The United States was still pulling itself out of the Great Depression, and in Europe, rumors of war were becoming more than that. Teachers, whose salaries were already low and whose lack of security made them subject to arbitrary layoffs and doubling and tripling of duties, had been hit particularly hard by the Depression. And while many teachers fought back by trying to organize unions, they were often divided by sex and grade level and frequently fired.
Operation ‘improve teaching conditions’
More than half of all public elementary schools in the country were still of the one-room variety. The average expenditure per pupil in the nation’s public schools was less than $100, and the average salary for the schools’ instructional staff members—teachers, supervisors and principals—was $1,374, up $10 from a decade before.
As far back as 1916, teachers seeking to improve their salaries and working conditions through unions affiliated with the growing labor movement had formed the American Federation of Teachers, and in 1919 teachers in the Greater Boston area had received an AFT charter. The labor-oriented teacher organization began spreading to other cities in the Bay State, and leaders began meeting on a state level to share experiences, organize new locals and push for legislation to help their members.
Meet the MFT
Thus it was in February 1938, eleven representatives of then-existing AFT locals in Boston, Cambridge, Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, Springfield and Western Massachusetts, applied to the AFT for a charter for a state federation to be known as the Massachusetts Branch, American Federation of Teachers. They chose that name, the charter members said, because the Bay State counterpart of the National Education Association was known as the Massachusetts Teachers Federation. (The name existed until the early 60s when it became the MTA and the State Branch, AFT, adopted the name of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, then adopted the name AFT Massachusetts by vote of the delegates at the 2006 annual convention.)
A state-wide push
As teachers—and other public employees—began the long push for bargaining rights, more AFT locals sprang up throughout Massachusetts and began to work for their common interests through the state federation, but major organizing in the state was delayed by the outbreak of World War II. After the war, the ranks of teacher organizations were swelled by women who had gotten a taste for equality in the war effort, and by men who trained for the profession under the GI Bill. But it was not until 1958 that teachers and other public employees in Massachusetts won legislation guaranteeing their right to belong to employee organizations of their choice. Two years later, in 1960, when the Legislature authorized cities and towns to engage in collective bargaining with their employees, teachers were included thanks to the efforts of the AFT.
Shortly before the state’s collective bargaining act was passed, the Boston Teachers Union, Local 66, which had been organized in 1945, defeated the Boston Teachers Alliance in an election to represent Boston teachers. By June of 1966, the BTU had won its first contract with the city, becoming the fourth AFT local to win a contract with a major city. Another AFT MA local, the Salem Teachers Union, Local 1258, organized in 1956, gained the right to represent teachers there in the first representation election held after the new collective bargaining act went into effect in February 1966. The Lawrence Teachers Union, Local 1019, began bargaining for a contract for teachers in that city shortly after the collective bargaining law went into effect but after months of no progress at the bargaining table, AFT MA members in that city conducted the first strike by public school teachers in the state.
Activism continued, and working conditions began to improve until teaches had won unified salary schedules, health-care benefits, vacation pay, pensions, time to prepare for their classes as well as limits on class size.
A growing membership
As an organization, AFT MA continued to grow, establishing its own offices, first in Lynn, the center for several of its early locals in the strong union cities on Boston’s North Shore, and then, as its membership expanded throughout the state, in the capital city of Boston. To accommodate its growing membership, the organization also changed its structure over the years, while at the same time always remaining faithful to its commitment to strong, autonomous locals.
More than educators
AFT MA also began to reach out beyond its base of public school teachers to embrace all school workers: paraprofessionals, nurses, clerks, bus drivers and janitors, and many other workers in education and health fields. In 1970, after a brief strike, the Southeastern Massachusetts University Faculty Federation, Local 1895, won the first contract for teachers at a state college. In 1977, the Wentworth Faculty Federation, Local 2403, hit the pavements at the non-public Wentworth Institute, becoming the first AFT Massachusetts local to conduct a legal strike. In 1978, the Fairview Federation of Nurses, Local 5023, was organized as the first AFT MA local in a hospital.
In its most recent decade, AFTMA, like the AFT, has also broadened its focus for teacher members by leading the movement for school reform. In 2008 AFT MA organized the first union of charter school teachers in the state. Today AFT MA is a strong voice for education reform that is good for students, fair to educators and done collaboratively.