The State of the Unions

Unions were created to help teachers and students… but can they still achieve that goal? Read on to learn about the history, progress, and problems surrounding these organizations.

When considering teachers’ unions, most people automatically assume a positive connotation.  The very term union suggests togetherness, and what could be better than a group of teachers coming together for the common good of one another and their students?

An early protest held by the AFT.

In many ways, teachers’ unions have indeed netted huge benefits throughout history.  These groups have created safer workplaces, better working conditions, less racism and sexism in the education profession, and clearer expectations in schools from kindergarten all the way through the university level.

How then, do some people – including some teachers – oppose such organizations?  The past and present state of teachers’ unions is complex, to say the least.

A labor union, by definition, is an organization of workers formed for the purpose of advancing its members’ interests in respect to wages, benefits, and working conditions.  The first labor union, the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) was created in Philadelphia in 1794 and ushered in the beginning of the labor movement.

Cordwainers, or cobblers, were among the first to unionize.

The labor movement originally included mostly skilled workers, those whose trades required detailed and thorough working knowledge.  The Order of the Knights of St. Crispin, for example, was one of the largest labor unions, and aimed to prevent machines or unskilled laborers from taking the jobs of master cobblers in the shoe industry.  As the movement grew, however, unions attempted to encompass unskilled laborers too, such as factory workers on an assembly line.  The formation of these collectives was, ideally, not political in nature; instead, unions were intended only to provide better conditions for workers.

The Great Depression, however, followed by President Roosevelt’s New Deal, anchored the idea of unions firmly to the left.  As a Democrat, Roosevelt aligned his ideas about better unions and fairer treatment of the working class with his party.  From 1936 onward, the Democratic party came to rely on the support and campaigning power of the labor movement.

There are two major teachers’ unions in the United States: The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.  While smaller teachers’ unions exist at the state level, these two are the largest and most powerful in the country.  

The National Education Association, or NEA, came first, founded in Philadelphia in 1857.  It remains the largest and most powerful public-sector union in the country.  

The NEA was the first teachers’ union.

The American Federation of Teachers, or AFT, was founded in Chicago a few decades later, in 1916.  The AFT was more politically active than the NEA, seeking to exclude school administrators in order to garner better working rights for actual school teachers and employees.

Both of these unions sought to achieve collective bargaining rights in the hopes of bettering teacher working environments.  Collective bargaining is the core purpose of both public and private sector unions; it refers to the negotiation of wages and other conditions of employment by an organized body of employees.

Historically, the NEA and the AFT have worked to improve teacher rights across a number of issues.  Both, for example, were early opponents of segregation and other forms of racist mistreatment in schools.  The NEA merged with the African American educator group National Teachers Association in the 1960s, and went on to launch a substantial voter registration campaign called “Fit to Teach, Fit to Vote.”  

Similarly, the AFT supported the March on Washington in 1963 and backed several similarly motivated voter registration campaigns.  Both unions supported the desegregation of all public schools following the ruling of Brown vs. the Board of Education.

The AFT supported the 1963 March on Washington.

Both groups continue to provide funding to civil rights groups today.  In 2017, the AFT donated over a million dollars to various civil rights organizations, including over $90,000 to the NAACP.  The NEA donated closer to $1.5 million to civil rights programs, all funded by membership dues.

The treatment of women in education has also been significantly improved through the power of teacher unions.  By 1900, the majority of teachers in the United States were women, as men began to explore more lucrative industrial jobs around the turn of the century.  The increase in the number of female teachers, however, was not matched with an increase in respect or compensation.  In fact, historian John Rury explains that the growing number of professional women teachers did not create a more just system.

[The number of women] merely resulted in a two-tiered system of employment in education, one in which women did the bulk of the teaching under the supervision of an increasingly authoritative cadre of male administrators.”

John Rury; “Education and Women’s Work”
Unions fostered protests to support better rights for female teachers.

Women teachers were paid far less than men, often compensated at a third of the rate of their male colleagues.  Upon becoming pregnant, most were expected to quit entirely.  

Society assumed that women were either only supporting themselves or teaching merely as an amusing pastime, and that this made their vastly inferior salaries acceptable.

Unions helped women find a voice in addressing this inequality.  Indeed, it was two women who created the foundation for the AFT, the Chicago Teachers Federation, in 1897.  

Goggin and Haley founded what became the AFT.

With high hopes for achieving better salaries for women in education, Catherine Goggin and Margaret Haley organized the group and linked their efforts with the labor movement.  By 1916, they had merged with like-minded groups and become what is now the American Federation of Teachers.

Clearly, unions have done a great deal of good for teachers throughout the past century.  However, in our country’s current climate of political and virus-related chaos, many concerns have arisen.

Many feel that it is unfair and perhaps ironic that unions, touted as being advocates for intellectual freedom, essentially demand membership even from teachers who disagree with their agendas.

Teachers in Charlottesville, VA, advocating for collective bargaining rights.

Because unions can make the argument that collective bargaining “benefits all teachers,” even those who do not officially become members are still required to pay dues.  These dues may be less than those of card-carrying members, but having to contribute money to an organization that they do not necessarily support is a thorn in the side of many union opponents.

These opponents typically feel that modern unions have become too political in nature.  As mentioned earlier, unions have skewed to the American political left for almost a century.  In modern times, this translates to many liberal policies that don’t appeal to all teachers across the United States.

Many teachers and parents, for example, dislike the way unions handled the outbreak of Covid-19.  Unions in Chicago pushed for longer school closures and more virtual options at the behest of the teachers there, which was a difficult burden for many single-parent households and low-income families struggling to find child care.

Some also feel that unions are pushing a too-liberal curriculum, taking issue with the way gender and racial inequalities have been presented.  Some even worry that white children are being made to feel “less-than” when presented with difficult truths about racism in the past, and in our current social environments.  Critics of unions have also taken umbrage with the way climate change has been addressed in the classroom, worrying that children are becoming overly fearful.

Some parents, perceiving political battles to be taking center stage over actual teaching, have even gone so far as to remove their kids from public school altogether.  Since private schools are often prohibitively expensive, some families have begun homeschooling their kids instead.

Listen to Episode 9 of The State of Education podcast for an interview with a homeschooling mama for her insight into this issue and more.

These issues are complex, and spark deep feelings on either side of the political aisle.  They are important things to consider, certainly, but can make it difficult to focus on the true purpose of the teacher’s union.

After all, the ultimate goal of the unions remains the same: to improve the lives of teachers and improve the education system for all.  It’s a worthwhile goal, to be sure, but it’s clear that our country is not quite united on the best way to achieve it.

Do you feel as if unions are still able to achieve the goals they set out with originally?  Do you feel that they benefit teachers, students, neither, or both?  We’d love to hear your views in the comments below!

girl in old fashioned dress standing in library holding books



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