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Teacher Unions


David W. Kirkpatrick

Willis D. Hawley
Donna Redmond Jones


The best-known teacher unions in the United States are the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). However, not all public school teachers are their members, nor are all of their members public school teachers. Membership also includes support staff in the public schools, such as secretaries, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers, and some outside the schools, such as hospital nurses.

Other teacher groups include Independent Education Associations (IEAs) at the local, state, and national levels, which remain largely unknown, and Local Only Teacher Unions (LOTUs) which are almost totally unknown. There are also public school teachers who are not members of any organizations, plus private school teachers, few of whom are organized except for the National Association of Catholic Teachers. This organization, headquartered in Philadelphia, represents some, but not all, of the teachers in Catholic schools.

The National Education Association

The National Education Association was founded in 1857 in Philadelphia as the National Teachers' Association. For the first century it grew slowly, with fewer than 2,400 members in 1900 and 330,000 as late as 1964, the point at which its most rapid growth was getting underway. By 2001 NEA membership exceeded 2.3 million in more than 13,000 local affiliate organizations.

A handful of key events led to the evolution of the NEA to its characteristics at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The first was external, in the form of the victory in New York City at the beginning of the 1960s of the American Federation of Teachers local affiliate, the United Federation of Teachers, which emerged as the dominant union from what had been more than 100 groups. Subsequent AFT victories in other urban areas, plus Wisconsin's 1962 passage of the first collective bargaining law for educators, forced the NEA to begin a transformation that initially faced both internal and external problems.

In 1960 the NEA assembly had rejected a resolution endorsing representative negotiations. Although this position was reversed the next year, for much of the 1960s the NEA stressed that it was an association and referred to professional negotiations, rather than collective bargaining, because of the resistance of many of its own members to identification as a union.

The early 1970s saw a number of major internal changes. Until then the NEA permitted members to join any combination of the local, state, and national units, although some local and state affiliates had different rules. A 1975 provision added to the NEA Constitution established a unified membership, whereby those who did join would have to do so at all three levels. Until then the NEA included departments with specific professional interests, such as administrators, math or science, and curriculum or instruction, in both basic and higher education. With the introduction of unified dues many local affiliated organizations dropped out. These included not only the professional interest groups but even the Missouri state association, which had been one of the NEA's charter members in 1857. These losses were more than compensated by the addition of huge numbers of individual members at the state and national level, most of whom, as they had always done, joined the local association at the urging of their colleagues, whether or not they had any understanding of, commitment to, or even interest in, the state and national organizations.

This membership growth was both accompanied and accelerated by the NEA's establishment of its Uniserv program, which led to the creation of hundreds of offices across the nation in cooperation with its state and local affiliates. The state affiliates employ the Uniserv staff but, with financial and coordinating support from the NEA, these staff function as quasi-NEA employees. Within less than thirty years there were 1,800 of these staff members.

In 1972 the NEA also became the first national education organization with a political action committee, one that remains among the nation's largest and most influential. By the 1990s the NEA came to have one of the largest delegations to the quadrennial Democratic National Convention and a smaller delegation at the Republican National Convention. One example of its influence was the establishment of the U.S. Department of Education by Congress in 1979, with the support of President Jimmy Carter, whom the NEA had endorsed in 1976, despite the opposition of the AFT. Teacher unions also benefit from advantages that Congress has granted unions in general, such as exemption from laws prohibiting conspiracies in restraint of trade.

Ironically, at the peak of their power and influence, the NEA and AFT face more pressures and opposition than ever before. Internal problems for the NEA include the tendency of newer teachers to show less interest in joining. A 1997 membership survey commissioned by the NEA warned that it faced "organizational death." While that is probably overly pessimistic, the NEA recognizes there are difficulties even beyond what might be expected in an influential organization with a budget of nearly $250 million, a national staff of nearly six hundred and, with its affiliates, an additional staff of thousands.

One source of tension is that nearly all of NEA's political endorsements go to Democrats, although its Democratic members, while they comprise a larger political block than either Republicans or Independents, still make up less than 50 percent of its membership. Reportedly 40 percent of NEA members regularly vote contrary to the organization's recommendations and sometimes more than half do so, as in President Ronald Reagan's 1980 and 1984 campaigns. There is also unhappiness with the NEA's adoption of positions on social issues such as abortion and gun control, which many members feel detracts from the attention that should be paid to educational issues.

