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 In 1941, the charters of three locals were withdrawn following an investigation and recommendation by the AFT executive council.
World War II 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 played a leading role in opposing this blight on academic freedom during the McCarthy period, defending those teachers wrongly accused of "subversion." The AFT was also in the forefront of the civil rights 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.
Throughout the 1970s, the AFT struggled with the tough issues of school funding in declining urban areas and decreasing support for urban education. At the same time, in the mid-1970s, the AFT was the fastest-growing union in the country. In 1978, the AFT established a healthcare division and, in 1983, created a division for local, state and federal government employees.
The 1980s saw a concentrated movement toward education reform and teacher professionalization, which was led by the AFT and its more than 600,000 members. The AFT worked to tear down the artificial barriers between contract bargaining matters and other professional issues, and reframed the education reform discussion to include teachers and paraprofessionals as decision-making partners.
As the federation entered the last decade of the 20th century, with nearly 700,000 members, all the issues it had fought for remained important, but none more important than keeping the idea of education reform alive. While the AFT aimed to place the public school and the public school teacher on the cutting edge of pedagogy and innovation during the early 1990s, the task became more daunting as the start of a new millennium neared. Complicating the task of moving forward as a force for change in the nation's public school system was the death of AFT President Albert Shanker.
In 1997, Sandra Feldman was elected AFT president, becoming the first female president of the union since the 1930s. Her election to the AFT's top post followed a distinguished 30-year career with the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, including 11 years as UFT president.
During her AFT presidency, one of Feldman's key programs was the advancement of preschool education. She called for universal access to preschool while also demanding that Congress provide funding for "Kindergarten-Plus," a plan to help schools offer an extended year of kindergarten to disadvantaged children.
Hers was a powerful voice in support of both public schools and teacher accountability. She strongly advocated national standards and, rather than criticizing the No Child Left Behind Act, she condemned the Bush administration for not fully financing and enforcing it.
In 2004, Feldman decided not to seek re-election as president of the AFT for health reasons, and AFT Secretary-Treasurer Edward J. McElroy served as acting president until his official election at the AFT's 2004 national convention.
The transition to McElroy's leadership was a smooth one, since he had served as an AFT vice president since 1974 and, then, as secretary-treasurer from 1992 until his election as president. While serving on the AFT executive council, McElroy was instrumental in launching the Futures Committee, a panel of AFT vice presidents that spent two years consulting with AFT leaders and members to shape a new direction for the union in its governance and structure. The resulting constitutional amendments enhanced the role of constituencies outside the AFT's K-12 teacher division, and made other recommendations on strategic planning, financial practices for affiliates and establishing priorities for the AFT. That process continues today.
During his presidency, 2004-2008, the union grew by more than 10 percent.
McElroy retired in 2008 and was succeeded by former United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who was elected president at the union's national 2008 convention in Chicago. Antonia Cortese and Lorretta Johnson were elected as secretary-treasurer and executive vice president, respectively. In 2011, following Cortese's retirement, Johnson was appointed secretary-treasurer and Francine Lawrence as executive vice president. Both were re-elected to their posts at the 2012 AFT convention. In 2014, with Lawrence's retirement, Mary Cathryn Ricker was elected to the executive vice president post.
Under Weingarten's leadership, the union has continued its solid membership growth, with the total reaching at 1.7 million members in 2017. Among the organizing milestones was the 2013 affiliation of the National Federation of Nurses.
Weingarten also has launched a number of major initiatives to reform education and other public institutions, among them the AFT Innovation Fund, Reconnecting McDowell, Share My Lesson and a partnership with First Book, as well as ongoing efforts to promote high-quality education for all children and develop accountability systems that go beyond a fixation on standardized testing. Many of those efforts have come together under the umbrella of Reclaiming the Promise, the AFT's signature initiative that crosses all constituencies and includes a large focus on community partnerships.
Free and equal education as embodied in the public school, safe and sanitary working conditions, reasonable hours for reasonable pay, child labor laws, tenure for teachers, collective bargaining, women's rights, effective schools and education reform—all of these issues have been at the top of the AFT's agenda as they arose over the years. But few social issues have rivaled the emphasis that the AFT placed on the fight for civil rights.
From its early years, the AFT has been dedicated to equality in education and equality in representation. Before its second convention, the new AFT had already issued charter No. 9 to the Armstrong-Dunbar High School teachers in Washington, D.C.—a group of black high school teachers—"which the executive council were glad to welcome into the organization," read the AFT headquarters newsletter. "In line with the slogan, 'Democracy in Education, Education for Democracy,' the AFT believed that the black teachers "were especially in need of whatever assistance could be given not only to the teachers themselves, but to the development of educational opportunities … throughout the country."
Records show that the 1938 AFT convention, which was planned to be held at a Cincinnati hotel, was moved to an entirely new location because blacks were confined to using freight elevators in the hotel. This had happened before, in 1934, when it became apparent that the convention hotel would not provide equal facilities to black delegates. The location of the 1963 convention, which was originally planned for Florida, was also changed, so members would not have to travel through the South and put up with Jim Crow laws.
The AFT, one of the earliest unions to condemn segregation, amended its constitution in 1953 to provide that "No charter of the AFT which defines or recognizes jurisdiction on the basis of race or color, or permits the practice of such jurisdiction, shall be recognized as valid, and the practice of any such local in limiting its membership on account of race or color shall render its charter void." The federation also willingly suffered the loss of thousands of members in 1957 when it expelled its remaining segregated locals in the South. And, during the 1960s, the AFT ran more than 20 "Freedom Schools" in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi; staffed by AFT volunteers, the schools supplemented the inadequate education offered to black students.
While the AFT has continued to fight for civil and voting rights for all American citizens who remain disenfranchised, it has also championed the rights of religious and cultural minorities.
On the world scene, the AFT's international affairs department has been actively involved in developing free trade unions and democracy curricula for public education systems in countries around the globe, from Eastern Europe to South and Central America to South Africa. The union provided organizing assistance and resources to unionists and educators throughout Eastern Europe, for example, in the years leading up to the fall of communism.