From eight local unions to 3,000 locals and 1.6 million members

World War I and the Depression: The American Federation of Teachers was founded in Chicago, with eight locals signing on as AFL President Samuel Gompers welcomed the union into its fold in 1916. The union operated from one room of AFT Financial Secretary Freeland Stecker’s five-room bungalow in Chicago. President Charles Stillman lived next door.

The AFT chartered 174 locals in its first four years, but after World War I, many school boards pressured teachers to resign from the union. By the end of the 1920s, membership had dropped to half the number in 1920, less than 5,000. The union fought for tenure laws and the academic freedom of teachers whose beliefs were being investigated during the Red Scare hysteria.

The Depression worsened the low salaries and economic insecurity that the union had fought during its first 15 years. Female teachers faced “contracts which still stipulated that an employed teacher must wear skirts of certain lengths, keep her galoshes buckled, not receive gentleman callers more than three times a week, and teach a Sunday School class,” said the American Teacher magazine. Loyalty oaths were required in some places, and teachers were dismissed for joining the AFT or for working on board election campaigns.

By 1932, the Norris-La Guardia Act outlawed “yellow dog contracts,” which bound workers not to join a union. By the end of the Depression, tenure of some kind had been gained in 17 states.

While membership grew from 7,000 to 32,000 in the 1930s, the union unfortunately joined with much of labor in a communist witch hunt. As a result, three local charters were withdrawn in 1941.

WWII and post-war: The AFT pushed bond sales, war relief, and air raid programs in the schools. After the war, although AFT policy opposed strikes, numerous locals struck against depressed salaries.

In the McCarthy period during the 1950s, loyalty oaths cropped up again. The AFT played a leading role in opposing this blight on academic freedom, defending teachers wrongly accused of “subversion.”

In the forefront of the civil rights movement, the AFT filed an amicus brief in the historic 1954 Supreme Court desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, and in 1957 expelled Southern locals that failed to desegregate, knowingly losing thousands of members.

1960s and civil rights: Across the country, AFT affiliates worked to wring collective bargaining agreements from stubborn school boards, witnessing a one-day walkout by New York City teachers and the first major U.S. strike by university professors. More than 300 teacher strikes followed during the next 10 years. The AFT grew from fewer than 60,000 members in 1960 to more than 200,000 by 1970.

Collective bargaining pioneer Albert Shanker was elected AFT president 1974. He was one of the country’s most influential voices on education reform.

1970s through 1990s: Although it struggled with the tough issue of decreasing support for urban education, by the mid-1970s the AFT was the fastest-growing union in the country. In 1978, the AFT established a healthcare division and, in 1983, one for local, state and federal government employees. A division for support staff and paraprofessionals soon followed.

The 1980s saw a concentrated movement toward education reform. The AFT and its more than 600,000 members worked to tear down the artificial barriers between contract bargaining and other professional issues, and to include teachers and staff as decision-making partners.

The Federation entered the 1990s with nearly 700,000 members, but real education reform became more daunting as the new millennium neared.

The 21st century: The Futures Committee, a panel of AFT vice presidents, spent two years consulting with members to shape a new direction for union governance and structure, work that continues today.

Under the leadership of President Randi Weingarten, the union has grown to 1.6 million members in 3,000 locals and launched initiatives such as Reclaiming the Promise, the AFT’s signature umbrella campaign, that crosses all constituencies and includes a focus on community partnerships.

— Excerpted from a brief history of the AFT

>Learn more about AFT’s first 100 years in numerous short videos and an interactive timeline.