A look at the growth of American teachers’ unions since 1857

by Grace

Teachers’ unions over the years, from the Hechinger Report:

…  A look at the history of unions and strikes shows how unions gained power, and their varying levels of success in past collective bargaining attempts across the country.

1857: The National Education Association (NEA) is founded in Philadelphia by 43 educators. The new union focused on raising teacher salaries, child labor laws, educating emancipated slaves and how the forced assimilation of Native Americansaffected their education.

1897: The Chicago Teachers Federation is formed to raise teacher salaries and pensions. At this point, teacher compensation mainly consisted of room and board in the local community.

1902: Teachers, parents and students unite in Chicago for the first teachers’ strike, which occurs after a teacher is suspended for refusing to allow a disruptive child back into her classroom. According to journalist Dana Goldstein, the strike helps the newly formed CTF.

1906: In New York, the Interborough Association of Women Teachers fights for equal pay for equal work. During this time, teacher salary is based on position. Secondary-school teachers are paid more than elementary-grade teachers, and non-minority men are paid more than women.

1916: The American Federation of Teachers is created in Chicago as several local unions band together. The AFT focuses on salaries and discrimination against female teachers, including contracts requiring that they wear skirts of certain lengths, teach Sunday school, and not receive “gentleman callers more than three times a week,” according to American Teacher magazine.

1920s -1940s: Strikes are rare, since striking workers were often fired quickly and laws in some states make government worker strikes illegal. Unions focus on improving pay, improving conditions in school, and increasing federal aid to schools.

1950s: The NEA affiliates with 18 black teacher’s associations in states where segregation is rampant. By 1951, 98 percent of urban school districts are paying teachers based on professional qualifications rather than on the grade they teach.

1959: Wisconsin becomes the first state to pass a collective bargaining law for public employees. Union membership increases across the country as more states pass similar laws.

1962: The New York City teachers’ strike lasts one day, but shuts down more than 25 of the city’s public schools. Time labels it the “biggest strike by public servants in U.S. history.”

1968: Florida statewide teachers’ strike–More than 40 percent of Florida’s teachers strike over salaries and funding for classrooms. This is the first statewide strike in the nation.

New York City teachers’ strike–Three separate walkouts close schools for 36 days. The strike occurs after the newly created school board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn, dismisses mostly white and Jewish teachers from the majority black district… The strike ends after the state steps in, and the teachers are reinstated.

1970s and 1980s: Striking breaks out across the country. Although it is illegal in Minnesota at the time, a 1970 strike by Minneapolis teachers over low salaries prompts the state to enact the Minnesota Public Employees Labor Relations Act, which protects teachers’ ability to strike. Strikes also take place in Philadelphia, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Chicago, over pay, medical benefits and contract demands…

1990s- 2000s: Laws restricting collective bargaining rights and the differences in contracts and salaries between districts have greatly diversified the role of unions in each state. Unions have taken stronger positions in political campaigns to support like-minded candidates. They have also been vocal about changes to teacher evaluations, an increased number of charter schools, and the introduction of merit pay, and still have the power to impact education reform rollouts in some of America’s largest cities, as was demonstrated in Chicago.

Our local teachers were part of the wave of strikes during the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1976 …The Eastchester Teachers Association went on strike. The strike leaders went to jail; striking teachers were fined two days pay for every one spent “out,” and Eastchester itself made the history books as having provoked the second longest teachers’ strike in New York history.

Related:  Teachers unions overwhelmingly contribute to Democrats (Cost of College)

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2 Comments to “A look at the growth of American teachers’ unions since 1857”

  1. So it looks like the unions were mainly concerned with fighting discrimination, and ensuring teachers were paid a living wage. Is that so bad?

    And teachers mainly being compensated with room and board? You can see right there the root of our problems with teachers – we have never seen teachers as professionals. The unions at least were trying to get society to see teachers as employees with wages rather than some kind of au pair, which was a step in the right direction.

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  2. I agree the union’s causes were admirable, but today they’ve grown so powerful and their goals are often in conflict with quality education.

    I don’t think the unions have always taken the right steps in trying to improve their professional image, advocating for automatic raises and LIFO, for example.

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