The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is a union associated with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO). Its members include teachers, counselors, school custodians and school bus drivers. The formation of this union occurred in 1916 and touched off a debate that continues today over the issue of whether teachers should join unions.

In order to understand unionization it is necessary to look at the changes in society in the United States in the early 1900's. Industrialization and urban growth were both experiencing a period of rapid expansion. Wealth and control were in the hands of small groups of economically privileged people. Workers in the United States were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their working conditions and lack of rights. They began to form labor unions in an attempt to gain input into such areas as pay and working conditions.

Teachers at this time also started to feel the need to be organized in order for their voices to be heard by those who set policy and curriculum. They felt that due to the current conditions in business and industry they were being treated as voiceless workers rather than professionals. It was at this time that progressive education principles were being introduced which challenged some of the traditional aspects of education. Progressive educators were introducing greater freedom and activity in the classroom. Emphasis was placed on informality and working in groups where discussion and activities could take place. The emphasis was moving away from learning from just one text to gathering materials from many sources and children working at their own pace.

One of the AFL'S most prominent founders and an officer of the union in the early years was the philosopher and progressive educator, John Dewey. Dewey came from a "Social Gospel" background of religion that stressed that the worker and employer should unite in serving each other's interest. At this time John Dewey was very critical of the decision making process currently being used in public education. Teachers were not allowed to participate in that decision making process. In an article written by Robert Westbrook entitled " Schools for Industrial Democrats: The Social Origins of John Dewey's Philosophy of Education" published in the American Journal Of Education, August 1992, John Dewey's ideas about control and democracy are clearly stated. "The remedy for the evils of the control of the schools by politicians," he said, "is not to have one expert dictating educational methods and subject matter to a body of passive recipient teachers, but the adoption of intellectual initiative, discussion and decision throughout the entire school corps." Dewey also went on to discuss democracy. "What does democracy mean" he asked, "save that the individual is to have a share in determining the conditions of his own work; and that, upon the whole, through the free and mutual harmonizing of different individuals the work of the world is better done than when planned, arranged, and directed by a few, no matter how wise or of good the intent of that few?" Dewey encouraged cooperative social organization, association and exchange among teachers as a substitute for supervision, critic teaching and technical training.

Today the AFT continues to uphold the rights of teachers to help form school policies and programs. The AFT Motto is " Democracy in Education and Education for Democracy." The AFT continues to list as it's chief objectives the promotion of professionalism in teaching as well as securing appropriate wages, better working conditions and job security for it's members. AFT members still believe that collective bargaining along with discussion between those representing teachers and administrators is the democratic process that allows them to achieve their goals.

The AFT headquarters are in Washington,D.C. They publish a monthly publication "American Teacher" and a quarterly publication "American Educator."

Prepared by Mary O'Neill