American Federation of Teachers

views updated May 29 2018


AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS (AFT) is a national union headquartered in Washington, D.C., and is affiliated with the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). The AFT was founded in April 1916 by teachers in Winnetka, Illinois, and chartered by the AFL on 9 May 1916. While formed as a teachers' craft union, the AFT's base broadened in the late twentieth century to incorporate educational support staff and health professionals. Membership approximates 1 million. Sandra Feldman was the national AFT president in 2002, having been elected in 1997. In October 2001, the AFL formed a collaborative partnership with the 2.6-million-member National Education Association (NEA), a non-AFL-CIO teachers' association. The NEAFT Partnership promotes the common interests of members. The AFT has a nationwide presence, but membership is most concentrated in California, New York, and Illinois.

AFT Origins

Philosophical, strategic, and tactical conflicts historically divided the two organizations. Most members of the NEA, founded in 1857, were female teachers, but male administrators dominated the leadership to the mid-1960s. The NEA was a top-down national organization; state affiliates were formed only in the 1920s and local chapters in the late 1960s. The public school teachers who established the AFT, many of immigrant and working-class backgrounds, rejected the NEA for its anti-union bias, its emphasis on middle-class professionalism, and its advocacy for a centralized administrative system that would insulate individual schools from their neighborhoods. Dissatisfied with the NEA and resistant to the Chicago Board of Education's 1915 action barring teachers from union membership, teacher activists from greater Chicago and Gary, Indiana—with support from local teachers' unions elsewhere—organized the AFT as a national union with local affiliates. Although many of the Chicago activists were female elementary school teachers, male high school teachers predominated at the founding meeting and selected Charles Stillman, a supporter of the AFL president, Samuel Gompers, as AFT president. The then-Chicago-based AFT began nationwide organizing, but membership growth was slow. The AFT's first decades were marked by internal contentiousness, adversarial relations with the AFL, and public skepticism in a world polarized between wartime patriotism, anti-radical ethnocentrism, liberalism, and various socialist and communist ideologies. Functioning before public employee collective bargaining laws existed was a test of the AFT's mettle.

Organizing on the Home Front: The World War I Era, the Red Scare, and the 1920s

Controversies regarding World War I consumed the AFT. Discontent over gender relations and the onslaught of 100 percent Americanism divided its ranks. The female teacher activists in Chicago had recoiled at Stillman's election as AFT president and at Gompers's patriarchal AFL leadership. When Gompers and Stillman embraced U.S. entry into World War I, moreover, pacifists and socialists, including some women teachers, opposed the union leadership. Consequently, the AFT organized few elementary school teachers before 1930. Meanwhile, the NEA urged school boards to induce teachers to join their association, linking teacher membership in the NEA with patriotism and anti-union radicalism. The success of the NEA's school administrator leadership in promoting the association's anti-union, anti–collective bargaining posture hampered the AFT locals.

From World War I through the Red Scare and the 1920s, the AFT—sometimes in alliance with the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors—defended the academic freedom of teachers under attack for their political views. Together, they affirmed teachers' rights of free speech and association and fought to uphold teachers' due process rights, as when teachers' loyalty oaths were imposed. The AFT's reform agenda prompted some members to withdraw. Confrontation with Gompers over public employee strikes also divided the AFT.

During the 1920s, union loyalists broke new ground by electing two successive women national presidents. Florence Rood and Mary Barker were feminist activists and supporters of academic freedom. They worked with the ACLU in the defense of John Scopes, a Tennessee public school teacher tried for teaching Darwinian evolutionary theory. They also laid groundwork for state laws establishing tenure for teachers. Yet after Barker's retirement, no woman followed until Sandra Feldman's election in 1997.

The AFT also challenged the racial exclusivism of the craft union tradition. Beginning in 1916, the AFT established "colored" locals in segregated school districts. In 1918, the AFT demanded pay equalization for teachers, without racial distinction. Then, steadily by the 1930s, the AFT eliminated color barriers in most locals. During the 1930s, the AFT—in alliance with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—sought equal rights and accommodations for all students in the South. The NEA, meanwhile, was apathetic about racial segregation in education until the mid-1960s.

Depression Years

The depression forced budget cuts on schools, colleges, and universities, which prompted growing numbers to join the AFT. A turn by AFT leaders from philosophical issues to more pragmatic concerns during the early 1930s produced a membership approaching 32,000 by 1940.

Leadership struggles during the mid-1930s, however, revealed generational and ideological fissures. In Chicago young, college-educated teachers with bleak job prospects were pitted against entrenched older union leaders. In New York City, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, rival liberal, socialist, and sectarian Marxist factions battled for control of the local and national union organizations. The more conservative factions had secured control of the national AFT leadership by 1940. Soon after, the national AFL ousted the New York City and Philadelphia locals for succumbing to communist control. Later, new AFT locals were formed there.

