As of today, labor unions are not nearly as prominent and influential in the American political landscape as they were in the middle of the 20th century. However, they are by no means a relic of the past that has lost any semblance of relevance. Although the average union membership among the American workforce has been steadily declining for several decades, it makes the unions that are able to maintain and even increase their numbers all the more notable. American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is an example of such a union, with its membership increasing from approximately 700,000 to 1,700,000 in 2017 (AFT, 2021). This organizational growth not only allows the AFT to remain the second-largest organization of education professionals in the United States but also to retain a degree of political influence despite the gradually worsening situation. The reasons for such resilience demonstrated in the age of steadily weakening labor unions are to be in AFT’s history. Its identity as a union of practitioners rather than administrators and taking a political stand on relevant issues while avoiding association with radicals are the primary factors that shaped the AFT as it is today.
Shaping Identity: From the Foundation to the 1950s
Margaret Hales formed the AFT in 1900, organizing the first eight locals of what would become the second-largest trade union for educators in the United States. By that time, American educators already had a national organization in the National Education Association (NEA), formed in 1857, for several decades. NEA largely dominated organizational efforts within the community of professional educators, but its approach to this task was not equally appealing to all. Administrates rather than classroom teachers dominated the NEA, shaping its strict organizational hierarchy and positing themselves as mediators between teachers and policy-makers (Toloudis, 2019). Moreover, the organization was also profoundly dominated by men despite the fact that classroom teachers were becoming increasingly and even predominantly female in the early 20th century (Toloudis, 2019). In this social and political landscape, it was not surprising that the demand for an organization that would represent classroom teachers and offer better opportunities to women was on the rise. This juxtaposition between the AFT and the older and more hierarchic NEA was a political influence present from the union’s formation, although it took time to properly recognize it as a part of organizational identity.
The early years of the AFT were marked with considerable successes, its membership and geographic coverage growing across the United States. Between 1916 and 1918, the number of locals in the union grew from the starting 8 to 174 (AFT, 2021). In a similar vein, the overall membership reached 10,000 – not necessarily an imposing figure, but a very respectable growth nonetheless (AFT, 2021). The 1920s, however, proved to be a turbulent decade for the union. Struggling to protect academic freedoms for educators, AFT found itself embroiled in numerous conflicts prompted by the First Red Scare (Cain, 2017). This was the first but not the last time when the union had to navigate complex political issues and protect rites members’ rights while steering clear of the association with the radical left. The results were not particularly striking in numerical terms: by the end of the decade, the union’s membership shrunk to 5,000, or roughly half of what it was in 1920 (AFT, 2021). However, the 1920s marked the first time the union took a stand on a political issue of acute importance, which further distanced it from the NEA.
The 1930s were an important decade for the AFT in several respects alike – most notably, in terms of increasing membership count and geographic coverage. The Great Depression exacerbated the difficulties faced by the American workforce, including teachers. Apart from the low salaries and general lack of economic security, female teachers also faced increasingly strict demands regarding their conduct and appearance (AFT, 2021). These factors, as well as some of the government measures, provided a strong five toward unionization and collective bargaining. The Norris-La Guardia Act of 1932 outlawed contracts obligating employers not to join unions, and, Following President Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act issued in 1933, many American professions entered a period of active unionization. The AFT launched a national organization campaign with the purpose of bolstering its numbers and fostering a nationwide network of chapters (Toloudis, 2019). While not without its setbacks, this effort proved fairly efficient, and by 1939, the union’s numbers grew to 32,000 (AFT, 2021). Considering this, the Great Depression became yet another crucial influence in shaping the AFT as a national organization concerned with the economic well-being and collective bargaining rights for teachers.
Founding new chapters was not the only activity the AFT engaged in during the 1930s, as the worsening economic conditions often required decisive action. The early 20th century has largely shaped the image of teachers as the “essentially apolitical arms of the civil service,” and this outlook was fairly prominent across the United States (Toloudis, 2019, p. 521). However, the AFT leadership saw the necessity of using active measures in the struggle from improving the working conditions and economic security for American teachers. Teachers from the states with strong traditions of labor organizing, such as New York, Illinois, or Pennsylvania, were willing to break the conventional image of apolitical educators and went on strikes (Toloudis, 2019). These usually lasted for several months and were not particularly frequent. However, these strikes signified the AFT’s commitment to fostering and supporting professional solidarity and consciousness among American educators with an aim to transfer this consciousness into specific political action improving the teachers’ situation.
