American Federation of Teachers

American Federation of Teachers

Infobox Union
name= AFT
country= United States
affiliation= AFL-CIO
members= 1.4 million
full_name= American Federation of Teachers

founded= 1916
office= Washington, D.C.
people= Randi Weingarten, president
website= []
The American Federation of Teachers or AFT is an American labor union founded in 1916 which represents teachers; paraprofessionals and school-related personnel; local, state and federal employees; higher education faculty and staff; and nurses and other healthcare professionals. It is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

The AFT is the second-largest education labor union in the United States, representing 1.4 million members. Unlike the 3.2-million member National Education Association, the AFT has since its founding been affiliated with the AFL-CIO. A proposed 1998 merger between the two was rejected by the NEA's annual meeting.

In general, AFT locals tend to be in large cities and on the East Coast, while the NEA's membership is more concentrated in rural and suburban areas and in the West. Another significant difference between the two organizations is that the AFT has made a serious effort to organize workers outside the field of K-12 public education. The union currently represents higher education faculty (including professors, non-tenure-track faculty, and graduate student employees), nurses working in private-sector hospitals, state public employees, school nurses, school librarians, and educational paraprofessionals, such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

Early history

The AFT was founded on April 15, 1916 as a labor union (as opposed to a professional association). After several failed attempts to form a national teachers' union, teachers from three Chicago unions and one from Gary, Indiana, met to organize the American Federation of Teachers. They were supported by teachers from Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, New York state and Washington, D.C.. The union sought and received a charter from the American Federation of Labor the same year.

The union grew slowly during its first 50 years. Many teachers in the United States rejected the AFT's assertion that teachers should join unions, and the legal and political climate discouraged collective bargaining in education. '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.' [cite web
title=History (July 2004)
work=American Federation of Teachers

When many trade unions excluded African-Americans from membership, the AFT was one of the first American unions to extend full membership to minorities. In 1918, the AFT called for equal pay for African-American teachers, the election of African-Americans to local school boards and compulsory school attendance for African-American children. In 1919, the AFT demanded equal educational opportunities for African-American children, and in 1928 called for the social, political, economic and cultural contributions of African-Americans to be taught in the public schools. [Eaton, "The American Federation of Teachers, 1916-1961," 1975, p. 61-72.]

In 1941, under pressure from the AFL-CIO, the union ejected Local 5 (New York City), Local 537 (the City College of New York) and Local 192 (Philadelphia) for being communist-dominated. The charter revocations represented nearly a third of the union's national membership.

In 1936 teachers in Butte, Montana negotiated the first AFT collective bargaining agreement. In 1948, the union stopped chartering segregated locals. It filed an amicus brief in the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. On December 10, 1956, Local 89 in Atlanta, Georgia left the AFT because it would not comply with the AFT directive that all locals integrate. In 1957, the AFT expelled all locals that refused to desegregate.

Throughout this period, the union also struggled over the issue of militancy. 'We realized,' said Margaret Haley, an early AFT leader, 'that we had to fight the devil with fire...' [Haley, Margaret (1982). Battleground: the autobiography of Margaret Haley (edited by Robert L. Reid). Chicago: University of Illinois Press.] But Haley's view was not shared by a majority of AFT members in the union's first decades. Like many unions of the era, the AFT relied heavily on making a statistical case for its wage and benefit proposals and then consulting with the school board rather than utilizing the power of collective action.

By the late 1940s, AFT was slowly moving toward collective bargaining as an official policy. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers struck on November 25, 1946. It was the first AFT local to ever strike. The local settled on January 1, 1947 after 38 days on the picket line. Nearly a decade later, the union held—and won—its first collective bargaining election in East St. Louis, Illinois on December 10, 1956. The vote tally was AFT-226, NEA-201. Robert G. Porter was treasurer of the East St. Louis Federation of Teachers at the time of the election and later went on to become the longest serving secretary-treasurer in the history of the national AFT. In 1963, the AFT convention voted to end the union's no-strike policy.


The AFT entered 1960 with about 65,000 members. But by the end of the decade, the union had swelled to more than 400,000 members. By 2000, the union had 1.1 million members.

Creation of the UFT

After the pro-communist purge in 1941, the Teachers Guild remained the sole AFT affiliate in New York City. In 1960, New York City social studies teacher Albert Shanker and Teachers Guild president Charles Cogen led New York City teachers out on strike. At the time, there were more than 106 teacher unions in the New York City public schools — many existing solely on paper with no real membership or organization. At the same time other unions flourished such as the Brooklyn Teachers Association.