Externally, both unions face challenges not only from the private school sector but from such growing trends in education as home schooling, tuition vouchers, and charter schools, all of which weaken teachers' perceived need for a union. Unions face a dilemma in dealing with these issues. If they oppose vouchers, charter schools, and private schools, it becomes extremely difficult for them to appeal to teachers in such schools once they are established. As a result, very few charter schools or private schools are unionized. While it is unlikely that the NEA will disappear, some of its leadership advocates a "new unionism," and its future depends upon how it deals with these challenges.

The American Federation of Teachers

Four local teacher unions met in Chicago in April 1916. After charters were granted to other local organizations, an application to the American Federation of Labor for affiliation was granted to the four local unions the next month and the American Federation of Teachers was established. Shortly after World War I, its membership briefly exceeded that of the older but still small NEA.

In 1952 teacher Al Shanker joined the New York Teachers Guild, which had been founded in 1917 with American educator and philosopher John Dewey as a charter member. Shanker edited the Guild's newspaper and began organizing individual schools with colleagues such as David Selden; both men subsequently became presidents of the national AFT. It was the Guild that triumphed in the 1961 election resulting in the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) local in New York City. Much of the subsequent history of the AFT is the history of Al Shanker. Shanker served first as UFT President, and then from 1974, when he succeeded Selden, until his death in 1997, as president of the AFT. For part of that time he was president of both the UFT and AFT, a result of AFT rules that permit holding multiple offices and an unrestricted number of terms.

This continuity of officers, and its representation of teachers in key urban areas, especially in such media centers as Washington, D.C., and New York City, has enabled the AFT and its presidents to develop greater visibility than the NEA and its leaders, thus partially offsetting the advantages the NEA enjoys because it represents far more people and resources and has a virtually universal distribution of its membership throughout society. The AFT embraced collective bargaining earlier and more enthusiastically than the NEA, but changing circumstances and the competition between the two organizations resulted in victories and growth for both, including legislative and political victories that saw collective bargaining laws adopted in more than half of the states by the early 1970s.

During the tumult of the 1960s AFT membership increased five-fold, from 60,000 in 1961 to 300,000 in 1970 and to 820,000 in 1993, by which time, except for Nevada, the AFT had affiliates in every state plus the District of Columbia, in U.S. territories such as Guam and Puerto Rico, and in ten other nations. But these members represent fewer than 2,300 local organizations, far less than the NEA's more than 13,000. Additionally, nearly half of the locals were in New York state.

Union Influence

The AFT's 900,000 members at the start of the twenty-first century, coupled with the NEA's 2.3 million, give the two unions representation of about three-quarters of all public school teachers; 40 percent of all unionized public employees; a total income at the local, state, and national levels of nearly $1.5 billion; 6,000 employees, more than both major political parties combined; and a distribution of membership and power from rural areas to urban centers such as New York City. On average, there are nearly 7,000 teachers in each congressional district, over 5,000 of whom are organized. As in most unions, NEA and AFT leaders tend to rise from the ranks but, unlike in most other unions, the leaders who emerge from the ranks are college graduates. These conditions explain the influence the two unions have, and not just on education.

Despite individual strengths, emerging challenges have led to strong efforts by both organizations to merge. The AFT was prepared to accept a merger in 1998 but, at its annual convention that year, the NEA's delegates defeated a proposal by nearly a three to two margin. While there are still efforts to bring about a merger, in the interim, the two groups are seeking to cooperate more, compete less, and maximize their effectiveness against what they perceive as common enemies and obstacles.

Another effort at cooperation developed in the late 1990s when a number of locals of both unions met to establish the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) to forward their own reform agenda to counter those coming from other sources. Within a few years twenty-three local organizations had joined, mostly from major urban areas including New York City, Los Angeles, Denver, Seattle, and San Francisco. Their ability to meet contemporary challenges remains to be seen.

Other Teacher Groups

While they do not yet comprise a national force, there are now dozens of local and state teacher groups and one emerging national group–these groups are often referred to as Independent Education Associations (IEAs). The IEA associations in Georgia, Missouri, and Texas are larger than either the NEA or AFT affiliates in those states; the one in Texas has more than 100,000 members. Most reject the union title and oppose strikes or the agency shop model, whereby nonmembers are required to pay a fee to the bargaining representative. Many are in non-union, or right-to-work states, and strongly advocate remaining that way. The national group, known as the American Association of Educators (AAE), was founded in 1994. By 2002 it had 33,000 members and a dozen state affiliates.

There are also an undetermined number of Local Only Teacher Unions (LOTUs), with at least ten in Indiana and others in Ohio. The largest, the Akron Education Association, does proclaim itself to be a union, utilizes the agency shop provision for nonmembers, and has conducted a strike.

