Higher education faculty were among the first to join the education union movement when the American Federation of Teachers formed in 1916. Professors at Howard University in Washington, DC formed the first AFT higher education local in 1918, followed by faculty groups at colleges and universities in New York, Illinois, and California. These early actions quickly defined the AFT as a progressive union that would eventually lead the movement for collective bargaining in higher education.
In the decades following the formation of the first AFT chapters the United States and the higher education landscape changed significantly. After WWII, AFT advocated for a broadly inclusive GI Bill that sent roughly 2.2 million men and women to college. The next generation saw an even greater explosion in college attendance between 1958 to 1965, just seven years, total enrollment in American institutions of higher education rose from 3.25 million to more than 5.5 million, a leap of 71 percent. Unionization at public universities in the U.S. took root during the rapid changes in these decades.
In the rapidly changing and sometimes chaotic campus environment at that time, two ideas quickly took hold: that unionizing is a human right and that a strong faculty voice brings balance to the many forces at play in higher education. AFT higher education locals were at the forefront of the fight for collective bargaining rights for public employees in many states.
In 1966 AFT Local 1650 at Henry Ford Community College lead the nation's first college walkout. Years of educational union activism in New York, lead by the legendary Albert Shanker, lead to a law in 1967 granting public employees the right to choose a collective bargaining agent. Faculty at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) turned to the AFT for help and quickly won New York's first AFT higher education contract. Victories at the City University of New York, who pioneered the model of a multi-institution merged local, the State University of New York, and the New Jersey State Colleges soon followed.
The activism of AFT higher education locals was critical to winning collective bargaining rights and founding strong higher education locals across the country during the 1960s and 1970s. AFT Local 1600, Cook County College Teachers Union was forced to launch a succession of six strikes between 1966 and 1978 to win bargaining rights and strong contracts for its members. California faculty spend decades building local organizations in state and community colleges before a collective bargaining law was passed in 1975.
From that initial contract at the Fashion Institute of Technology, AFT has been committed to fair representation for all in higher education. By 1970 United College Employees of FIT, Local 3457 represented all FIT employees, a groundbreaking move. Today, AFT locals across the country include faculty, professional staff, and graduate employees. Whether tenure track or non-tenure track, full-time or part-time, faculty or staff the AFT is committed to good secure jobs and a voice in governance for the higher education workforce at all levels.
Unions at public universities are now an established reality. Collective bargaining has brought economic stability, improved working conditions and an honest voice to the academic workforce which is the heart of every educational institution. The AFT now represents over 200,000 higher education members in all types of institutions, from small community colleges to world-class research universities, across the country.
The history of AFT higher education is still being written. With active organizing campaigns in several states, the AFT remains a leader in professionally-centered quality higher education.