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Founded in Chicago in 1916, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was almost immediately welcomed into the American Federation of Labor by the latter's President, Samuel Gompers. The AFT would quickly charter 174 locals in its first four years, gaining a membership of approximately 10,000 during that period. The decade after World War I, however, was a period of intense struggle for the union. While the AFT fought for academic freedom and tenure laws, school boards conducted campaigns that pressured teachers to resign from it -- often forcing them to sign “yellow-dog” contracts in which they promised not to unionize. By the end of the 1920s, AFT membership had dwindled to 5,000. But in 1932, the Norris-LaGuardia Act outlawed "yellow-dog" contracts, and the union was able to rebuild its membership to 32,000 by the end of the decade -- though its growth was significantly slower than that of other labor unions because the New Deal’s National Labor Relations Act, which allowed collective bargaining, did not extend to public employees.
Unlike the National Education Association, which from its founding in 1850 had attracted administrators and socialist activist teachers, the AFT was much more geared toward representing public workers from urban areas, including cafeteria workers and bus drivers. Whereas the NEA often championed policies that would help institute “a new social order,” the AFT largely focused on academic freedom and tenure laws, particularly challenging the “yellow-dog” contracts.
Like the labor movement in general, however, the AFT was infiltrated by members of the Communist Party, particularly during the latter years of the Great Depression.
In 1943 the AFT published the book America, Russia and the Communist Party in the Postwar World, authored by John Childs and George Counts. This book promoted the diminution of U.S. sovereignty, the formation of a singular world government, and an acceptance of the benefits that socialism could bring to the American people. Among the book's assertions were the following:
Only the United Nations could forge a “just and lasting peace” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
“The main obstacle” standing “in the way of good relations between America and Russia” was “not differences in social systems and ideologies," but rather “a twenty-five year legacy of mutual suspicion, fear, and active hostility.”
America “must … banish from her mind the naïve doctrine, which controlled her relations with the Soviet Union in the early years of the Russian Revolution, that a collectivist state, being contrary to the laws of human nature, economics, and morality, must sooner or later collapse.”
The U.S. "must convince the Russian people she will have no part whatsoever in any effort to isolate, to encircle, and to destroy their collectivist state.”
“[T]hose privileged groups in our own society which are fearful of any change in our property relations [free enterprise system] and which were primarily responsible for the shaping of the earlier policy must not be permitted to determine our postwar relations with Russia.”
In light of “Russia’s stupendous achievements,” the United States “must … have a vivid consciousness of the weaknesses in her own domestic economy.... In the process of rebuilding, perhaps we may be able to learn something from the experiences of the Russian people.”
Soon thereafter the AFT began a process of purging its ranks of Communist influence, a process that was given particular urgency when President Truman issued Executive Order 9835, which called for federal employees to be investigated for subversive activities. Soon after, the AFT revoked the charters of numerous locals for submitting to Communist control, most prominently the New York City and Philadelphia locals. Whereas during the 1920s teacher unions, including the AFT, had fought to protect radicals in the system, AFT members in 1952 voted not to defend any teacher proven to be a Communist.
Called the father of the modern teachers’ union, Albert Shanker became the most influential leader within the AFT in the 1960s, eventually becoming its President from 1974 to 1997. He also served as President of the AFT-affiliated United Federation of Teachers (UFT) from 1964-1984. In his early years at the UFT's helm, Shanker was instrumental in legitimizing collective bargaining for teachers, which, in turn, helped to fuel massive increases in membership. In 1960 in New York City, he convinced thousands of teachers to go on strike. Although he and many of his colleagues were arrested, Shanker was able to win a decisive victory over the school board and, by the end of the decade, union membership increased from 5 percent of New York City’s teaching staff to 97 percent.
During the late 1960s, Shanker fought radical activists and black racists who sought to splinter the teachers’ union movement along racial lines. In 1967, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood became the locus of this clash. The Board of Education had previously merged the black community from Ocean Hill-Brownsville with the largely white, middle-class East Flatbush section of Brooklyn into one district. East Flatbush residents, however, controlled all the seats on the local school board. In an attempt to gain representation, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community broke away from the Board of Education and formed its own school board. Shanker and the UFT initially supported the community’s efforts, but when black district leaders moved 13 teachers and 6 administrators to other districts based on their ethnicity, Shanker saw this as a threat to the union's ideal of integration; thus he organized strikes in 1967 and 1968 that shut down the New York City school system. Viciously attacked by radical activists who labeled him a racist and union thug, Shanker was nonetheless victorious when the Board of Education finally agreed to establish separate school boards throughout the city, thereby giving the Ocean Hill-Brownsville the representation that it had originally sought. In 1969, Shanker quickly built upon his success by organizing the “paraprofessionals,” a group of mostly black and Latino teacher aides, and integrating them into the union with the promise of education, better pay, benefits and security.
Like George Meany and Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO, Shanker maintained a centrist political vision for his union, the AFT. Thus he clashed with factions within the American Left. While he always advocated a larger role for government, he was staunchly anti-communist, defended America’s war efforts in Vietnam, criticized liberals for their lack of support for democratic forces in Poland and in Nicaragua, and cautioned against the Democratic Party's transition from a working-class party to one that centered on identity politics. Where the AFT had 60,000 members in 1960, it grew to one million by the end of Shanker's tenure.
After Shanker’s death in 1997, he was succeeded by Sandra Feldman, who slowly “re-branded” the union, allying it with some of the most powerful left-wing elements of the New Labor Movement. Pressuring John Sweeney to share power, Feldman and the rest of Andrew Stern’s “gang of five” -- Bruce Raynor of UNITE, Terence O'Sullivan of LIUNA, and John Wilhelm of HERE -- were able to get temporary concessions from Sweeney.
When Feldman died in 2004, Edward McElroy was elected President, followed by Randi Weingarten in 2008. All of them kept the union on the leftward course it had adopted in its post-Shanker period.
In 2004, the AFT spent $100,000 in support of an ACORN-run ballot campaign to raise the minimum wage in Florida. Moreover, even while ACORN was embroiled in a massive voter-registration-fraud scandal, AFT's New York State affiliate paid the radical group more than $125,000 to organize teachers.
The AFT is currently part of America Votes, a national coalition of leftwing grassroots, get-out-the-vote organizations. The AFT also co-founded and and provides funding for Free Exchange on Campus, which is also heavily funded by George Soros’ Open Society Institute. As part of the progressive campaign for single-payer healthcare, the AFT joined forces with the Soros-funded Health Care for America Now! in 2009. In December of that year, the AFT also co-founded Defend Education, a leftist coalition that opposed private schools and called for increased funding for public education.
In recent years, AFT has donated money to such left-wing organizations as The American Prospect, Americans for Democratic Action, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Children's Defense Fund, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the Economic Policy Institute, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the William J. Clinton Foundation, and Women's Policy Inc.