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date: 23 January 2020

Summary and Keywords

Since the turn of the 20th century, teachers have tried to find a balance between bettering their own career prospects as workers and educating their students as public servants. To reach a workable combination, teachers have utilized methods drawn from union movements, the militant and labor-conscious approach favored by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), as well as to professional organizations, the tradition from which the National Education Association (NEA) arose. Because teachers lacked the federally guaranteed labor rights that private-sector workers enjoyed after Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, teachers’ fortunes—in terms of collective bargaining rights, control over classroom conditions, pay, and benefits—often remained tied to the broader public-sector labor movement and to state rather than federal law.

Opponents of teacher unionization consistently charged that as public servants paid by tax revenues, teachers and other public employees should not be allowed to form unions. Further, because women constituted the vast majority of teachers and union organizing often represented a “manly” domain, the opposition’s approach worked quite well, successfully preventing teachers from gaining widespread union recognition. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, thanks to an improved economic climate and invigoration from the women’s movement, civil rights struggles, and the New Left, both AFT and NEA teacher unionism surged forward, infused with a powerful militancy devoted to strikes and other political action, and appeared poised to capture federal collective bargaining rights. Their newfound assertiveness proved ill-timed, however.

After the economic problems of the mid-1970s, opponents of teacher unions once again seized the opportunity to portray teacher unions and other public-sector unions as greedy and privileged interest groups functioning at the public’s expense. President Ronald Reagan accentuated this point when he fired all of the more than 10,000 striking air traffic controllers during the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike. Facing such opposition, teacher unions—and public-sector unions in general—shifted their efforts away from strikes and toward endorsing political candidates and lobbying governments to pass favorable legislation.

Given these constraints, public-sector unions enjoyed a large degree of success in the 1990s through the early 2000s, even as private-sector union membership plunged to less than 10 percent of the workforce. After the Great Recession of 2008, however, austerity politics targeted teachers and other public-sector workers and renewed political confrontations surrounding the legitimacy of teacher unions.

Keywords: teacher unions, public-sector unions, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, teachers, labor history, history of education

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