There are an estimated 300,000 unorganized public school teachers and as many or more who belong to the IEAs and LOTUs. These 600,000 individuals could have a national influence on education but they lack the cohesiveness, organizational structure, or visibility to do so. The AAE may prove to be the group that can counteract the national dominance of the NEA and the AFT. It planned to move from its original base in California to the Washington, D.C. area in 2002. Such a move should provide it the opportunity to become better known to the national media and to other teachers, thus making it more significant in education affairs.


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Schools cannot be significantly improved without improving the quality of teaching. Teacher unions significantly influence how teachers view their work. Not all teachers belong to teacher unions, but more than 90 percent of the 2.6 million public school teachers belong to either the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) or the larger National Education Association (NEA). While teachers do not blindly follow union leaders, it seems unlikely that substantial school improvement can occur without the support and resources of teacher unions.


Historically, many educational policymakers and researchers have viewed efforts of teacher unions as antithetical to school reform. Most teacher union activity has involved aggressive efforts to raise teacher salaries, improve teachers' working conditions, and protect teachers' rights, even if this entailed protests that limited or suspended teachers' work with students. Although school improvement has been on the agenda of the AFT and the NEA for decades, most observers, and union leaders themselves, have recognized that there has been a tension between fighting for rights that are most beneficial to its members and pressing for reform that is most beneficial for students.

In the 1990s both national unions substantially increased their engagement in direct efforts to increase student achievement by improving instructional strategies and school conditions that support good teaching and student learning. These initiatives–which have been dubbed the "new unionism"–have been motivated by demands of newer members, by the recognition that effective teaching requires new structures and relationships in schools, and by perceived needs to build public and political support for the unions. In spite of national resolutions and new alliances that promote union leadership in reform, some informed observers, such as Gregory Moo and Myron Lieberman, have expressed doubts about the viability of new unionism. Moreover, as federated organizations, both the NEA and AFT propose national stances that are loosely coupled with the practices of state and local affiliates that believe in the unions' more traditional mission of advocating teachers' rights and benefits.

Teacher unions influence instruction and other educational practices of interest to those who define themselves as school reformers in four general ways:(1) electoral politics and lobbying, (2) collective bargaining, (3) reform initiatives focused on their members, and (4) dissemination of information about best practice.

Electoral Politics and Lobbying

Teacher unions engage in direct political action at national, state, and local levels to secure the election of candidates who support their priorities and to promote or oppose the adoption of ballot issues–such as support for increases in education funding and opposition to school vouchers. Likewise, teacher unions seek to influence legislative initiatives and executive actions through the provision of information, promises of electoral support or opposition, and efforts to shape public opinion. As is the case for most political interest groups, teacher unions may be more effective in opposing policies than in getting policies adopted that they favor.

Collective Bargaining

Since the 1960s a hallmark of the traditionally adversarial relationships between union and school district leaders has been their engagement in industrial-style collective bargaining often characterized by divergent labor-management interests, standardized work rules, and equal treatment of teachers who have varying degrees of skill and marketability. Studies, such as Joe A. Stone's 2000 research, have generally found few connections between collective bargaining and improved student achievement. The "new unionism," however, calls for "interest-based bargaining" in which labor and management enter into discussions about what they see as important in efforts to find solutions to problems instead of focusing on prerogatives and issues of control. According to Charles Kerchner, unions can work to enhance teaching quality by promoting teacher leadership and collaboration in initiatives such as peer review, teacher induction, professional development, and performance rewards.

Peer Review

Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) is a union-initiated teacher evaluation system in which veteran teachers jointly selected by union and district representatives are released from their classroom duties to assist beginning teachers or improve the competence of poorly performing, tenured teachers. At the end of the year, the veteran teachers recommend renewal or nonrenewal of the beginning and tenured teachers' contracts. Union support of an evaluation system that could lead to the termination of tenured teachers who are not responsive to remediation attempts is a dramatic departure from a stance that has typically privileged the protection of teachers' jobs. The American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association both favor PAR and argue that it places teachers in charge of setting and enforcing the standards of the profession.


Although some union locals have not amassed enough support or funding for Peer Assistance and Review programs, a number have established peer assistance programs to provide mentoring to new or veteran teachers expressing a need for help. At the national level, unions provide grants to locals that form partnerships with their districts and local universities to provide intensive training and support for new teachers. On the other hand, contract provisions that give experienced teachers options to move to schools with vacant positions often result in new teachers being assigned to schools with underperforming students, and this contributes to teacher turnover and to low student achievement.