Despite the internecine fighting, the AFT coordinated its local and state affiliates and worked with other labor organizations to enact tenure laws and to improve faculty retirement benefits. It also continued to defend academic freedom.

World War II Fallout and the Cold War

While teachers demonstrated wartime loyalty to the United States, inflation eroded their earnings. Because public employees were exempted from the National Labor Relations Act (1935) giving workers the right to bargain collectively, postwar teachers could not regain lost earning power. Also, funding for teachers and new schools in the postwar setting was insufficient and lobbying for state and federal legislative relief faltered. Consequently, frustrated teachers across the nation disregarded the AFT's own no-strike policy and walked out. Some teachers won favorable settlements; others faced jail.

Responding to rank-and-file defiance, the AFT Executive Council investigated allegations of communist subversion and collaboration with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in defiance of AFT rules. Many suspect leaders in San Francisco and Los Angeles lost their jobs for disloyalty after they invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Leaders of the successor AFT local in New York City refused to assist fellow teachers of the banned predecessor (reorganized as a rival CIO local), who were subjected to investigations for subversion. Not until 1953 did the AFT leadership reassess how the anticommunist investigations compromised the accused teachers' academic freedom and civil liberties.

Meanwhile, the AFT joined with civil rights activists to defeat segregation in public education. The goals of the AFT leadership were to advance social justice and to build union membership. To this end, the AFT filed amicus briefs for the plaintiffs in the desegregation cases Briggs v. Elliot (1952) and Brown v. Board of Education(1954), advocated the broadening of educational opportunities for all students, and supported the 1963 March on Washington and the mid-1960s voter registration drives. In 1957, the AFT revoked the charters of its few remaining segregated southern locals.

The Campaign for Collective Bargaining Laws

Without collective bargaining rights, teachers were left with low pay, without due process rights, and with no-strike clauses in their individual contracts. During the mid-1950s, the AFT took the offensive on collective bargaining, reversing its 1919 no-strike policy and educating both its members and the public about collective bargaining. State and local affiliates, allied with other public employee unions, lobbied for state and federal legislation reforming management–labor relations. AFT teachers in New York City staged one-day strikes in 1960 and 1962 to dramatize their demands. The pressure led to President John Kennedy's 1962 Executive Order 10988, extending collective bargaining rights to federal employees, and to enactment of state collective bargaining laws for teachers. Beginning in New York City, and then in urban centers across the nation, AFT locals won exclusive representation rights. Membership grew significantly. In 1965, the NEA had 943,000 members, although the union bargained for only 21,000 teachers. In this changing environment, the NEA democratized and gradually began functioning as a union. The AFT bargained for 74,000 teachers out of 110,000 members.

AFT's Tilt Rightward

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the AFT moved rightward, although affiliates did not follow uniformly. Ethnic identity and community-based politics, U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia, and a resurgent women's movement engaged teachers, while the AFT's focus on collective bargaining and ideological anticommunism nudged it towards the political right.

The 1968 clash over the establishment of New York City's Ocean Hill–Brownsville local school board polarized the membership and altered the relationship of the AFT to the civil rights movement. Previously, the AFT had opposed the NEA's centralized school administration concept. In 1968, however, Albert Shanker and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the New York City AFT local, resisted when city officials decentralized the Board of Education, establishing community councils to oversee local school boards. Many parents and neighborhood leaders supported community empowerment. Shanker,

however, called two strikes to defend a contract just negotiated with the central board and to reverse involuntary faculty transfers imposed, without due process, by the Ocean Hill–Brownsville Board. Some local teachers, disagreeing with Shanker about bureaucratic centralization and the propriety of military engagement in Southeast Asia, crossed picket lines. Detroit, Newark, Washington, D.C., and Chicago locals opposed Shanker on community control. Civil rights groups and black power activists, some embracing anti-Semitism, denounced Shanker as racist. The historic ties between the AFT and the civil rights movement weakened further while Shanker was the union's national president (1974–1997), especially when the AFT supported the plaintiff in the 1978 Bakke case, overturning racial quotas in university admissions. The California Federation of Teachers' (CFT) opposition to this action exemplified internal union division on affirmative action policy.

Meanwhile, however, the AFT advanced goals of the women's movement from the early 1970s. The CFT spurred the national AFT to organize the Women's Rights Committee. State affiliates launched legislative campaigns against gender discrimination and promoted pay equity and maternity leave contract provisions. During the 1980s and 1990s, women once again assumed leadership roles in the local, state, and national AFT organizations.

