The AFT was founded in Chicago, with eight locals signing on as AFL president Samuel Gompers welcomed the union into its fold in 1916. The union operated from one room of AFT financial secretary Freeland Stecker’s five-room bungalow in Chicago. President Charles Stillman lived next door.
While the AFT grew quickly in the beginning, chartering 174 locals in its first four years, the years following World War I saw school boards pressuring and intimidating teachers to resign from the union. By the end of the 1920s, AFT membership had dropped to less than 5,000—about half the number in 1920. Throughout that time, the union fought for tenure laws, as well as for the academic freedom of those teachers whose beliefs were being investigated by political committees during the “Red scare” hysteria following WWI.
The Depression years accentuated the problems that the AFT had attacked during its first 15 years: low salaries and economic insecurity. Worse, female teachers found themselves faced with “contracts which 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,” said the American Teacher magazine. Loyalty oaths were being required in some locales, and teachers were dismissed for joining the AFT or for working on school board election campaigns.
By 1932, the Norris-La Guardia Act outlawed yellow dog contracts, which made teachers promise not to join a union, and the AFT went on to fight for tenure for teachers. By the end of the Depression, tenure of some kind had been gained in 17 states, largely because of the AFT’s efforts.
While strong leadership in the AFT boosted membership from 7,000 in 1930 to 32,000 in 1939, the union found itself involved with allegations of communist infiltration in some locals. In 1941, the charters of three locals were withdrawn following an investigation and recommendation by the AFT executive council.
WWII exploded on the scene, and the AFT worked hard to push war bond sales, war relief and air raid programs in the schools, at the same time campaigning against the “exploitation or the oppression of minority groups.” In the postwar years, the AFT renewed its fight to improve the conditions of the schools and their teachers. And, while AFT policy opposed strikes, numerous locals found themselves forced to strike through the postwar years to get at the root of the depressed state of salaries.
In the 1950s, loyalty oaths cropped up again. The AFT took leadership in opposing this blight upon academic freedom during the McCarthy period, defending those teachers wrongly accused of “subversion.” The AFT was also in the forefront of the civil rights (link to Staunch Supporter, text below) movement, filing an amicus curiae brief in the historic 1954 Supreme Court desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and expelling locals that had not followed an earlier mandate to desegregate.
During the 1960s, in addition to its fight for civil rights, the AFT and its affiliates worked at wringing collective bargaining agreements from stubborn school boards. The '60s also saw the first major strike by university professors in the United States and a one-day walkout by the United Federation of Teachers in New York City for collective bargaining. More than 300 teacher strikes occurred throughout the country during the 10 years following the UFT’s walkout. The national AFT grew from fewer than 60,000 members in 1960 to more than 200,000 by the end of the decade.
Albert Shanker was elected president of the AFT in 1974. A pioneer in collective bargaining for teachers, Shanker also was one of the country’s most influential voices on education reform, a leader for human and civil rights in the United States and abroad, and a relentless proponent of democracy and freedom.
Through his speeches, his weekly New York Times columns and his work with business leaders, policymakers and union leaders, Shanker turned conventional wisdom on its head—and made it perfectly brilliant and sensible. His ideas seem as potent and relevant today as they were during his 23 years as AFT president.