On April 15, 1916, teacher unionists gathered at the City Club on Plymouth Court in Chicago to form a new national union: the American Federation of Teachers. The founders included three teacher groups in Chicago and locals from Gary, Ind., New York City, Scranton, Pa., and Washington, D.C. Within a month, the union received its charter–bearing Samuel Gompers’ distinctive signature–from the AFL.
It was, in fact, the Chicago teachers, along with their AFL-affiliated counterparts in San Antonio, Texas, who fixed on the idea that teachers should be affiliated with the labor movement. (In 1902, the Chicago Teachers’ Federation became the first teacher group in the United States to join its local central labor body.) From those early years, the AFT realized that organized labor was crucial to the influence and strength of its members and has proudly maintained its role in the American labor movement ever since.
The union’s first offices were in the Chicago suburban homes of financial secretary Freeland Stecker and president Charles Stillman, next-door neighbors. Even with such modest beginnings, the union’s first years were marked by explosive growth: 174 locals were chartered in the first four years. But in the years following World War I, the climate had changed. School boards mounted a campaign against the AFT, pressuring and intimidating teachers to resign from the union. By the end of the 1920s, AFT membership had dropped to fewer than 5,000–about half the membership of 1920. These years saw the union fighting for tenure laws and academic freedom.
This emerging hostility to unionism was a precursor of even tougher times ahead. The Depression cast a pall of economic and job insecurity. Worse, teachers were faced with contracts that still stipulated that an employed teacher “must wear skirts of certain lengths, keep her galoshes buckled, not receive gentleman callers more than three times a week and teach a Sunday School class,” noted the American Teacher. Loyalty oaths were required in some districts, teachers were dismissed for joining the AFT or for working on school board election campaigns, and “yellow-dog” contracts, which required teachers to promise not to join a union, were common.
By 1932, the Norris-LaGuardia Act had outlawed such contracts, and the AFT renewed its tenure battle. By the end of the Depression, tenure of some kind had been won in 17 states, largely because of the AFT’s efforts.
While the AFT boosted its membership from 7,000 in 1930 to 32,000 in 1939, allegations of communist infiltration in some locals surfaced; in 1941, charters of three locals were withdrawn after an investigation and recommendation by the AFT executive council.
With the advent of World War II, the AFT rallied to the cause; war bonds, war relief and air-raid programs were part of daily life for most members.
A redoubled effort to improve the conditions of teachers and schools alike characterized the postwar years. But working conditions and abysmally low salaries prompted some AFT locals to strike.
The decade of the 1950s brought with it a resurgence of loyalty oaths and McCarthy-era hysterics. The union saw the need to defend members’ academic as well as personal freedoms, protecting many from derision of the McCarthyites who sought to label them “subversives.”
Meanwhile, the union became increasingly active on the civil rights front. In 1948, the union had stopped chartering segregated locals and filed an amicus brief in the historic 1954 Supreme Court desegregation case Brown et al. v. Topeka Board of Education et al. In 1957, the AFT expelled all locals that refused to desegregate, and the union was heavily involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, including voter registration drives in the South).
Another challenge of the sixties was the battle for collective bargaining rights. The age of teacher militancy began in November 1960 with a one-day walkout of the United Federation of Teachers of New York City; two years later the UFT won the first comprehensive teacher contract in the country. The events in New York City spawned more than 300 teacher strikes throughout the country in that decade, and the national AFT grew from under 60,000 members in 1960 to more than 200,000 by 1970. The sixties also saw the first major strike by university professors in the United States.
A new agenda emerged for the seventies, one that included the fight against tuition tax credits, the battle to restore funds for urban schools and myriad other education programs. It was also a time of tremendous pride for the union, for at mid-decade, the AFT was the fastest-growing union in the AFL-CIO. During that time, the AFT became involved with the AFL-CIO Public Employee Department, chartered in 1974, which represented the interests of state and local public employees within the federation. The union also was active in the establishment of the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees in 1977, which elected then-AFT president Albert Shanker its first president.
But there were even brighter prospects ahead. In 1969, the UFT led the way for other AFT locals when it successfully won the right to represent 10,000 paraprofessionals in New York City. In the years that followed, the AFT organized thousands of paraprofessionals and school-related personnel in the nation’s schools.
There was, perhaps, no greater theme for the 1980s than education reform. And it was the AFT that advanced the best ideas and challenged its members to take risks and shape change. The vehicle driving much of this change was, not surprisingly, the union contract. Bread-and-butter issues increasingly began to stand side by side with professional concerns.
While all this was happening in the education arena, two new constituencies–healthcare professionals and state and local employees–began to look to the AFT for representation, attracted by the union’s bargaining and professional issues expertise and its reputation for local autonomy. In 1978, the AFT established a healthcare division and in 1983 created a division for local, state and federal employees. In serving these new constituencies, the union’s lobbying, research and professional services expanded to take on such issues as healthcare costs, privatization, state and local budget analysis, and more.
The 1980s also saw stepped-up efforts in the international arena. Although the AFT had been a leader in promoting democracy and free trade unionism worldwide since the 1920s, events in the eighties decade launched a new era of international activity. The AFT and the AFL-CIO provided crucial support for the underground Polish Solidarity union movement that helped topple communism, and the union played an important role in providing training and technical support to fledgling teacher unions in Eastern Europe. The AFT also sent help to a struggling black trade union movement in South Africa and lent support to the Chilean teachers union, which played a major role in ridding Chile of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1988. Fifteen AFT observers were on hand to monitor the first free and democratic elections in South Africa in 1994.
Throughout the 1990s, the AFT continued as a powerful and persuasive voice for higher academic achievement and excellence, launching its seminal “Making Standards Matter” reports on the progress of states to establish clear standards for what students should know and be able to do states’ efforts in aligning their tests to those standards.
A central figure in the union’s role in education reform and the standards movement was lost with the untimely death in 1997 of the AFT’s longest-serving president, Albert Shanker, recognized as one of the most influential figures in education in the 20th Century. His successor, former UFT president Sandra Feldman, remained at the helm of one of the fastest-growing unions in the AFL-CIO until her retirement in July 2004. The AFT has expanded its organizing efforts–and appeal–in all divisions. By the early 2000s, the union welcomed new members in thousands of job titles–adjunct and part-time college faculty, graduate employees, psychologists, forensic scientists, environmental engineers and many more.
The union’s emphasis on quality in the workplace and ensuring the well-being of the institutions our members work in and the clients they serve helped make the AFT “A Union of Professionals.”
In unity, the members of the AFT continue to uphold the proud traditions on which this union was created. The union will continue to rally to the right causes, anticipate and shape changes that lie ahead and contribute to the social good. In the process, our members will help build the union and lay the foundation for a prosperous future.