Robert G. Porter was a dedicated union activist from the time he joined his first AFT local in East St. Louis, Ill., until his death in 1991. For nearly four decades, the late AFT secretary-treasurer gave his all to education, and his vision and experience to the American Federation of Teachers.
As secretary-treasurer of the AFT, Porter played an invaluable role in leading the union during an era of explosive growth. There were 82,000 AFT members nationwide when he was appointed secretary-treasurer in 1963, after serving as administrative aide to the AFT's 11th president, Carl Megel. In 1991, there were more than 820,000 members, making the AFT one of the fastest-growing unions in the nation.
Porter began his career as a social studies teacher in Brentwood, Mo., in 1952 and three years later moved to East St. Louis, Ill., where he joined a brand-new AFT local, which had been formed only months before. "I have always regretted that I was not a charter member, but I was not aware that it was being organized," Porter commented in an interview 30 years later. He did, however, lead the new AFT local to victory in the first collective bargaining election in the United States between the AFT and the National Education Association. "Nobody in their wildest dreams felt that we could win the election...." Porter said. But win it they did. In building toward victory in that election, Porter said: "We took the attitude that we were either going to win this thing [and] create a union or we were going to get fired, and, in either case, we would be better off.
"Logically we should have lost [that election]—we didn't; That probably explains better than anything else how I got started on the path to this position" as AFT secretary-treasurer.
When Bob Porter joined the national organization in 1960 as an administrative aide, the union had been around a long time but still had not flourished. Even though it seemed to be an unpopular cause with little chance of growth and success, Porter took a risk and joined.
He was one of the few who was willing to support the idea of collective bargaining for teachers at a time when the concept had sharp critics both inside and outside the union. Porter also championed the union's efforts in promoting civil rights, aiding teachers abroad, instituting political action and fostering members' professionalism.
Porter, who held a bachelor's degree from Washington University and studied labor education at Oxford University in England, believed strongly in the benefits of unionism and in the value of education. He believed that the members were the lifeblood and the foundation of the union.
The members, leaders and staff of the American Federation of Teachers and the members of the Porter family who conceived and constructed this scholarship program in honor of Robert G. Porter believe that fostering educational growth among AFT members and their dependents is one of the best ways to offer a lasting tribute to his memory and his life.
"THE SPIRIT OF UNIONISM IS VERY MUCH ALIVE IN OUR UNION.... WE HAVE TO MAKE SURE THAT MEMBERS PARTICIPATE BECAUSE THAT IS HOW WE SURVIVE."