A SHORT HISTORY OF THE UNITED
FEDERATION OF TEACHERS
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
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
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 (see related article, "A
Tradition of Social Justice").
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
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
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.
[Updated July 2004]