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Published: March 7, 2011

American Federation of Teachers

An international labor union for teachers. Now affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, the American Federation of Teachers traces its origins to 1897, when Catherine Coggin and Margaret Haley, two Chicago classroom teachers, split with the National Education Association and formed the Chicago Teachers Federation. Other female classroom teachers in New York, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Washington, D.C., and other cities formed similar groups to protest exploitation by predominantly male school administrators and school boards. In 1902, the San Antonio and Chicago groups joined the AFL and 14 years later, merged with other dissident NEA member groups to form American Federation of Teachers.
At the time, women teachers were denied job security and academic freedom and worked for salaries 50% below those of male teachers with the same rank, training and experience. Unlike the older, male-dominated National Education Association, whose top priority was school operations, the new female-dominated federation made its primary goals higher salaries, better working conditions and job security. To those priorities the AFT has since added fringe benefits and pension schemes, as well as collective bargaining agreements in nonunion schools and school districts. Initially limited to teachers below the rank of principal, AFT membership of about 1.3 million now includes about 400,000 nonteachers, such as nurses and even meat inspectors, who account for nearly half its membership. Most of its teachers work in urban schools. AFT assists its more than 3,000 locals in winning collective-bargaining agreements and in conducting elections and strikes. It offers members liability insurance and group health, life and accident insurance. Its Legal Defense Fund defends teachers when state laws forbid union organizing or striking by public employees. AFT also publishes a number of important periodicals, including American Educator, American Teacher and Action.
Despite a century of conflict, the AFT and NEA moved to merge their two organizations in 1998, in an effort to increase the political power of American teachers. With NEA membership of 2.7 million teachers and school-support workers such as janitors and cooks, the combined organization would have more than 4 million members with annual revenues approaching $2 billion—enough to influence political policy in education across the nation and influence state policies on school VOUCHERS, SCHOOL CHOICE and other issues teachers oppose.