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Published September 01, 2013, 02:29 PM

Union of teachers, public employees off the ground

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — The merger of the North Dakota Education Association and the North Dakota Public Employees Association gives the combined union more than 10,000 members, making it larger than all of the others in the state combined.

By: DAVE KOLPACK, Associated Press, DAVE KOLPACK, Associated Press

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — The merger of the North Dakota Education Association and the North Dakota Public Employees Association gives the combined union more than 10,000 members, making it larger than all of the others in the state combined.

Despite their agreement to go it together Friday, the two groups haven't always been in lockstep.

In the last election cycle, for instance, the teachers endorsed Republican Jack Dalrymple for governor while the public employees backed Democrat Ryan Taylor. There were disagreements on a handful of candidates for the Legislature and state officers.

But while some issues have put the unions in opposite corners, the marriage that has been years in the making is built around common themes such as protecting workers' pensions and other benefits, said Stuart Salvekoul, former executive director of the NDPEA. He is now the assistant executive director of the new union, North Dakota United.

"The bottom line, going forward, is that neither organization could afford to spend money against each other," Salvekoul said. "What we will try to do is try to develop consensus over which candidates adequately and appropriately champions or issues."

Salvekoul said the NDEA and NDPEA have campaigned together in recent years on initiated measures regarding income taxes and other state spending. The power in numbers should give the group a louder voice in legislative races and local campaigns and primaries, Salvekoul said.

"Now I think we're in a situation where we could potentially play in every single election in the state," he said.

Nick Archuleta, who was NDEA's president and now holds the same position with North Dakota United, said the new union covers a "broad swath" of employees across the state.

"We have snowplow operators, we have tax accountants, we have county social workers, we have health professionals that work for the state, and a variety of folks who work for public employment," Archuleta said.

U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics for 2012 show that about 20,000 people are members of union, or 6.1 percent of the total workforce. That compares to 14.2 percent in Minnesota, 13.9 percent in Montana and 5.6 percent in South Dakota. Unions representing the teachers and public workers have also merged in Minnesota and Montana.

"You have seen a lot of mergers in general in the labor movement," said Charles Stevens, professor of management in North Dakota State University's business school. "Part of the reason you see fewer unions is because some of them have consolidated together. It's a matter of resources."

Stevens said the unique part of North Dakota United is that it brings together employees from public schools and higher education. Although some college workers have balked at joining the union because the state does not allow collective bargaining, Salvekoul calls higher education the "highest growth area" for union membership among public employees.

"I think that a lot of folks would like to have collective bargaining," Salvekoul said. "But the truth is that collective action is by far the stronger tool and by far the stronger thing to seek in organizing and unionizing. Unions existed for decades before any one of them had collective bargaining."

The first official meeting of the new board, which includes 10 representatives from each of the former unions, is scheduled this weekend in Fargo. Archuleta said one of the first items on the agenda will be recruiting new members, a pool that includes another 10,000 people.

"Organizing some people who haven't been organized before is an intensive sort of thing," Archuleta said. "Most people need seven contacts before they join. As you can imagine, that is going to take some hard work and some travel."

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