We are our union.
As we reflect on 100 years as the American Federation of Teachers, there is one expression I keep coming back to: We are our union.
Our union was founded a century ago to establish a voice for teachers so they could combat factory-like conditions in public schools, advocate for fair pay and better working conditions, promote the needs of their students, and stand up for greater autonomy as professionals. Our union’s heart, our soul, our courage and our power lie with our members and our communities. They always have.
Today, 1.6 million members strong, our identity grows out of the proud history built by AFT members, who, through the tumult and change of the past century, stood up for the principles that ground us. Those who came before us built the AFT into a union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and our communities. This has been our century-long journey. As we continue this journey, we have many reminders that we are our union.
We are Norma Becker, a public school teacher from New York City and the mother of two young children, who, along with 35 other teachers, boarded a bus in 1963 and headed to Farmville, Va., to open Freedom Schools, where she and others taught black children who had been shut out of their public schools.
We are Margaret Cotter and other female teachers in Boston, who first joined the AFT in 1920 in order to achieve equal pay, and were supported by then-AFT President Charles Stillman, who said: “Sex discrimination in salary and working conditions belongs to the old order.”
We are Jennifer Henry, Mari Cordes and others from the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals who, after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, traveled there as volunteers to provide medical assistance—and then returned to help establish a union-run clinic for women and children.
We have a proud history. As we celebrate 100 years, we need to look at who we are today and who we will be in the future.
I don’t have to tell you that the principles we stand on are under attack. Unions are squarely in the crosshairs of those who want to preserve a status quo that benefits an ever-smaller advantaged class. During a time when income inequality is at its worst since before the Great Depression, corporate-backed politicians have launched an all-out assault on unions—from statehouses to court houses—and thereby on the communities our members serve.
Despite these attacks, the tide is turning—support for unions is at the highest it has been in years. According to a recent Gallup poll, support for unions went up by 5 percentage points in the last year. Today, nearly six in 10 Americans approve of unions.
In places where union membership is higher, children are better off. A new study by researchers at Harvard University, Wellesley College and the Center for American Progress found that “low-income children rise higher in the income rankings when they grow up in areas with high union membership.” And union women experience a smaller gender wage gap than their counterparts in nonunion workplaces. A report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that female union members earn 89 cents for every dollar a male worker earns, compared with 77 cents on the dollar for their nonunion peers.
Let me put it simply: Unions built the middle class, and we can rebuild it. Although our numbers have diminished, our determination to create a better life for everyday Americans has not.
This reality is the driving force behind our efforts to reach out and speak to 100 percent of our members during our 100th year. Because if we can connect with our members, engage with our members—exchange values, aspirations and challenges—then we will actually have the power to change things.
What it means to be a union is to have each other’s backs, to walk in each other’s shoes and to make progress together. Our power comes from all of us raising our collective voice—and that is only possible when we connect to all of our members in personal and compelling ways.
I hope you will join me as we work toward a future that builds on our past—by creating a present defined by all of our voices, speaking out, together.