both organizations to provide more services. But members might oppose a merger because the organization's cultures and structures are different.

Bell said WEAC is at about 71 percent of its pre-Act 10 level of about 98,000 members, which includes teachers, other school and technical college employees, university students and some state workers.

The membership drop mostly reflects an Act 10 provision that allows public employees to opt out of paying union dues. Bell said many members needed to offset higher contributions to pension and health insurance premiums. The reduction of more than 3,200 K-12 education positions last year also affected WEAC membership.

"Clearly, Act 10 has harmed unions — that's what the intent behind the legislation was," Bell said. "Our members are looking at everything right now with the mindset of 'How do we become stronger moving forward?'"

AFT-Wisconsin had about 17,500 members before Act 10 and is also down about 30 percent, Kennedy said. The losses came primarily from most of AFT's state employee units deciding not to recertify, which Act 10 required most public sector unions to do annually.

A federal judge struck down that requirement in March, and the matter is under appeal.

AFT's K-12 teacher membership has remained steady and its higher education ranks have grown, Kennedy said. He declined to provide specific numbers.

State AFT and NEA organizations have merged in New York, Montana, Minnesota and Florida, and are planning to merge next September in North Dakota, Kennedy said. Wisconsin likely would be the sixth state where the organizations join forces, though organizations in other states are also having discussions.

Paul Secunda, a Marquette University associate law professor and expert on labor, said non-teacher public sector unions have been merging in other states.

"This is a move by the teachers unions to put themselves in the strongest negotiating position possible," Secunda said.

— State Journal reporter Dan Simmons contributed to this report.