American Federation of Teachers

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American Federation of Teachers
Parent organisation AFL-CIO
Founded 1916
Headquarters Washington , DC
United States

The American Federation of Teachers was founded in 1916 as a labor union for teachers. It represents more than 1.4 million members in nearly 3,000 local affiliates nationwide and 43 state affiliates. Most AFT members are teachers in pre-k, primary, or secondary education. AFT also represents education paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel; higher education faculty and professional staff; federal, state and local government employees; and nurses and other healthcare professionals.

The AFT is governed by elected delegates to the union’s biennial convention, which sets union policy, and by its elected officers who are Randi Weingarten, president; Antonia Cortese, secretary-treasurer; Lorretta Johnson, executive vice president; and a 39-member executive council mainly composed of state-affiliate elected leaders.


In 1897, the Chicago Teachers' Federation (CTF) was formed to bargain for Chicago's elementary school teachers. In 1902, it affiliated with the Chicago Federation of Labor making it the first teacher group in the United States to join a central labor body. Chicago teachers believed that they should be a part of the labor movement. Fourteen years later, the CTF promoted a national movement. On April 15, 1916, a group of teacher unions gathered at the City Club on Plymouth Court in Chicago. They met in order to form a new national union: the American Federation of Teachers. The founders included the CTF and other teacher groups in Chicago, and locals from Gary, Indiana, New York City, Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC.

Beginning in 1939, there were allegations of communist infiltration in some locals which resulted in the AFT suspending the charters of three locals after an investigation and recommendation by the AFT executive council. During World War II, the AFT would rallied for war bonds, war relief, and air-raid programs that were a part of the daily life for most members. After the war, there were many strikes from the teachers asking for better working conditions and better salaries.

In 1948, the union became more active with the civil rights movement. It had stopped chartering segregated locals and filed an amicus curiea brief in the historic 1954 Supreme Court desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. Then in 1957, the AFT expelled all the locals that refused to desegregate. In the 1960s, it participated in voter registration drives in the South.

In November of 1960, there was a one-day walkout of the United Federation of Teachers of New York City. Two years later, the UFT won their first comprehensive teacher contract in the country. The events in New York City expanded to over 300 teacher strikes throughout the country resulting in better pay and better conditions for thousands of teachers. The result was an explosive expansion of the national AFT. It would grow from 60,000 members in 1960 to more than 200,000 by 1970. The 1960s also saw the first major strike by AFT-represented university professors in the United States.

During the 1970s, the AFT fought tuition tax credits and tried to restore funds for urban schools. Also, the AFT became more involved with the AFL-CIO Public Employee Department, which represents the interests of state and local public employees. In 1977, the union also was active in the AFL-CIO's Department for Professional Employees, which elected then-AFT president Albert Shanker as their first president. Then in 1978, the AFT established a health care division and in 1983 created a division for local, state, and federal employees. The AFT expanded to take on issues such as health care costs, privatization, state and local budget analysis, and more.

The 1980s brought about an international agenda. The AFT and the AFL-CIO provide support to the Polish Solidarity union movement that helped topple communism. The AFT provided training and technical support to any fledgling teacher unions in Eastern Europe. The AFT also sent help to black trade unions in South Africa and lent support to the Chilean teachers union. This support to Chile played a major role in ridding the Chile government of their dictator in 1988. Fifteen AFT members were on hand to monitor the first free and democratic elections in South Africa in 1994.

Throughout the 1990s, the AFT would continue as a powerful and persuasive voice for higher academic achievement and excellence. The AFT launched its "Making Standards Matter" reports on the progress of states. This was to establish clear standards for what many students should know and what they should be able to do.

In the 2000s, the union would welcome new members in thousands of job titles such as part-time college faculty, graduate employees, psychologists, forensic scientists, environmental engineers and many more.

Now, the members of the AFT continue to uphold the proud traditions on which the union was created. The union continues to rally to the right causes, anticipate and shape changes that lie ahead and contribute to the social good.

Current objectives and activities

The AFT believes in maintaining and improving its members' health care plans. Hundreds of AFT members and staff joined the crowd in Washington DC to agitate for health care. Even more AFT activists at home keep calling their members of Congress and their U.S. Senators trying to urge Congress to support health care reform based on key principles that the AFT has outlined. AFT members made more than 1,100 calls during the day they protested. The AFT plans to continue working hard for a unified health care plan for all of school employees.

