American Federation of Teachers (AFT): Overview, Membership Requirements & Activism

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  • 0:01 American Federation of…
  • 1:11 Structure
  • 3:31 Mission
  • 5:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) provides many benefits to its members across the country. In this lesson, we'll explore the AFT, including how to join, the structure of the organization, and its mission and work across the United States.

American Federation of Teachers

In the first half of the 20th century in America, it was not fun to be an educator. Teachers were paid very little, and female teachers faced restrictions on what they could wear and do, even outside of school. For example, some contracts required that female teachers could only go on three dates per week and that they had to teach Sunday School at a local church.

In 1916, a group of teachers met in Chicago to talk about how to fix the problem of low pay and unreasonable demands on teachers across the country. They formed the American Federation of Teachers, often called the AFT, a union dedicated to fighting for teachers' rights. Their idea was simple: one teacher couldn't change much, but many, many teachers could fight together for change.

Since 1916, much has changed. The AFT has gone from a few educators in the room of a man's house to a major organization with millions of members and work across the world. Let's look closer at the AFT, including membership and structure of the organization, and its mission and work.


Let's say that you get a new job as a teacher in your local school district. How can you join the AFT? And what does it mean that you're a member?

Most teachers will join the AFT automatically when they get a teaching job. That's because the AFT has a specific structure that allows educators to join without having to apply. Essentially, when a person joins his or her local teachers' union, they are usually then automatically a member of a state organization and the AFT.

You can think about the structure kind of like a pyramid, with the largest organization at the bottom and the smallest at the top. It includes the following levels:

At the very top is you, the individual educator. Alone, there's not a lot you can do. You can't change laws or get teachers a pay raise by yourself.

Just below you, a larger organization: your local union. This is made up of the teachers in your local school district. Together, you can change some small, local things, like when teachers have to report to school or what teachers in your district make.

Below your local union is your state organization. Just like what it sounds like, this is a union that includes teachers from across the state. If you are a member of your local union, likely you are also a member of your state's organization. And, just as with the local union, banding together with educators from across the state allows you to change education restrictions, but this time there are enough of you to change policy at the state level.

Finally, larger than the state organization is the AFT, the national organization. Because the AFT has millions of members, it allows them to band together to effect change at the national level. And, just as with the state organization, most teachers who are part of a local union are also part of the AFT by default.

Despite its name, the AFT has more than just teachers as members. Other educational professionals, including paraprofessionals, school nurses, and others, also can be members of AFT. Like the teachers, the structure is similar, with local and state organizations that are also part of the AFT.


Ok, so the AFT seems like a pretty good organization. But what, exactly, does it stand for? What are the things it fights for?

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