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American Federation of Teachers

From dKosopedia



The motto of the American Federation of Teachers is “Education for Democracy, Democracy in Education.” AFT is now one of the ten largest labor unions in the United States, representing 1.3 million members. It is the second largest union dealing primarily with education, after the National Education Association (NEA). In recent years AFT has expanded its organizing operations outside of education, focusing on professional workers who supply services to the public. It has been particularly active in organizing nurses. The AFT is organized into five divisions: Prek-12 Teachers, Paraprofessionals and School Related Personnel (i.e., non teacher K-12 school staff), Higher Education, Healthcare and Public Employees. AFT also operates the Center on the Child Care Workforce, which advocates for early childhood workers.

The President of AFT is Sandra Feldman. She is formerly the President of the United Federation of Teachers, the AFT’s largest local affiliate, located in New York City. The Secretary Treasurer is Edward McElroy. He is a former teacher leader in Rhode Island and past President of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO. The Executive Vice President is Nat LaCour. He is the former president of the United Teachers of New Orleans. Famous past members include John Dewey, Albert Einstein, Hubert Humphrey and Frank McCourt.


The AFT is traditionally one of the most forward thinking education organizations in the US. AFT has often advocated for important reforms and been open to a variety of educational experiments. For example, AFT has been a leader in the movement for higher standards and for test based accountability. It was an early supporter of charter schools, although experience has caused it to become more reticent about that position. AFT’s support of a comprehensive and research based approach to reading instruction that includes a strong phonics component has led it to be branded as reactionary by some (for those unfamiliar with the “reading wars” the question of the proper way to teach reading can provoke religious fervor).

AFT also has expressed support or openness for teacher peer evaluation, professional pay systems that can include compensation based on measured student gains and for restructuring teacher training. While these positions do not go as far as some critics would like, they are still quite controversial within the ranks. The union is a leading advocate of smaller classes, expanded early childhood learning, better support for beginning teachers and comprehensive interventions to improve low performing schools. In addition, AFT is active on the bread and butter issues of the day, fighting not only for better pay and adequate benefits, but for safe working conditions and proper professional development for its members as well as for economic and labor policies that benefit working families.

In healthcare, the AFT is one of a number of unions advocating for an end to forced overtime for nurses, for adequate staffing and for programs to rebuild the nursing profession.

In foreign affairs, the AFT is one of the most active unions in America. It has traditionally had a somewhat hawkish bent (see section on Albert Shanker below). But in addition to providing support for the Vietnam War and the Contras, AFT also provided crucial early support to the Solidarity movement in Poland, worked to help South Africa’s free trade unionists and is currently providing support to free trade unions in Hong Kong that are feeling pressure from the Chinese government. AFT is also very active in campaigns against sweatshops and child labor.


Founded in 1916 by teachers in Illinois and Indiana, the AFT like other unions affiliated with Samuel Gompers’ American Federation of Labor, struggled in an uncertain climate in its early years. Unlike most private sector workers who were granted collective bargaining rights as a result of the passage of the National Labor Relations Act during the New Deal, teachers as public employees were and are dependent on state and local government to grant them the right to bargain collectively, meaning that AFT did not experience the sort of growth that other unions did in the 1930s and 40s. As an advocate of teacher dignity, social justice and workplace democracy, the AFT competed for membership with groups that were affiliated with management, particularly the National Education Association, as well as with other workers organizations including those affiliated with the Communist Party.

One of the most notable stories from the early period of the AFT concerns communist infiltration of the New York City local. In 1934, Education philosopher and AFT member John Dewey presented a report on the degree to which communist tactics had broken down the democratic processes of the local. In 1935 dissident members of this local formed the New York Teachers Guild. AFT subsequently recognized the Guild and revoked the charter of the communist dominated local. The Guild eventually became the United Federation of Teachers.

Following World War II, real progress began to be made on securing teachers’ rights to have a union. The first election for teachers to choose an exclusive representative to bargain with management took place in East St. Louis in 1956, with the AFT defeating the NEA. This was an initial tremor, the earthquake occurred in 1961 when New York City teachers secured the right to bargain and voted the UFT as their bargaining representative. Detroit and Philadelphia soon followed suit. During this period and into the 1990s the AFT competed against the NEA, growing from 50,000 members to one million. Originally an organization that included and in fact was led by management, the NEA altered its philosophies dramatically becoming a union in the real sense order to meet the challenge posed by AFT. In this time the two unions competed head to head to organize the unorganized and launched challenges (raids) to each others status as bargaining agent in various school districts. Following the signing of a national no raid agreement and a series of state and local mergers, the two organizations are on better terms, although the failure to conclude a merger in 1998 leaves open the possibility of a return to conflict. During the 1998 merger efforts the NEA convention rejected the agreement. Among the issues were term limits for officers, which the NEA has and AFT does not as well as membership in the AFL-CIO. Some NEA activists – particularly in the South - do not believe NEA should be part of the broader labor movement.

