AFT History (cont.)
"For a time the tiny craft bearing a.f.t. on its prow, and ‘Democracy in Education; Education for Democracy’ at its masthead, loitered in quiet waters, but following the Pittsburgh convention, July, 1918, put boldly forth to sea."
So reads a passage from the Sept. 20, 1923, American Federation of Teachers’ Semi-Monthly Bulletin.
That tiny craft, which is now an ocean liner in comparison, has been sailing forward—sometimes in rough waters—ever since its creation on April 15, 1916.
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 the leadership of Edward J. McElroy 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 was estimated to have grown by more than 10 percent.
Edward J. McElroy retired in 2008 and was succeeded by former United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who was elected AFT president at the AFT’s national 2008 convention in Chicago. Antonia Cortese and Lorretta Johnson were also elected as secretary-treasurer and executive vice president, respectively.