Professional Development

Beyond using the contract to provide time or compensation for teachers engaging in professional development, a growing number of local unions are using contracts to define characteristics of effective professional development, insisting that their districts provide teachers with "ongoing" opportunities for "job-embedded" professional development connected to school and district student achievement objectives. Union contracts can also have negative effects on professional development by reducing flexibility in the how time is used and how teachers are rewarded for their participation in learning new knowledge and skills.

Performance-Based Pay

Although most union-district contracts provide for salary increases to teachers that are based on their years of service or attainment of graduate credits, a number of union affiliates are pushing for pay-for-performance compensation structures that would provide higher compensation to teachers who are exemplary practitioners and who choose to engage in leadership and professional development. Some affiliates also propose to cut the pay of teachers failing to meet high standards. Whether or not student achievement as measured by standardized tests should be a part of the criteria used to determine teacher pay is controversial.

Programmatic Reform Initiatives

In the early twenty-first century, both national unions are engaged in numerous programs that seek to respond to member interests in school improvement and to influence both public policy and public opinion by demonstrating their commitment to student learning. The demand that these activities place on union resources has increased dramatically. In 2001, thousands of schools were involved in a broad array of NEA-supported programs dealing with a broad range of concerns that include changing school conditions that support effective teaching and organizational efficiency and accountability, jumpstarting reform in low-performing schools, teacher education, and the implementation of charter schools. The AFT has placed organizational priority on toughening curriculum standards and preschool education. Both national organizations have programmatic initiatives aimed at improving the teaching of reading and promoting school safety and both are actively involved in promoting teacher involvement in certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Dissemination of Information about Best Practice

Both national unions have made efforts to make useful information about educational practice available to their members. Both publish professional journals and specialized newsletters focused on particular segments of their membership as well as books and reports on dozens of topics. The AFT supports the Educational Research and Dissemination program that helps teachers apply research findings to their classroom practice. These efforts to influence their members' actions have grown substantially and have become more prescriptive in the sense that explicit endorsement of particular strategies is now common. Both organizations, at the national level and in many states and districts, have elaborate websites that both provide information and allow members to engage in professional discussions. During elections and with respect to specific policies under consideration, teacher unions have sought to influence public opinion through press releases, media events, and political advertising. The effort to shape popular thinking about best practice transcends these overtly political actions. Teacher unions buy space in leading newspapers, support cable and public television programming that draws attention to the importance of good teaching, and form partnerships with other educational organizations to disseminate and advocate for research-based practices.

Effect on Educational Reform

There is little research that systematically examines the effects of union actions on improving instruction and on school reform more generally. It is clear however, that certain policies frequently advocated by would-be reformers would not be as far along as they are now without teacher union cooperation and leadership. These steps include peer review of teacher competence, more robust induction programs, job-embedded professional development, and performance-based pay. It is also clear that the greater emphasis on school improvement and student achievement that has characterized teacher union priorities in the late twentieth century is unlikely to be reversed. This redirection is being institutionalized in organizational structures and new staff positions in state and national units, in organizational initiatives such as the Teacher Union Reform Network, and in relationships at all levels with other professional educators, from principals and superintendents in local schools and districts to national partnerships, such as the Learning First Alliance.


AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS AND THE NATIONAL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION. 1998. Peer Assistance and Peer Review: An AFT/NEA Handbook. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

JOHNSON, SUSAN MOORE, and KARDOS, SUSAN M. 2000. "Reform Bargaining and Its Promise for School Improvement." In Conflicting Missions? Teachers Unions and Educational Reform, ed. Thomas Loveless. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute.

KERCHNER, CHARLES. 2001. "Deindustrialization." Education Next (fall):46–50.

KERCHNER, CHARLES; KOPPICH, JULIA; and WEERES, JOSEPH G. 1997. United Mind Workers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

LIEBERMAN, MYRON. 1998. Teachers Evaluating Teachers: Peer Review and the New Unionism. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

MCDONNELL, LORRAINE. 1992. "Unions." In Encyclopedia of Educational Research, 6th edition, ed. Marvin C. Aiken. New York: Macmillan.

MCDONNELL, LORRAINE, and PASCAL, ANTHONY. 1988. Teacher Unions and Educational Reform. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation and the Center for Policy Research in Education.

MOO, GREGORY. 1999. Power Grab. Washington, DC: Regency.

STONE, JOE A. 2000. "Collective Bargaining and Public Schools." In Conflicting Missions? Teachers Unions and Educational Reform, ed. Thomas Loveless. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute.

URBANSKI, ADAM, and JANEY, C. 2001. "A Better Bargain." Education Week 20 (37):53.



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