The motives behind the strike were wages, establishment of a grievance process, reduced workloads and more funding for public education. But in order to win on these issues, Shanker and Cogen argued, the city's teachers had to be in one union. In early 1960, the Teachers Guild merged with a splinter group from the more militant High School Teachers Association to form the United Federation of Teachers or 'UFT'.

The UFT struck on November 7, 1960. More than 5,600 teachers walked the picket line, while another 2,000 engaged in a sick-out. It was a fraction of the city's 45,000 teachers. But intervention by national, state and local AFL-CIO leaders pressured New York City mayor Robert Wagner to appoint a pro-labor fact-finding committee to investigate conditions in the city's schools and recommend a solution to the labor problem.

The fact-finding committee recommended a collective bargaining law, which eventually was forced onto the city's Board of Education by the state of New York. Despite political infighting with the NEA, an infusion of cash by the national AFT and the AFL-CIO enabled the UFT to win the December 16, 1961, election with 61.8 percent of the votes.

Almost overnight, the AFT's membership swelled by 30 percent. In 1964, the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO pledged to match dollar-for-dollar the expenditure of AFT funds to organize teachers.

Political and civil rights activities

In 1963, the AFT—- unlike most unions—- actively supported Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 'March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.' Busloads of AFT members came to the nation's capital for the event.

In 1964, Albert Shanker was elected president of the UFT.

In 1965, the UFT put its funds in a bank that refused to have dealings with the apartheid regime in South Africa—20 years before most other unions began to campaign against apartheid.

In 1967, the New York state legislature passed the Taylor Law, which provided collective bargaining rights to public employees (but prohibiting them to strike). The AFT began rapidly organizing new members in New York state. Nearby states such as Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey also saw large membership increases.

The same year, the UFT held a three-week strike for smaller class sizes. Shanker was jailed in the Sing-Sing state prison for 15 days for violating the Taylor Law's prohibition on public employee strikes.

1967 also saw AFT president Carl Megel move the union's headquarters to Washington, D.C. The union occupied several buildings on and around Dupont Circle, growing out of its office space several times. In 1985, the AFT built its current headquarters at 555 New Jersey Avenue N.W.

Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike

On May 8, 1968 the union held a one-day strike in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district. The city of New York established the Ocean Hill-Brownsville area of Brooklyn as one of three decentralized school districts in 1968 in an effort to give the minority community more say in school affairs. The school district operated under a separate, community-elected governing board with the power to hire administrators.

The experiment had the early support of the UFT. But the UFT also argued that the new school district should retain its most experienced teachers in the schools.

The crisis began when the governing board fired 13 teachers and six administrators for what the board said were efforts to sabotage the decentralization experiment. Under the terms of the decentralization agreement, the teachers were returned to the control of the New York City public school system, where they sat idle in the school district offices.

UFT president Albert Shanker demanded due process. He declared that the UFT would not be passive while teachers were removed without specific charges being filed and without a chance to defend themselves.

Many observers argued that the decentralization experiment was a canard. Little educational advancement for the poverty-stricken students of Ocean Hill-Brownsville could be achieved without additional resources, which were not provided. But worried, angry parents who saw their children failing in school saw decentralization as something different—- and 'different' was better than the existing, failing school system.

There was a protracted dispute between those in the community who supported the Ocean Hill-Brownsville board and those supported UFT's argument that the teachers were denied their rights illegally.

A series of strikes ensued between September 9 and November 17, 1968. Many supporters of the local school board resorted to racial invective. Shanker was routinely branded a racist, and many African-Americans accused the UFT of being 'Jewish-dominated'.

Shanker was jailed for 15 days on February 3, 1969, for sanctioning the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strikes.

But the UFT prevailed. The teachers were re-instated and an agreement worked out reaffirming due process rights for New York City educators.

The Ocean-Hill Brownsville strike deeply affected the AFT. While the union formally recommitted itself to militancy, the AFT slowly began adopting a more moderate stand. Although AFT president David Selden would be arrested on February 23, 1970, during the Newark, New Jersey teachers' strike, becoming the third union president to go to jail, Selden's prison term would be the last major AFT strike.

