The California branches of the nation's two biggest teachers unions have resumed merger negotiations in what could be the first step toward affiliating the National Education Association (NEA) with the AFL-CIO.

Negotiators for the California Teachers Association (CTA), the largest state affiliate of the NEA with more than 170,000 members, met Tuesday in San Francisco with representatives of the 20,000-member California Federation of Teachers, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the AFL-CIO, to exchange "talking points" for a possible merger.

Both sides described the talks as "enthusiastic" and reemphasized the need for California teachers to unite to fight legislative efforts there to cut education spending.

Another negotiating session was scheduled tentatively for late February.

After the meeting, the major stumbling block continued to be the survival of some form of CFT identity after the merger.

A statement by the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) after the meeting said the organization remained committed to its affiliation with the American Federation of Teachers and the preservation of the "integrity" of the state organization.

"We will seek to unify both organizations through a merger and are continuing to explore alternatives to achieve our goal," the CFT statement said. "The CFT remains desirous and committed to unity, and the AFT is supportive of our efforts."

Formal merger negotiations began last November with a CTA proposal for what amounted to a buyout of the CFT. The CTA proposed creating a single state teachers union by folding the CFT into the larger NEA unit, but affiliating the new merged unit with the AFL-CIO.

The proposal comes at a time when AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland is trying to bring all unions into the labor federation.

Last November, the 1.7-million-member Teamsters union reaffiliated with the AFL-CIO. The Teamsters had been expelled 30 years earlier for corruption.

The United Mine Workers union possibly may also rejoin the labor federation, either through direct affiliation or merger with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union.

The NEA, the nation's largest union with nearly 2 million members, is not affiliated with the

AFL-CIO. The AFT, which is affil- iated, has more than 600,000 mem- bers.

The driving force behind the merger for the NEA and the AFT appears to be the prospect of affiliating any merged unit with the AFL-CIO.

The CFT, in its statement, said "the concept of full AFL-CIO affiliation of all CTA members, embodied in the CTA proposal, is exciting."

The NEA currently has a ban on any merger that would require affiliation with the AFL-CIO. But CTA President Ed Folgia has said he will seek a change in that rule at the union's convention this summer. NEA President Mary Hatwood Futrell has said she would like to see some kind of "arrangement" that would allow NEA affiliates to work more closely with other unions. So far, however, Futrell has rejected the idea of a national affiliation with the AFL-CIO.

A CTA official said yesterday that the CFT rejected CTA's initial merger proposal, insisting that it be allowed somehow to maintain its identity. He said his organization still was anxious to affiliate, but also would want some voice in federation policy-making, possibly a seat on the AFL-CIO's ruling executive council. Noting that any merged state teachers union would have more members than most unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO, he said "we would not expect to be treated like a small union."