Organizing and Negotiating Contracts in a New Collective Bargaining Environment

Numerous states enacted public employee collective bargaining laws during the 1960s and 1970s. With good contracts linked to the availability of state and federal funds, the national AFT and its state affiliates intensified lobbying for public education allocations, especially when the effects of the 1980s taxpayer revolt decreased state revenue. While New York teachers statewide took the lead in unionizing throughout the 1960s, California took center stage from the mid-1970s and into the early 1980s. There, certification elections gave the AFT exclusive rights to represent a minority of K-12 teachers, as well as community college faculty in many districts. In 1983 the AFT also won representation rights for nontenure-track lecturers and librarians in the University of California system. Meanwhile, beginning in 1977, the CFT organized K-12 and community college paraprofessionals and won certification in some school and community college districts. Similar patterns occurred in other states.

AFT-NEA Merger

The potential for a merger of the AFT and the NEA to pool resources and defuse counterproductive rivalries was first raised in 1965 by AFT president David Selden. The NEA, however, rejected the merger bid in 1968. As AFT president later on, Albert Shanker was skeptical about the advantages of a merger. Throughout the 1990s, the sticking point was whether the NEA members in a merged organization would accept AFL-CIO affiliation. The new NEAFT Partnership of 2001 makes AFL-CIO affiliation optional for them. The AFT and NEA collaboration was charted to strengthen the organizations' abilities to influence legislative outcomes and to negotiate favorable contracts in the twenty-first century.


American Federation of Teachers. "About AFT." Available from

———. "NEAFT Partnership Document." Available from

———. "NEAFT Partnership Joint Council Communique, October 24, 2001." Available from

Fraser, James W. "Agents of Democracy: Urban Elementary-School Teachers and the Conditions of Teaching." In American Teachers: Histories of a Profession at Work. Edited by Donald Warren. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Glass, Fred, ed. A History of the California Federation of Teachers, 1919–1989. San Francisco: California Federation of Teachers, 1989.

Keck, Donald J. "NEA and Academe through the Years." Available from

Murphy, Marjorie. Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900–1980. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.

O'Connor, Paula. "AFT History: Grade School Teachers Become Labor Leaders." Available from

Jonathan W.McLeod

See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Bakke v. Regents of the University of California ; Collective Bargaining ; National Education Association ; Teachers' Loyalty Oath .

American Federation of Teachers

views updated May 18 2018


The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is a nationwide union of more than one million public school teachers, higher education faculty and staff, public employees, nurses and health care professionals, and paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel. The AFT is affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), a federation of trade and industrial unions representing more than thirteen million people. According to the AFT Futures II Report, adopted July 5, 2000, the union works "to improve the lives of our members and their families, to give voice to their legitimate professional, economic and social aspirations, to strengthen the institutions in which we work, to improve the quality of the services we provide, to bring together all members to assist and support one another and to promote democracy, human rights and freedom in our union, in our nation and throughout the world."


Like other labor unions, the AFT works for higher pay and better benefits and working conditions for its members. The union also offers numerous benefits and services to its members, including low-cost insurance, retirement savings plans, credit union services, legal representation, and consumer discounts. The AFT, along with the AFL-CIO, strongly advocates continued access to free public education and affordable health care. The AFT also negotiates contract provisions relating specifically to the teaching profession, such as class size, student discipline codes, adequate textbooks and teaching materials, and professional development and evaluation.

In the past the AFT has worked to desegregate public schools, eliminate child labor, establish collective bargaining rights for teachers, and address the educational needs of disadvantaged and disabled children. Among the AFT's major educational reform initiatives during the 1990s and early 2000s was the Lesson for Life: Responsibility, Respect, Results campaign. Launched in 1995, this initiative promotes high academic standards, stronger curricula, and more safe and orderly classrooms. The AFT's annual Making Students Matter report examines and evaluates academic standards in all fifty states. The Educational Research and Dissemination Program is a professional development program that uses a "train-the-trainer" approach in which subject matter experts help teachers improve their teaching of core subjects. The AFT's Zero Tolerance initiative works toward implementing stricter policies for violent and disruptive behavior in schools so that teachers can teach and students can learn in a safe environment. The Support for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards initiative promotes higher standards for teacher certification, including National Board certification, and salary increases for teachers who pass the board exam. Other AFT programs and initiatives address such issues as merit pay, distance learning, whistle blower protection, charter schools, and low performing schools. The AFT asserts that such reforms would be more effective in improving the quality of education than voucher systems of tuition payment or privatization of public schools.