Expansion into other fields

In 1969, the AFT successfully won the right to represent 10,000 preK-12 public school paraprofessionals in New York City. Although various AFT locals had represented school nurses, librarians and other school professionals, the UFT election formally ushered in the first major expansion into non-teaching professions. In the years that followed, the AFT organized nearly 300,000 paraprofessionals and school-related personnel.

After the U.S. Congress amended the National Labor Relations Act in 1974 to clarify and expand the rights of health care workers to join unions, the AFT amended its constitution to permit health care workers and public employees to join the union. On November 29, 1978, the AFT formed a new division, the Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (FNHP; now known as AFT Healthcare). By 2005, the division represented more than 70,000 registered nurses and other health care workers in hospitals, visiting nurse agencies, nursing homes, blood banks and other health care facilities in the public and private sector—making the AFT the second-largest nurses' union in the AFL-CIO.

Public employee growth initially came much slower. The union did not create a separate division for public employees until 1985, when it formed the Federation of State Employees (later called the Federation of Public Employees, now called AFT Public Employees). But by 2005, the AFT represented more than 100,000 public employees.

Post-1970s history

On December 13, 1970, Shanker's first 'Where We Stand' column appeared in the "New York Times". A paid advertisement on the newspaper's op-ed page, Shanker used the space to promote the union's policy views free from what he saw as the filtering and interference of the press.

On March 30, 1972, Shanker engineered a merger between the AFT and NEA affiliates in New York state to create the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT).

On October 20, 1973 Albert Shanker—still only president of the UFT—was elected to AFL-CIO executive council.

In 1974, Shanker defeated Selden for the presidency of the AFT after a bitter election contest. The same year, the AFT and NEA affiliates in Florida merged to form FEA-United.

In 1975, the AFT persuaded the New York State Teachers Retirement Fund to loan $150 million to New York City to prevent the city's bankruptcy.

As the 1970s drew to a close, the AFT's dwindling militancy led the union to turn inward. Organizing continued, with the AFT winning the right to represent faculty at the State University of New York (SUNY) system in 1978. While the union added about 200,000 members each decade, the 1990s witnesses a slowdown in organizing which accelerated in the new millennium. Shanker pressed for merger with the NEA, but merger seemed to be less and less likely. By the 1990s, merger was no longer one of Shanker's priorities.

The release in 1983 of the United States Department of Education's 'A Nation at Risk,' a report highly critical of the U.S. education system, helped to cement the changes occurring in the AFT. Strong curriculum standards and professional development consumed the union's attention and resources. In 1995, the AFT undertook its own campaign to accomplish the goals of 'A Nation at Risk.' Titled 'Responsibilities, Respect, Results: Lessons for Life,' the campaign sought state legislation to strengthen curriculum and graduation standards; stronger disciplinary standards in classrooms, accompanied by new funding for the education of unruly students and to achieve smaller class sizes; and a new national emphasis on civic education, to strengthen democratic ideals. While praised, the campaign was not well-implemented by AFT affiliates and few successes were achieved.

Albert Shanker died of lung and brain cancer on February 22, 1997.

Sandra Feldman, Shanker's protege and president of the UFT, was elected AFT president in July 1998. Feldman was the first woman to serve as AFT's president since 1930, and was elected to the AFL-CIO executive council. During her presidency, AFT attempted to expand its organizing capacity, build state-level capacity to service existing units and organize new ones, and work with the John Sweeney administration at the AFL-CIO to reinvigorate the labor movement. In many ways, Feldman saw her presidency as one in which the legacy of Al Shanker would be implemented after his untimely death.

But Feldman was hampered by a lack of internal resources and a unified executive council whose allegiance was to Albert Shanker rather than her. Popular with members and advocating a new vision for the union, nevertheless Feldman struggled to overcome the AFT's institutional inertia. Feldman brought a new focus on educational issues to the AFT.

Feldman's relationship with the AFL-CIO was difficult to characterize. The AFT had opposed the election of John Sweeney as AFL-CIO president in 1995. But Feldman supported Sweeney's efforts to encourage new organizing and restructure the umbrella group. Yet Feldman was deeply critical of the Sweeney administration's interference in the internal politics of the Teamsters union. Feldman's position on the AFL-CIO executive council was strengthened in December 2001 when AFT secretary-treasurer Edward J. McElroy was elected to the body.

In early 2003, Sandra Feldman was diagnosed with breast cancer. After treatment, she resumed her duties in December 2003. A recurrence of the cancer in the spring of 2004 led Feldman to announce her retirement at the biennial AFT convention in July 2004. Sandra Feldman died September 18, 2005.

