The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was founded in 1916 by classroom teachers who believed that the National Education Association (NEA), founded in 1857, did not represent teachers who were interested in negotiating for better salaries, professional working conditions, and the protection of basic civil rights such as free speech and political participation. Early organizational efforts were led by activists in Chicago, such as Margaret Haley, and by Henry Linville in New York City. Linville became the first president of the AFT, and John Dewey became an honorary member. The AFT became a union under the broad umbrella of the American Federation of Labor led by Samuel Gompers. Today, it is an affiliated international union of the AFL-CIO with more than 3,000 local affiliates nationwide and 43 state affiliates.
The ineffectiveness of efforts within the NEA to democratize its organization and give a stronger voice to classroom teachers provided an impetus for the newly formed AFT. The NEA scorned the practice of collective bargaining and considered affiliation with working-class unions to be unprofessional. It maintained an organizational structure that was controlled by school administrators who were unsympathetic to teacher-defined initiatives.
Nevertheless, early growth of the American Federation of Teachers was slow, although some organizational success was achieved in larger urban areas and in cities and towns that had histories of labor organization. The AFT adopted a platform of social progressivism that some teachers found too liberal. During the 1930s, the AFT was scandalized by the presence of Communists in their association. Though these individuals were eventually rooted out under the union presidency of George S. Counts, organizational growth had been damaged by the public perception that the AFT was a radical organization.
Societal events of the later 1950s and 1960s had an impact on teacher organization. The crush of the baby boom generation on the schools led to severe problems with overcrowding, inadequate school facilities, and difficulty in attracting teachers into careers with poor pay and benefits. The AFT’s successes in collective bargaining successes enhanced its growth. The 1961 New York City strike of teachers, organized by the United Federation of Teachers and its president, Albert Shanker, closed down the city’s schools and established the ability of a teachers union to carry out a work stoppage. State court rulings that removed classroom teachers from the “critical health and public safety employees” category, which included police officers and firefighters, meant that injunctions against teacher union strikes were no longer easy to obtain. One by one, the states introduced laws allowing teacher strikes. Shanker led the AFT until his death in 1997.
The NEA’s adoption of collective bargaining, its inclusion of classroom teachers in the administrative structure of the organization, and its political influence through the political action committees of its state affiliates stole some of the thunder that historically had belonged to the AFT. Today, NEA membership stands at 3.2 million, while AFT membership is 1.4 million.
- Bascia, N. (1994). Unions in teachers’ professional lives: Social, intellectual and practical concerns. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Eaton, W. (1975). The American Federation of Teachers: A history of the movement, 1916–1961. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
- American Federation of Teachers: http://www.aft.org
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