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Guide to the United Federation of Teachers Hans Weissenstein Negatives PHOTOS.019.001

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
2nd Floor
New York, NY 10012
(212) 998-2596

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Holly Halmo, Stephina Fisher, Erika Gottfried, Kevin Andreano, Devon Bixler, Aliqae Geracci.

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on October 29, 2020
Description is in English. using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

 Edited by Megan O'Shea to add main box numbers to the file inventory to simplify paging requests and for compliance with DACS and ACM Required Elements for Archival Description  , October 2020

Historical Note

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) was founded in March 1960, in New York City. The UFT immediately began its campaign to gain collective bargaining rights and won a promise from the New York City School Board of a collective bargaining election in the 1960-1961 school year. When the Board failed to honor its pledge, a one-day work stoppage and broad support from other unions forced the issue. The election, in which the National Education Association (NEA) and the Teachers' Union stood in opposition to the UFT, was held in December 1961; the UFT won. Teachers swelled the ranks of the new union, and soon specialized chapters were created to accommodate other categories of school employee such as laboratory technicians, school secretaries, psychologists, guidance counselors, and para-professionals. When the UFT's president, Charles Cogen, was elected president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), in 1964, he was succeeded by Albert Shanker, who served as president of the UFT from 1964 until 1986. Albert Shanker's tenure coincided with one of the most challenging eras in the history of New York City schools, a time characterized by rapidly changing demographics, racial conflict, and new demands from parents and community-based groups, overcrowded and dilapidated buildings, teacher shortages and citywide fiscal crises.

By the mid-1960s the UFT had more than 50,000 members and was the largest local union in the AFL-CIO. The union responded to changing conditions in the schools by backing the More Effective Schools (MES) program, aimed at improving teaching methods in ghetto schools, and other innovative programs. But by September 1967, when contract negotiations with the Board of Education broke down, the UFT teachers were driven to strike to achieve an increase in wages and benefits. In the wake of the strike the union was fined and Albert Shanker sentenced to fifteen days in prison for violation of New York State's "Taylor Law," which bans strikes by public employees. Earlier in the year the city had agreed to implement a school decentralization plan in exchange for increased state funding. The plan, which created three experimental school districts in East Harlem, the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn, was greeted with enthusiasm by African-American and Latino parents who hoped for a greater voice in their children's education. The UFT, on the other hand, feared that community control of schools would undermine teachers' hard-won rights and weaken the union's bargaining power. Bitter conflict ensued, resulting first in a walk-out by 350 teachers in Ocean Hill-Brownsville in May of 1968, and, in September 1968, a citywide teachers strike. Albert Shanker was again sentenced to jail for 15 days for defying a court order to end the strike. An uneasy settlement, involving a state-appointed trustee in Ocean Hill-Brownsville and reinstatement of displaced teachers, left a legacy of distrust between the union and some community activists and scarred race relations in the city for many years.

In 1972 Shanker was a central figure in negotiating the merger of the AFT and the National Education Association (NEA) in New York State. The resulting organization, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), brought more than 100,000 upstate teachers into the labor movement and was a rare example of close and amicable cooperation between the two major national organizations representing teachers. In 1974 Shanker was elected president of the American Federation of Teachers. Retaining his position as UFT president for some years, he went on to play a key role in re-establishing New York City's financial stability after the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s. He was succeeded as president of the UFT by Sandra Feldman in 1986, and died in 1997 after a long struggle with cancer.

The UFT had its origins in the Teachers' Union (TU) of New York City, and the Teachers' Guild. The Teachers' Union was organized in 1916 and chartered as Local 5 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). A growing political struggle within its ranks between a left-wing dominated by members of the Communist Party and their sympathizers, and a more moderate group consisting of Socialists, liberals and less ideologically-inclined teachers resulted in a split in 1935, when the TU's president, a moderate, withdrew with a majority of the membership to found the Teachers' Guild. In 1941 the AFT revoked the Teachers' Union's charter. In the succeeding years the TU was weakened by McCarthy-era persecution and the increasingly successful organizing efforts of the rival Teachers Guild (and later the United Federation of Teachers). It went out of existence in 1964.

The Teachers' Guild, born in 1941, when it won recognition by the American Federation of Teachers, addressed the problems of a fragmented workforce divided into small teachers' organizations representing a multitude of ethnic and religious groups, geographical areas and distinct school levels (elementary, junior high school and high school), and began the long struggle for collective bargaining rights in the New York City school system. A job action initiated by militant leaders of the High School Teachers Association (HSTA) in 1959, gave the Guild an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to building solidarity among all categories of teachers. David Selden, then the Guild's only full-time organizer (and later president of the American Federation of Teachers), enlisted the help of younger Guild Board members such as junior high-school teachers George Altomare and Albert Shanker. After month-long picket lines at schools across the city, substantial gains were won by the high-school teachers, and bridges had been built which would eventually lead toward merger between the Guild and the HSTA. That merger was effected in March 1960, with Guild president Charles Cogen taking over as president of the newly-formed United Federation of Teachers.