The AFT has a proud record on civil rights. It called for equal pay for African-American teachers in 1918. AFT was the only education organization to file an amicus brief in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1957 AFT lost 7,000 members when it expelled those locals that would not integrate. Current President Sandra Feldman gained her early experiences as an organizer working as an assistant to Bayard Rustin in the planning of the March on Washington, which culminated in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But the AFT’s record in this area is somewhat controversial, thanks in no small part to the Ocean Hill Brownsville strike in New York City in 1968. Ocean Hill was a poor African American neighborhood that became an experiment in decentralized governance or community control over schooling. The new local school administration, some of whom had the goal of having only African American teachers in their schools, fired a number of white school teachers without due process. This prompted a very bitter strike by the UFT in support of the fired teachers. The strike, which had strong overtones of racism and anti-Semitism helped create a schism between professional liberals who largely supported community control and unions who supported the rights of their members. It also was a landmark in deteriorating relations between African Americans and Jews. The president of the UFT, Albert Shanker, established his national reputation as a result of the strike.

Albert Shanker

One of the most controversial figures of 20th Century American Labor. Shanker’s militancy as a labor leader led to Woody Allen’s famous joke in Sleeper about New York being destroyed because “a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear bomb.” In one of the early fights for more resources and better working conditions for teachers the proposition was put that this would take resources away from the children. Shanker famously remarked that he would care about the children when they began paying dues. But in 1970 Shanker began writing a column –Where We Stand - and paying the New York Times to publish it. Although this has become a common and sometimes trite public relations tool in the hands of Shanker’s imitators, Where We Stand was in some ways a proto-blog. Every week for more than 25 years Shanker would weigh in on the education or labor topics of the day. Eventually his calls for higher academic standards, reading programs that included phonics and other education reforms led him to be called a sell out by some liberal education leaders. Where We Stand is the only “advertorial” that the Times has ever included in its indexes. When the report "A Nation At Risk" was released in the 1980s most public education leaders denounced the report. Shanker was the notable exception, using the findings of the report to launch a call for higher standards and more resources for schools.

Shanker was widely accused of racism for his role in the Ocean Hill Brownsville strike and his opposition to quota based affirmative action, yet he was a civil rights activist who marched at Selma with Dr. King and was a lifelong friend of Bayard Rustin. Shanker was a hawk who was very closely affiliated with the Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic party. He supported for the Contras and the Vietnam War. He also supported free trade unionists struggling against oppression across the world, including South Africa. His support for Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement was an important component of that group’s success.

Shanker had a socialist background, which bred a visceral anti-communism and a progressive approach to domestic politics. When the socialist party split in 1972, Shanker became part of one of the splinters, called the Social Democrats (SDUSA). The group included Paul Wolfowitz, and Jeanne Kirkpatrick and others who eventually turned their back on the domestic vision of SDUSA and became the vanguard of neo-conservativism. Unlike these figures, Shanker never abandoned the vision of a just society built on the back of strong free trade unions.

Speaking at Shanker’s memorial service, Bill Clinton said of him: “Al Shanker's cause was education. And through his lifelong devotion to it, he lifted up our children, our schools, our teachers and others who work in our schools, our nation and our world. He was truly our master teacher. Today, education is the number one priority of the American people. Al Shanker helped to make it so. His life was full of tumult and controversy, of growth and triumph. But what I think he would want to know is, does it count? You bet it does.”

Political Action

The AFT is very active in electoral politics. In the 2004 elections it endorsed John Kerry following his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. Although it did not endorse Howard Dean, AFT played a role in bringing him to the attention of the labor community by nominating him to receive the AFL’s Paul Wellstone Award, given to the politician who most helps organized labor on the front lines. Governor Dean had been active in supporting nurses at Fletcher Allen Hospital who were trying to form an AFT affiliated union, even saying that if worked at the hospital he would join the union.

AFT was an early and very staunch supporter of Bill Clinton, and supported Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale. In the 1980 election AFT supported Ted Kennedy’s insurgency against Jimmy Carter with a fervor that has led to a continuing close relationship with the Senator. In 1976 AFT initially supported Scoop Jackson in the Democratic primaries.

AFT affiliates are active in state and local races as well, often but not always supporting Democrats. In New York, for example, some AFT affiliates offered some support to Governor George Pataki in 2002 and have worked to maintain GOP control of the state senate. Pataki has signed some of the most pro-labor legislation of any governor, Democrat or Republican – instituting card check recognition, limiting the ability of government contractors to use public funds for union busting and maintaining fair share rights for public employee unions.

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This page was last modified 02:23, 3 June 2006 by Arthur Smith. Based on work by dKosopedia user(s) Allamakee Democrat, DRolfe and Benton. Content is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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