This drive to politicize American educators and present them as a force to be reckoned with in terms of collective bargaining naturally came with a set of challenges. Similarly to its effort in protecting academic freedoms during the 1930s and the First Red Scare, the AFT’s active approach in challenging the status quo raised suspicions. By the late 1930s, opponents regularly accused the AFT of associating with the radical left and, in particular, the communists (AFT, 2021). These accusations were not without merit, as the struggle for the rights of the public employees naturally attracted communist and socialist sympathizers. In response to this accusation, the AFT conducted an internal investigation and, in 1941, excluded three locals for supposed communist infiltration (AFT, 2021). This was not a singular occasion wither, as the staunch anti-communist stance remained the union’s official position in the years to follow. New local chapters of the AFT, such as the New Haven Federation of Teachers, were often founded by explicit anti-communists to further emphasize this dissociation (Kolokotronis, 2021). The policy took shape: while the AFT was politically active, it would not associate with the radicals.
Having covered the early history of the AFT, it becomes possible to identify the specific political and historical influences that impacted and ultimately shaped the union AFT during its formative decades. First of all, the new organization had to compete with the NEA, which relied on a strict hierarchy and was dominated by predominantly male school administrators (Toloudis, 2019). The prevailing public discourse represented teachers as essentially apolitical civil servants, which undermined the development of professional solidarity and consciousness necessary for the struggle for collective bargaining rights. While the largest teachers’ organization, the NEA was pronouncedly apolitical and not a labor union per se. Although it occasionally advocated for higher salaries in education, it did so “out of paternalism and magnanimity” rather than because it was a cornerstone of the organization’s platform (Toloudis, 2019, p. 522). Employers enacted increasingly strict demands regarding appearance and conduct, mainly targeting female teachers. Finally, advocating employee rights carried a constant risk of being associated with the leftist radicals (Cain, 2017). It was against this backdrop that the AFT shaped its identity as an organization.
The key tenets of the newly-formed federation represented direct responses to these factors. First of all, the AFT put an emphasis on classroom teachers specifically. While the administrator-dominated NEA frowned upon or outright forbade independent action taken by the classroom professional, it was the targeted demographic for the AFT and formed the bulk of its membership (Toloudis, 2019). The AFT opted for being “a traditional trade union” predominantly occupied with the political and economic issues of collective bargaining, salary, economic security, workplace, and others (Rhoades, 2017, p. 651). As an organization formed by a woman, the AFT was a response to the increasing prominence of women in the profession. It did so by being a contrast to the male-dominated NEA and struggling against the codes of conduct enforced upon female teachers (AFT, 2021). Finally, after being repeatedly accused of falling under the influence of the radical left, the AFT took precautions to thoroughly dissociate the organization from the communists (Kolokotronis, 2021). Thus, by the late 1940s, the AFT emerged as a labor union pressing for economic issues and equal gender opportunities while foregoing connections with political radicals.
Peak and Decline: From the 1950s to the 1990s
By the early 1950s, the AFT was already a fairly prominent union that exercised political influence on the national level. During the Second Red Scare and McCarthyism, the union once again stood for academic freedoms in educational settings (AFT, 2021). Thanks to the efforts previously to publicly dissociate the organization from political radicals, this involvement did not ear the AFT nearly as many accusations of being dominated by communists as in the 1920s and the 1940s. However, protecting academic freedoms was far from the only activity that the AFT’s engaged in in the post-war environment.
During the 1960s and the 1970s, the union spearheaded the struggle for collective bargaining rights for teachers. Thanks to the national scope of the union’s membership and activities, the AFT “worked at wringing collective bargaining agreements from stubborn school boards” across the entire United States (AFT, 2021, para. 8). The hardships that the unions endured during the 1930s, fostering professional solidarity and consciousness in the then-apolitical teacher force and organizing it for strikes, paid off decades later. From 1960 to 1970, there were more than 300 teacher strikes across the country, contributing to the cause (AFT, 2021). These included the St. John University Strike of 1966-67 – the first major strike of university professors in American history. It signified that the UFT expanded not only geographically and numerically but also into secondary and tertiary education and was no longer an exclusively school teacher union. Speaking of expansion, the AFT’s numbers grew from 50,000+ to 200,000 by 1970, and in the early 1970s, it was the fastest-growing union in the country (AFT, 2021). Thus, by these decades, the ATF realized its vision shaped in the organization’s formative years.
An important component to the organization’s success was the judicial recognition of its representation of the teacher educator workforce on the highest level. While federal legislation generally forbids union shops – security provisions that obligate the employers to only hire union members – it has instead allowed the unions to collect a “fair share” of their dues from the union non-members who benefit from the union’s activities, such as collective bargaining. Although common in private sectors, the “fair share” practice raised eyebrows when applied to public employees (Peterson, 2018). In its 1977 ruling on Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court confirmed that, while the fees paid by non-union members could not be used for any purpose other than “collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment,” teacher unions still had the right to collect them (Supreme Court, 1977, para. 1). Confirming this right not only recognized teacher unions – and the AFT as the second-largest among them – as influential players in shaping educational employment agenda but also buttressed their financial security.
