An Overview of the American Federation of Teachers

american federation of teachers
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The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was formed on April 15, 1916, with the purpose of being a labor union. It was built to protect the labor rights of teachers, paraprofessionals, school-related personnel, local, state, and federal employees, higher education faculty and staff, as well as nurses and other healthcare-related professionals. AFT was formed after many previous attempts at forming a national labor union for teachers had failed. It was formed after three local unions from Chicago and one from Indiana met to organize. They were supported by teachers from Oklahoma, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. The founding members decided to seek out a charter from the American Federation of Labor which they also received in 1916.

The AFT struggled in the early years with membership and grew slowly. The idea of collective bargaining in education was discouraged, thus many teachers did not want to join, due to the local political pressure they received. Local school boards led campaigns against the AFT which led many teachers to leave the union. Membership declined significantly during this time.

The American Federation of Teachers did include African Americans in their membership. This was a bold move as they were the first union to offer full membership to minorities. The AFT fought hard for the rights of their African American members including equal pay, rights to be elected to a school board, and the right for all African American students to attend school. It also filed an amicus brief in the historic Supreme Court case over desegregation, Brown v Board of Education in 1954.

By the 1940s, membership had begun to gain momentum. With that momentum came controversial union tactics including a strike by the St. Paul chapter in 1946 which eventually led to collective bargaining as an official policy by the American Federation of Teachers. Over the next several decades, the AFT left its mark on many educational policies and on the political realm in general as it grew into a powerful union for teacher rights.


The AFT started began with eight local chapters. Today they have 43 state affiliates and over 3000 local affiliates and have grown into the second-largest educational labor union in the United States. The AFT has focused on the inclusion of organizing workers outside the PK-12 education field. Today they boast 1.5 million members and include PK-12th-grade school educators, higher education faculty and professional staff, nurses and other healthcare-related employees, state public employees, educational paraprofessionals, and other school support members, and retirees. The AFT headquarters are located in Washington D.C. The AFT’s current annual budget is over $170 million dollars.


The mission of the American Federation of Teachers is, “to improve the lives of our members and their families; to give voice to their legitimate professional, economic and social aspirations; to strengthen the institutions in which we work; to improve the quality of the services we provide; to bring together all members to assist and support one another, and to promote democracy, human rights and freedom in our union, in our nation and throughout the world.”

Important Issues

The American Federation of Teachers’ motto is, “A Union of Professionals”. With their diverse membership, they do not focus just on the labor rights of one set of professionals. The AFT encompasses a broad focus for improvements across each of their members’ individual divisions.

There are several key components that the AFT’s teacher division focuses on including embracing innovation and ensuring quality in education through broad reform approaches. Those include:

  • Supporting teachers through the comprehensive teacher development and evaluation template
  • Guidance in National Board certification and professional development through the Educational Research and Development Program
  • Efforts in school improvement include designing high schools for student success, supporting disadvantaged students through community schools, and assisting reforms in persistently low-achieving schools
  • Urging for adequate school funding to prevent devastating teacher layoffs
  • Collaborating in the development and implementation of the Common Core Standards
  • Providing input on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization
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Meador, Derrick. "An Overview of the American Federation of Teachers." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Meador, Derrick. (2020, August 26). An Overview of the American Federation of Teachers. Retrieved from Meador, Derrick. "An Overview of the American Federation of Teachers." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).