Edward J. McElroy, the AFT's secretary-treasurer since 1992, was elected president of the AFT to replace Feldman. McElroy's emphasis as president has been on the union basics such as external and internal organizing, collective bargaining, and political and legislative activity. McElroy was a strong supporter of John Sweeney during the 2004-05 debates over the future of the AFL-CIO, while acknowledging that SEIU president Andy Stern was correct in critiquing the AFL-CIO's organizing and servicing efforts.

AFT statement on shared governance in higher education

In 2002, the Higher Education Program and Policy Council of the American Federation of Teachers also published a statement on shared governance. The policy statement is a response to the fact that many governing boards have adopted the "mantra of business” (American Federation of Teachers 2002). The AFT (2002: 5) iterates purpose by which higher education achieves democratic organizational processes between administration and faculty, believing shared governance is under attack in six ways: (1) The outsourcing of instruction, particularly to learning technologies; (2) Redirecting teaching to part time and temporary faculty; (3) Re-orienting curriculum to business oriented coursework; (4) The buying and selling of courseware for commercial exploitation; (5) For profit teaching and research; (6) Through the formation of a “commercial consortia with other universities and private investors."

Campaign for Children's Health Care

AFT is a partner in the Campaign for Children's Health Care, a multi-year campaign to raise awareness about the problem of uninsured children in America. An AFT press release stated, "It is a moral imperative to ensure that all children have adequate healthcare coverage." [cite web
title=American Federation of Teachers On the Campaign for Children's Health Care
work=American Federation of Teachers


Critics of the AFT exist on both the right and left of the political spectrum. On the left, Paul Buhle has strong criticized AFT President Albert Shanker for supporting anti-communism and abandoning socialism, among other things. [ [Buhle, Paul. "Albert Shanker: No Flowers." "New Politics." 6:3 (Summer 1997).] ] San Diego State University education professor and Marxist theorist Rich Gibson has criticized the AFT for embracing liberalism, abandoning the working class, and trying to force a merger with the NEA from the top down. [ [ Gibson, Rich. "NEA-AFT-AFL-CIO? 'Not Just No, But HELL NO!' " "Cultural Logic." 2:1 (Fall 1998).] ]

Notable AFT members

A number of famous people have been members of the AFT, including:
*Educator John Dewey
*Scientist Albert Einstein
*Writer and activist J. Quinn Brisben
*Vice president and senator Hubert Humphrey
*Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt
*Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel
*Former United States Senate Majority Leader and ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield
*Former United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala
*Former United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche.
*Political activist Michael Harrington
*U.S. Senator from Illinois Paul Douglas



* [ American Federation of Teachers. "Shared Governance in Colleges and Universities." Policy statement. 2002.] Retrieved September 27, 2006.
*Archives of Labor History. Wayne State University. "An American Federation of Teachers Bibliography." Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1980. ISBN 081431659X
*Berube, Maurice R. "Teacher Politics: The Influence of Unions, Vol. 26." Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1988. ISBN 0313256853
*Braun, Robert J. "Teachers and Power: The Story of the American Federation of Teachers." New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972. ISBN 0671211676
*Eaton, William Edward. "The American Federation of Teachers, 1916-1961: A History of the Movement." Urbana, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975. ISBN 0809307081
*Gaffney, Dennis. "Teachers United: The Rise of New York State United Teachers." Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2007. ISBN 0791471918
*Gordon, Jane Anna. "Why They Couldn't Wait: A Critique of the Black-Jewish Conflict Over Community Control in Ocean-Hill Brownsville, 1967-1971." Oxford: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001. ISBN 0415929105
*Haley, Margaret. "Battleground: The Autobiography of Margaret A. Haley." Robert L. Reid, ed. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1982. ISBN 0252009134
*Murphy, Marjorie. "Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900-1980." Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. ISBN 0801423651
*O'Connor, Paula. "Grade School Teachers Become Labor Leaders." "Labor's Heritage." 7:2 (Fall 1995).
*Podair, Jerald. "The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis." Princeton, NJ: Yale University Press, 2003. ISBN 0300081227
* [ Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University. "AFT Historical Timeline." No date.] Accessed June 18, 2006.

External links

* [ American Federation of Teachers]
* [ Campaign for Children's Health Care]
* [ National Education Association]

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