A More Perfect Union

The history of teachers’ unions is lengthy but important to understand.


photo by Claire Majerac

Teachers’ unions across the country have been influential, especially amidst the global pandemic.

Claire Majerac, Opinions Editor

I can remember a group of teachers at Shaler Area School District going on strike for weeks on end in 2013, prolonging their summer. I got home from a day of fourth grade and overheard my parents discussing the story. I asked them why and even how this was allowed to take place. I mean, how can teachers cut class when they are the ones charged with holding it? My parents promptly told me that the teachers’ unions protected their right to go on strike. 

It is commonly known that labor unions advocate for better working conditions and better pay for their workers, and teachers’ unions are often very similar. These unions have been fighting for improvements to educators’ jobs for over a hundred years.  

The National Education Association started up in 1857 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This was one of the first major teacher’s unions in the country, and remains to be the biggest one today. ”

In the 1850s, education was a special privilege granted to very few children. For children of color, even learning to read or write was illegal. But in 1857, a group of Philadelphia teachers had enough. They decided to come together and protect and fight for every child’s right to a free education. 

The working conditions for teachers were not immediately amended, especially for female teachers. Some rules from the late nineteenth century were starkly outdated, but some are still problems that workers face today.  

For example, Mary Murphy was a teacher in the Brooklyn city schools in 1891. After working in the city public schools for ten years, she married. The Board of Education promptly fired Murphy for “gross misconduct.” There was a rule in the Board of Education that did not permit teachers to marry. Eventually, after a lengthy legal battle, Murphy was reinstated by the Board of Education after a state court ruled that “gross misconduct” was not sufficient grounds to terminate her. From then on, teachers were allowed to marry. 

Bridget Pexitto, another teacher in the Bronx, married as well. But when she moved forward in her relationship and got pregnant in 1913, she was fired. The Board of Education accused Pexitto of neglecting her job by having a baby. Pexitto was eventually returned her teaching job, but only after the state commissioner of education fought for her. 

The National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers’ union in the United States, has roots going back for more than a century, starting in 1857 in Philadelphia.  But the NEA did not allow female members until after 1866. In spite of this, the NEA was still relatively progressive from the beginning.  

The organization denounced slavery in 1865. NEA president at the time, J.P. Wilkersham, suggested that no southern seceded states from the Civil War be admitted back into the union without free public schooling for both Black and white children. In the 1940s, the union refused to hold meetings in cities that discriminated against their delegates on a racial basis. When the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education, Black teachers and administrators were targeted as schools tried to evade the new integration laws. In 1945, the NEA created a one million dollar fund to “protect and promote the professional, civil, and human rights of educators.”  Soon, delegates of the NEA became more and more diverse as time progressed, and the union elected its first Black female president in 1968, at the end of the Civil Rights Movement.

Today, the NEA and other teachers’ unions across the country remain influential in the direction of public education and the protection of teachers.

The president at the time, J.P. Wilkersham, suggested that no southern seceded states from the Civil War be admitted back into the union without free public schooling for both Black and white children. ”

A study from The Brookings Institution shows that, in the fall of 2020,“school districts with lengthier collective bargaining agreements” were less likely to re-open in the fall semester of 2020.

The study continues that those who believed that the “risks of in-person instruction far outweigh the harms caused by distance learning” tended to lean in favor of teachers’ unions. Since most teachers’ unions advocated for remote learning during the pandemic, one’s opinion on unions could have ultimately depended on one’s view of COVID-19.

Teachers’ unions have a larger and important history that is integral to understanding the way that public education functions.”

Conversely, teachers’ unions have long be used as a scapegoat for low test scores and poor teaching. In the view of those opposed to teachers’ unions, teacher protections can disincentivize hard work and accountability.

At North Allegheny, most teachers are united under the American Federation of Teachers (the AFT), the country’s second-largest teachers’ union. The NEA and AFT share the same vision but differentiate along their “historic separation.” 

The NEA is a more inclusive organization. Anybody in the teaching profession — whether it be a current public school teacher, former public school teacher, or teacher in training — is offered membership. 

The AFT, however, extends membership to anybody teaching K-12 education in a public, private, or charter school. The AFT tends to be associated with the labor movement, while the NEA views itself as a professional organization.

Teacher unions are often seen in the media boldly on strike, expressing their dissatisfaction with salary levels, class sizes, and the availability of resources. However, this portrayal is incomplete.  For example in Pennsylvania, unions have been influential in the push for masking in schools.

Throughout American history, teachers’ unions have played a fundamental role that is integral to understanding the way that public education functions.