The AFT also addresses issues of specific concern to the various branches of its membership. For members involved in higher education, the union tackles such issues as tenure, the role of part-time faculty, and the high cost of secondary education. For AFT members who are public employees, the union works to improve labor-management relations, job security, and the public perception of the value of government employees. The AFT must take on a wide range of issues, including professional certification and occupational safety, for the diverse body of workers called paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel. For nurses and health care professionals, the AFT's Health Care Quality First campaign fights to protect the quality of patient care and preserve safe staffing levels for nurses and other health care professionals in the face of profit-driven managed health care and restructuring in hospitals and clinics.

The AFT holds a large annual convention every summer, and sponsors numerous meetings and conferences throughout the year on a variety of topics. The AFT also sponsors scholarships and educational grants for members and their children. Since 1992 the Robert G. Porter Scholars Program has awarded $1,000 grants to AFT members who want to pursue courses in labor relations and related fields, and $8,000 four-year college scholarships for dependents of AFT members who wish to study labor, education, health care, or government service.

ATF periodical publications include the weekly e-mail newsletter Inside AFT, the monthly journal American Teacher, the semimonthly newsletter Health Wire for nurses and health care professionals, the quarterly newsletter PSRP Reporter for paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel, and the monthly magazine On Campus for higher education teachers and staff.


The national AFT is headed by a president, executive vice president, and a secretary treasurer who are elected by members. Local affiliates elect their own officers. The union is made up of five divisions: Pre-K12 Teachers, Higher Education Teachers, Health-care-Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, the Federation of Public Employees, and Paraprofessional and School-Related Personnel. The Pre-K12 Teachers division represents public school kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school teachers, counselors, and librarians. The Higher Education Division represents more than 120,000 faculty, graduate employees, and professional staff at over two hundred two-year and four-year colleges around the country. The Healthcare-Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals division represent about 60,000 nurses and other health professionals working in hospitals, clinics, home health agencies, and schools in nineteen states. The AFT Paraprofessional and School-Related Personnel Division represents approximately 200,000 support staff in schools from kindergarten through college, including custodians, bus drivers, food service workers, groundskeepers, secretaries, bookkeepers, mechanics, and a variety of other jobs. The Federation of Public Employees represents more than 100,000 city, county, and state employees in a variety of jobs in twentyone states.

The AFT's various departments include the Financial Services Department, which assists treasurers and other officers of local AFT affiliates with financial and administrative duties. The Human Rights and Community Relations Department keeps local and state affiliates informed of current trends, publications, and laws related to civil, human, and women's rights. The International Affairs Department provides information to members on important international issues, particularly human and trade union rights for teachers and other professionals around the world. The Union Leadership Institute helps develop the leadership skills of local AFT officers, trains AFT members in activism, and educates members about the union and its activities. The Legislative Action Center keeps track of how the U.S. Congress and state legislatures vote on issues of concern to the union, communicates official AFT positions to elected officials, and enables members to send faxes or e-mails directly to elected leaders on key issues. The Pre-K12 Educational Issues Department works to educate the public and institute reforms related to such issues as school standards, class size, early education, school choice, safety and discipline, and teacher quality.


The AFT was founded in Winnetka, Illinois, in 1916 by a small group of teachers from three Chicago unions and one Gary, Indiana, union who believed that their profession needed a national organization to speak for teachers and represent their interests. They called their new union the Teachers International Union of America, and named Charles B. Stillman as president. They were joined by other teacher unions in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, New York, and Washington, D.C. Within days of its establishment, the new union contacted the powerful AFL and requested affiliation. AFL president Samuel Gompers supported the affiliation, but suggested changing the union's name to American Federation of Teachers. The AFL issued a charter to the AFT on May 9, 1916.

Since its early years, the AFT has been on the forefront of the fight for civil rights and was one of the first unions to extend full membership to African Americans. As early as 1918, the AFT called for equal pay for African-American teachers and, in subsequent years, for the election of African-Americans to local school boards and equal educational opportunities for African-American children. In 1954 the AFT filed a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. During the 1960s the AFT was actively involved in the civil rights movement and lobbied extensively for passage of civil rights legislation.

The AFT had included paraprofessional and other school-related staff since its early years, but an increasing number joined in the last two decades of the twentieth century. After the 1960s the union's membership grew more diverse as nurses, health care workers, and public employees joined as constituent groups.

See also: Shanker, Albert; Teachers Union .


Eaton, William Edward. 1975. The American Federation of Teachers, 19161961: A History of the Movement. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Murphy, Marjorie. 1990. Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 19001980. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Mungazi, Dickson A. 1995. Where He Stands: Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers. Westport, CT: Praeger.

David Selden

Revised by

Judith J. Culligan

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American Federation of Teachers