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American Federation of Teachers

Program, Organization, History

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is a nationwide union of more than one million public school teachers, higher education faculty and staff, public employees, nurses and health care professionals, and paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel. The AFT is affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), a federation of trade and industrial unions representing more than thirteen million people. According to the AFT Futures II Report, adopted July 5, 2000, the union works "to improve the lives of our members and their families, to give voice to their legitimate professional, economic and social aspirations, to strengthen the institutions in which we work, to improve the quality of the services we provide, to bring together all members to assist and support one another and to promote democracy, human rights and freedom in our union, in our nation and throughout the world."


Like other labor unions, the AFT works for higher pay and better benefits and working conditions for its members. The union also offers numerous benefits and services to its members, including low-cost insurance, retirement savings plans, credit union services, legal representation, and consumer discounts. The AFT, along with the AFL-CIO, strongly advocates continued access to free public education and affordable health care. The AFT also negotiates contract provisions relating specifically to the teaching profession, such as class size, student discipline codes, adequate textbooks and teaching materials, and professional development and evaluation.

In the past the AFT has worked to desegregate public schools, eliminate child labor, establish collective bargaining rights for teachers, and address the educational needs of disadvantaged and disabled children. Among the AFT's major educational reform initiatives during the 1990s and early 2000s was the Lesson for Life: Responsibility, Respect, Results campaign. Launched in 1995, this initiative promotes high academic standards, stronger curricula, and more safe and orderly classrooms. The AFT's annual Making Students Matter report examines and evaluates academic standards in all fifty states. The Educational Research and Dissemination Program is a professional development program that uses a "train-the-trainer" approach in which subject matter experts help teachers improve their teaching of core subjects. The AFT's Zero Tolerance initiative works toward implementing stricter policies for violent and disruptive behavior in schools so that teachers can teach and students can learn in a safe environment. The Support for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards initiative promotes higher standards for teacher certification, including National Board certification, and salary increases for teachers who pass the board exam. Other AFT programs and initiatives address such issues as merit pay, distance learning, whistle blower protection, charter schools, and low performing schools. The AFT asserts that such reforms would be more effective in improving the quality of education than voucher systems of tuition payment or privatization of public schools.

The AFT also addresses issues of specific concern to the various branches of its membership. For members involved in higher education, the union tackles such issues as tenure, the role of part-time faculty, and the high cost of secondary education. For AFT members who are public employees, the union works to improve labor-management relations, job security, and the public perception of the value of government employees. The AFT must take on a wide range of issues, including professional certification and occupational safety, for the diverse body of workers called paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel. For nurses and health care professionals, the AFT's Health Care Quality First campaign fights to protect the quality of patient care and preserve safe staffing levels for nurses and other health care professionals in the face of profit-driven managed health care and restructuring in hospitals and clinics.

The AFT holds a large annual convention every summer, and sponsors numerous meetings and conferences throughout the year on a variety of topics. The AFT also sponsors scholarships and educational grants for members and their children. Since 1992 the Robert G. Porter Scholars Program has awarded $1,000 grants to AFT members who want to pursue courses in labor relations and related fields, and $8,000 four-year college scholarships for dependents of AFT members who wish to study labor, education, health care, or government service.

ATF periodical publications include the weekly e-mail newsletter Inside AFT, the monthly journal American Teacher, the semimonthly newsletter Health Wire for nurses and health care professionals, the quarterly newsletter PSRP Reporter for paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel, and the monthly magazine On Campus for higher education teachers and staff.


The national AFT is headed by a president, executive vice president, and a secretary treasurer who are elected by members. Local affiliates elect their own officers. The union is made up of five divisions: Pre-K–12 Teachers, Higher Education Teachers, Health-care-Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, the Federation of Public Employees, and Paraprofessional and School-Related Personnel. The Pre-K–12 Teachers division represents public school kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school teachers, counselors, and librarians. The Higher Education Division represents more than 120,000 faculty, graduate employees, and professional staff at over two hundred two-year and four-year colleges around the country. The Healthcare-Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals division represent about 60,000 nurses and other health professionals working in hospitals, clinics, home health agencies, and schools in nineteen states. The AFT Paraprofessional and School-Related Personnel Division represents approximately 200,000 support staff in schools from kindergarten through college, including custodians, bus drivers, food service workers, groundskeepers, secretaries, bookkeepers, mechanics, and a variety of other jobs. The Federation of Public Employees represents more than 100,000 city, county, and state employees in a variety of jobs in twentyone states.

The AFT's various departments include the Financial Services Department, which assists treasurers and other officers of local AFT affiliates with financial and administrative duties. The Human Rights and Community Relations Department keeps local and state affiliates informed of current trends, publications, and laws related to civil, human, and women's rights. The International Affairs Department provides information to members on important international issues, particularly human and trade union rights for teachers and other professionals around the world. The Union Leadership Institute helps develop the leadership skills of local AFT officers, trains AFT members in activism, and educates members about the union and its activities. The Legislative Action Center keeps track of how the U.S. Congress and state legislatures vote on issues of concern to the union, communicates official AFT positions to elected officials, and enables members to send faxes or e-mails directly to elected leaders on key issues. The Pre-K–12 Educational Issues Department works to educate the public and institute reforms related to such issues as school standards, class size, early education, school choice, safety and discipline, and teacher quality.


The AFT was founded in Winnetka, Illinois, in 1916 by a small group of teachers from three Chicago unions and one Gary, Indiana, union who believed that their profession needed a national organization to speak for teachers and represent their interests. They called their new union the Teachers International Union of America, and named Charles B. Stillman as president. They were joined by other teacher unions in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, New York, and Washington, D.C. Within days of its establishment, the new union contacted the powerful AFL and requested affiliation. AFL president Samuel Gompers supported the affiliation, but suggested changing the union's name to American Federation of Teachers. The AFL issued a charter to the AFT on May 9, 1916.

Since its early years, the AFT has been on the forefront of the fight for civil rights and was one of the first unions to extend full membership to African Americans. As early as 1918, the AFT called for equal pay for African-American teachers and, in subsequent years, for the election of African-Americans to local school boards and equal educational opportunities for African-American children. In 1954 the AFT filed a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. During the 1960s the AFT was actively involved in the civil rights movement and lobbied extensively for passage of civil rights legislation.

The AFT had included paraprofessional and other school-related staff since its early years, but an increasing number joined in the last two decades of the twentieth century. After the 1960s the union's membership grew more diverse as nurses, health care workers, and public employees joined as constituent groups.


EATON, WILLIAM EDWARD. 1975. The American Federation of Teachers, 1916–1961: A History of the Movement. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

MURPHY, MARJORIE. 1990. Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900–1980. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

MUNGAZI, DICKSON A. 1995. Where He Stands: Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers. Westport, CT: Praeger.


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