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When Did Teachers Start Unionizing?

November 15, 2023

Teachers' unions are bargaining units that convey the demands of educators to officials so they can address their needs to improve working conditions for them. Why are teachers part of a union? Before teachers unionized, regulations in the field were minimal. The development of teachers' unions created a transformative movement that empowered teachers. 

The National Education Association was the first teachers' union founded by forty-three educators in 1857 in Philadelphia. Its official mission statement was “to elevate the character and advance the interest of the profession of teaching, and to promote the cause of popular education in the United States.” 

This new teachers’ union focused on:

  • Raising teacher salaries
  • Child labor laws
  • Educating emancipated slaves
  • Native American education 

The next significant point was the formation of The American Federation of Teachers in 1916 in Chicago. Both of these organizations were groundbreaking in their work to shape the educational system over the 20th century.

In 1965, the scope of these organizations was dramatically widened with the passage of the Primary and Secondary Education Act. Following the act, unions were able to discuss broader topics, such as class size limits, teacher layoffs, and evaluations. They started putting forward increased demands, such as requests for federal and state grants to support their cause.

Evolution Over the Years

From the first teachers’ strike in 1902 to holding online union elections, teachers' unions have come a long way. Here are some notable events in the history of teachers' unions:

  • What is considered to be the longest teacher strike in US history began in 1986 in the small Midwestern town of Homer, Illinois. Teachers went on strike in the town after the school board offered only a 2% raise. Tensions were high and the protest didn’t end until June 1987, essentially canceling school for the entire 1986-to-1987 school year. 
  • The early 1990s were a time of rapid growth for teachers' unions. The American Federation of Teachers, one of the most sizable teachers' unions in America, began to aggressively recruit teachers into their organization. 
  • In 2001, two of the largest teachers' unions–the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA)--joined forces to lobby together and strategize on legal matters. This significantly increased the power of teachers' unions. 
  • Teachers again made their demands heard in September 2012, when the country’s third-largest teacher union took to the streets to protest against a host of issues. For a week, 26,000 Chicago teachers marched on the picket line over low pays, classroom sizes, layoffs, student testing, and more. The strike eventually ended when the union and city officials compromised on a 17.6% pay raise. 
  • The nature of education changed with the COVID-19 pandemic, and in 2020, teachers across the nation joined forces to call for hybrid learning. 

But the pandemic led to another considerable change, as well–with online education becoming the new norm, many teachers’ unions introduced the concept of online voting, as it was a more efficient alternative to traditional ballot voting. Online voting was a change appreciated by many, as it allowed members to vote from the comfort of their homes; it also positively impacted voter turnout. 

Teachers' unions started with humble beginnings in early days and led up to form an influential movement. Their history tells a story marked with resilience, solidarity, and growth. 

Final Thoughts

As we reflect on the past and the enduring spirit of teacher unionization, it is clear that this movement will continue to shape the future of education while improving the lives of educators.

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