Teacher's Unions -- Past & Present Research Paper Starter

Teacher's Unions -- Past & Present

(Research Starters)

Modern teachers' unions grew out of the labor movement of the 1930s, but were not legitimized until the 1960s when they expanded dramatically and won the right for their members to bargain collectively in many states. The two major teachers' unions are the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Early in their histories, the unions' emphasis was on improving compensation and working conditions for their members, but they have transitioned to become much more active politically and have a forceful lobby for public educational policy. Despite issues and setbacks such as losing members to small unions and non-affiliated teachers organizations, membership in the unions continues to grow overall.

Keywords AFL-CIO; Association of American Educators (AAE); American Federation of Teachers (AFT); Collective Bargaining; National Education Association (NEA); National Labor Relations Act; No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB); Political Action Committee; Public Employees; Shanker, Albert; Taft-Hartley Labor Act; Unions


In her 1982 article, "Teachers are Organized, But to What End?" educational activist and teacher Susan Ohanian was critical of the motivations of teacher unions. They appeared to her at the time to be less interested in teachers than in public relations and setting a political agenda (Ohanian, 1982). Whether the unions have sufficient interest in the concerns of their members may still be argued today, but there is no doubt that the two major national unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) carry as much political clout as they ever have.

The National Education Association (NEA) was founded in 1856 as the National Teachers' Association. Modern teachers' unions, however, are little more than forty years old. Their membership did not expand significantly until the early 1960s, a time of social ferment of all kinds. The movement was spurred by the actions of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City. Among the activists was Al Shanker, who came to personify the teacher's union movement. He was involved as early as the 1950s in fighting for teachers rights, bringing collective bargaining to New York in the 1960s. Later, as President of the American Federation of Teachers, he transitioned the national organization into a powerful lobby for educational policy by the time of his death in 1997.

"Ironically, it was the fear of Mr. Shanker that helped push the National Education Association toward collective bargaining, thus spreading teacher unionism around the country" (Kerchner, Weeres, & Koppich, 1997, para. 3). At the time that Ohanian's (1982) article appeared, the report, "A Nation at Risk" by the National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983) criticized public education for permitting a "rising tide of mediocrity." Shanker used the opportunity to remold the union away from their labor union model to one more concerned with strengthening education. Shanker "… realized that teachers couldn't be strong when education was weak" (Kerchner et al., 1997, para. 4).

The teachers' unions of the 1960s were modeled on the steel and auto workers' unions that were validated in the 1930s with passage of the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 and the Wagner Act of 1935. Norris-LaGuardia ensured that employees could join unions without employer interference and a few years later, the Wagner Act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), protected union members from retribution by anti-union employers. Later, the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) modified the Wagner Act and reined in unions by outlawing requiring employees to join a union and requiring advance notice of a strike.

Collective Bargaining for State Employees

These laws, of course, applied to the private sector, not to public employees. It was not until 1962 when President Kennedy signed an Executive Order (10988) that collective bargaining rights were granted to Federal employees. State employees, however, were excluded because each state was viewed as a separate political entity, not subject to Federal legislation but Kennedy's action gave impetus to state employees to organize (Wright & Gunderson, 2004, p. 2). Wisconsin was the first state to grant collective bargaining rights to public employees.

Although a majority of states allow public employees to organize and conduct collective bargaining, many have "no strike" restrictions. A strike would impede delivery of essential public services, such as providing education to students or fighting fires. Northern and Midwestern states, with their history of labor union and industrialization, have been most receptive to teachers unions and collective bargaining.


The National Education Association is the largest teachers' union. In its report to the Department of Labor for 2005-2006, it listed its membership at 2.76 million including teachers, support professionals, students, and retirees. Critics charge that the organization is too top-heavy with a national staff of more than 600 employees, more than half of whom earn over $100,000 a year. Total disbursements for the NEA were reported at $344 million (U.S. Dept. of Labor, 2007).

The U.S. Department of Labor website posted the American Federation of Teacher's report for 2006-2007 in September 2007. The AFT evolved historically from working class immigrant roots and is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. It reported 832,000 members and reports disbursing nearly $200 million. A large proportion of the AFT's membership is located in urban areas, in contrast to the much larger NEA whose membership is spread throughout the country (U.S. Dept. of Labor, 2007). Because of the AFT's concentration in the cities it has had more visibility over the years than the NEA due to its easier access to the ears of the national media. Attempts have been made for the two unions to merge since their common objectives generally outweigh their differences. They do share a formal partnership and frequently join to support specific legislative actions.

Although teachers' unions are the only labor organizations that have shown measurable growth in the last decade, they still face membership challenges. At the 2004 annual convention of the NEA, membership and revenue were at the top of the agenda and the organization inaugurated new strategies to expand membership (Golden, 2004). The AFT also recently initiated strategies to foster commitment to membership after years of inaction ("AFT Organizing," 2006). Newer, younger teachers are particularly a hard sell because they do not have the historical perspective of the purpose of unions and do not necessarily appreciate the significance of union membership. They also are less willing to pay rising membership fees, which vary from state to state, but may exceed $600.00 a year, which include local, state and national dues.

Recent Corruption

The image of the union has not been helped by several recent corruption cases in which leaders of two major local affiliates of the AFT were charged with embezzlement. Union members were demoralized when the head of the United Teachers of Dade County (UTD - Miami, Florida) and the Washington Teachers Union (WTU -Washington, DC) were jailed for embezzling union funds. The President of WTU admitted to siphoning more than $4.6 million from 1995 to 2002. Five months later, the president of the Miami local was indicted after an audit revealed that he had taken $3.5 million over a decade. Officers of the national organization acted fast to remedy the situations but could not escape pointed criticism for their lack of oversight. The damage at the local level was devastating, and neither union has fully recovered (Blair, 2004).

As in all occupations, the preoccupation of those in the teaching rank and file is with their daily duties in their assigned classrooms. They pay their dues to their union, participate as required, and rightfully go about their important assignment of educating children. When asked about her reaction to the Washington Teachers Union scandal, prekindergarten teacher Tanya Copeland said that restoring union trust there was going to be a long process and commented that, "I'm not a political person - I'm a productive person. Teaching and learning come first" (cited in Blair, 2004, para. 20).

Teachers' unions, like other unions and powerful professional organizations, also protect their own, and may even defend "bad teachers." Elementary school principal Michael Jazzar (2006) writes of his frustration with the unions and desire to work with poor teachers to further their ends. He says that "the unions undermine their verbal commitment to having a qualified teacher in every classroom by their opposition to the disciplining or dismissal of weak teachers and to providing merit pay or bonuses for outstanding teachers" (Jazzar, 2006, p. 70). Critics accuse unions of standing in the way of progress and needed educational reforms. At the same time, "…many leading unionists agree that their future is not in bread, butter, and classroom size bargaining but in their ability to improve the quality of education and the status of teaching as a profession" (Meyer, 2005, p. 138).

The Unions' Political Activity

The teachers' unions' involvement in politics and educational legislation has been contentious and at times divisive. The union rights struggle is an on-going win-some, lose-some proposition. In June 2007 the Supreme Court in Davenport v....

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