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Teachers union leader vows to boost activism

The American Federation of Teachers opens its annual convention today in South Boston with plans to increase dues, boost activism, and battle antiunion efforts in states like Louisiana, where thousands of teachers lost jobs and union status following Hurricane Katrina.

The AFT's president, Edward J. McElroy, said the 1.3 million-member union would seek a dues increase of 75 cents a month, an amount that would add approximately $7 million to the union's $120 million budget, including $950,000 earmarked for campaigns against anti union initiatives and an unspecified amount for increased recruitment efforts.

``If I had to characterize what I am about, I would have to say member organizing and activism," said McElroy, who met yesterday with editors and reporters from The Boston Globe. ``The more members, the more union influence."

McElroy said the union has already set up 110 committees made up of members who meet twice yearly with congressional representatives and senators from their home states. The goal, he said, is to make legislators aware of their concerns. Union officials expect to increase the number of committees to 300 by the end of the year.

McElroy, like other union leaders, said he is concerned about ``anti union sentiment" around the nation. He pointed to efforts by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger , who supported two ballot initiatives last year that could have seriously affected the union and its members . One of the initiatives, designated Proposition 74, called for an extension of the probation period for teachers in public schools from two to five years. The second measure, Proposition 75, sought a requirement that public employee unions obtain written approval before contributing the dues they collect to political campaigns. Both measures were defeated after what McElroy said was a lengthy campaign.

McElroy, who is up for re election this month, said the union lost about 5,000 members when Louisiana legislators asserted state control over New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina.

The legislators passed a law allowing the state to take over any low-performing school in New Orleans. Immediately after the law's passage more than 100 of 127 schools came under state jurisdiction. Meanwhile, principals, parents, and some community organizations urged state officials to issue charters, which did away with collective bargaining agreements and about 5,000 union jobs.

During the convention at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center , which ends Sunday, participants will nominate officers, including a president. McElroy, who was secretary-treasurer for 12 years before his election two years ago, is expected to be re elected .

Diane E. Lewis can be reached at dlewis@globe.com.

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