From strikes in the 1960s to the criticism of public education that echoes through the 1990s, the history of teachers unions in America is surprisingly short.
It wasn’t until 1961 that New York City teachers became the first to win the right to negotiate wages and working conditions.
The idea of teachers bargaining was controversial then. The National Education Association, now the largest teachers union and an advocate of collective bargaining, campaigned against it.
When Albert Shanker started organizing New York City teachers, favoritism ruled teaching assignments. Teachers patrolled playgrounds and had to bring a note from their doctors when they were sick.
Shanker set a new pattern for activism among teachers. Inspired by how his mother’s union improved her working conditions as a sewing-machine operator, he led strikes and negotiated for more money, benefits and time off.
Later, Shanker’s American Federation of Teachers took on issues such as class size, teaching standards and the right to expel disruptive students.
Shanker’s successes drove teachers across the country to consider the methods of the industrial labor movement. The NEA followed Shanker’s example and eventually eclipsed his union in power and size.
In Washington state, teachers lost jobs fighting for union representation during the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the Washington Education Association represents 65,000 teachers and other school employees and is regarded as a dollar-rich political heavyweight. Its political arm is among the top contributors to state campaigns. Most money flows to Democrats.
As teachers unions grew more powerful they gained a reputation for obstructing change.
The 1990s brought a backlash of public opinion, led by conservatives who never enjoyed the largesse flowing from union pocketbooks.
A 1993 Forbes magazine article compared the NEA to Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. An accompanying chart showed the rise in unionism and the decline of SAT scores superimposed over a photograph of a worm crawling from an apple.
Today, as school voucher proposals and other efforts to privatize education gain momentum, union leaders react to the backlash by pushing their own version of school reform.
They advocate giving teachers a greater voice in school management through school-based councils. That, they say, is the best way to improve classrooms.