The AFT has been working on trying to fix the No Child Left Behind Act. Since the bill's passage in 2002, the AFT and its state and local affiliates have been working with the Department of Education, as well as state and local education authorities and others educational communities, to help achieve the positive goals of the NCLB. The AFT leadership believes that the principles and goals of the law can not be met without changes in the law or without proper and necessary funding.

The AFT takes a hard stance on child labor laws. Every day, more than 200 million children worldwide are forced to work long hours for little to no compensation, often placing themselves in physical danger in the process. The AFT believes that every child has the right to a high-quality education as a basic human right. Currently the AFT is working with the Child Labor Coalition to reduce the extend of child exploitation. It provides a unified voice for protecting children and ending child labor exploitation, both in the United States and internationally. As part of their mission, the Coalition develops informational and educational resources for both the public and private sectors to combat child labor abuses and promote progressive initiatives and legislation.

Organizational structure

The American Federation of Teachers has more than 3,000 local affiliates nationwide, 43 state affiliates, and more than 1.4 million members making it the largest affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

There are five divisions that are within the organization which represents the AFT's membership: teachers; school-related personnel; local, state and federal employees; higher education faculty and staff; and nurses and other healthcare professionals.

The AFT advocates public education policies, including high academic and conduct standards for students and greater professionalism for teachers and school staff; excellence in public service through cooperative problem-solving and workplace innovations; and high-quality health care provided by qualified professionals.

The AFT elects officers that are to represent and govern the organization. They are elected at the union’s biennial convention at which delegates also set union policy. The AFT also hosts the Quality Educational Standards in Teaching conference, where professional issues are discussed. These meetings attract around 3,000 educators from around the country. Current elected leaders are president Randi Weingarten, secretary-treasurer Antonia Cortese, executive vice president Lorretta Johnson; they are assisted and advised by a 39-member executive council.


Brown v. Board of Education

On May 17, 1954 there was a unanimous decision regarding Brown vs. Board of Education that was handed down by Chief Justice Warren that "in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." Following this decision there were some school districts that began to voluntarily desegregate schools. There were however five Southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia) that adopted resolutions that said the Supreme Court’s decision was "null, void, and [had] no effect" in their state. The southern states also began passing legislation that imposed sanctions on anyone who desegregation schools, authorized plans to close schools, and disbursed public funds to send kids to private schools. The 1954 ruling became known as Brown I, because a year later the Supreme Court completed another case ruling in Brown II, which ordered the states to comply with Brown I "with all deliberate speed." Since the court did not specify a time line for implementing Brown v. Board of Education, most states stalled their efforts to desegregate.

When the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, there was very little government regulation of education, so the wording and intention of this amendment did not affect public schooling. Chief Justice Warren knew that a unanimous decision on the Brown case was crucial if Southern states were going to comply. It took months to win over the two of the judges, which came only after a major compromise was reached: that the ruling should be implemented gradually rather than immediately. This compromise may have come for the AFT submitting a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in calling on the court to consider the broader arguments for ending segregation in schools: First was "The strengthening and preservation of democratic society demands an educated citizenry." Second was pointing out that “the intent of the 14th amendment was to make the Negro a citizen and protect his voting rights." Third claimed that "To exercise his right of choice effectively a voter must not only be educated but educated among all those who make up the total community." Forth, "An integrated school system will add tremendously in developing harmonious relations among the people of the south and thereby throughout the country."

Albert Shanker

On May 8, 1968, the school board in the largely black Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn dismissed 18 white teachers and administrators. The school board’s action led to a series of citywide teacher strikes because the teachers thought this was clear racism. Albert Shanker took charge of the strikes in Ocean Hill. He took a stance in demanding the reinstatement of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville educators. He led New York City teachers out on strike not once, but three times in the fall of 1968, shutting down the public schools for a total of 36 days. Over the next three decades, Shanker would become heavily involved in organized labor for American education. In 1974, he was elected president of the American Federation of Teachers. From here, he helped form the nation’s teachers into a political powerhouse, vigorously fighting efforts to privatize public education, and emerged as one of the country’s most influential voices on education policy.

Public perception and controversies