Along with its directly professional activities, the AFT also participated in the movements that related to its agenda in more general terms, most notably the Civil Rights Movement. As early as 1954, the union provided a brief for the Supreme Court in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that signaled the beginning of desegregation in schools (AFT, 2021). After that, the union actively participated in desegregating educational environments across the United States. At the same time, though the AFT’s traditional opposition to political radicalism often prevented it from forming a meaningful connection with the communities of color where the union members worked and taught. For example, the New Haven Federation of Teachers, dominated by educators with leftist leanings, pushed for closer ties between teachers and the community and participatory democracy in education, eventually meaning black community control of schools (Kolokotronis, 2021). However, the conservative elements within the AFT, prone toward liberal bureaucratic unionism, eventually gained the upper hand, and the New Haven experience did not become a model for teacher-community cooperation (Kolokotronis, 2021). AFT’s increasing conservatism prevented it from keeping up with the time.
During the 1980s, the AFT went into a phase of stagnation and even decline. Admittedly, the unions in the public sectors did not shrink as much and as rapidly as their counterparts in the private sector during the Reagan era and beyond. At the same time, there was nothing resembling the rapid growth demonstrated through the 1960s and the early 1970s. In search of a new agenda that could galvanize the stagnating union, its leadership turned to educational reform. In general terms, it championed the improvement of the education system to promote meritocratic approaches and equalize access to high-quality school education regardless of zip-codes (Murphy, 2018). However, the main thing it achieved was overburdening both teachers and students with standardized testing (Murphy, 2018). Apart from that, while many young men became teachers in the 1960s and the 1970s to avoid serving in Vietnam, canceling conscription put an end to it and indirectly contributed to the ongoing teacher shortage (Kolokotronis, 2021). As a result, the AFT ended the 20th century as a still numerous yet increasingly bureaucratic union with shrinking influence and problems finding and enunciating a positive platform.
The AFT in the 21st Century
The problems that the AFT faced in the late 20th century remained with it in the new millennium as well. The union’s increasing bureaucracy and conservatism made it less attractive for younger professionals, and at some points, as in 2010-2012 and 2015-2016, it was losing members fast (Appendix A). Moreover, the increased political pressure on the unions in the public sector delivered a heavy blow to the AFT’s financial standing. As mentioned above, the right to collect the “fair share” portion of dues, supported by the Supreme Court’s (1977) decision in on Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, provided unions with a considerable source of income. However, the 2018 decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, Country, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) made gathering even the non-political portion of the dues from non-members illegal (Gies, 2019). This decision caused the AFT to lose a significant portion of its receipts, which fell from approximately $350,000,000 to less than $250,000,000 (Appendix A). As a result, the union continued operating under considerably strained financial circumstances.
At the same time, the Supreme Court’s ruling did not become a mortal blow to the AFT. Preparation in advance softened the financial effects of the decision, and the effort put into building connections with individual members seems to have paid off as well (Gies, 2019). Even if one discounts the 2013 merger with the National Federation of Nurses, the union’s membership still grew between 2000 and 2021 and, unlike revenue, did not demonstrate any sharp decline after 2018 (Appendix A). It means that the ruling on Janus v. AFSCME did not cause a massive opt-up for the union members in an attempt to avoid paying their dues, meaning that the immediate effect on the union’s numbers proved modest. However, while the union’s numbers still remain very considerable, its financial resources and political clout are shrinking and will likely continue to do so in the foreseeable future.
As one can see, the political influences that impacted the AFT’s formative decades, as well as its later history, explain its still relevant but considerably diminished standing today. Having begun as an alternative to the NEA, the AFT found its identity as a labor union in the strict sense of the word focused on political advocacy and giving a voice to classroom teachers. At the same time, the union took up the practice of distancing itself from the real or perceived radicals to maintain respectability. This approach allowed it to play a considerable role in the 1960s and the 1970s’ struggles for collective bargaining as well as participate in the Civil Rights movement. At the same time, the union’s increasing bureaucracy and conservatism contributed to its stagnation and decline that have continued since the 1970s. The recent ruling on Janus v. AFSCME exacerbated this problem by depriving the unions of a significant portion of their revenue. As a result, while the AFT remains one of America’s largest unions and the second-largest in education, its resources are shrinking, and one may safely assume that its best days are behind it.
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