Q&A: A.F.T. Official Looks Back on 30 Years of Teacher Unionism

October 09, 1991 4 min read

Robert G. Porter, who has served as secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers since 1963, will retire in August. For nearly 30 years, Mr. Porter has overseen the day-to-day operations of the union as it has grown from an organization with fewer than 50,000 members in the 1950’s to its present membership of 750,000.

He once said that his job involved a lot of hard work that most often gave him “a sense of some small successes, and they’re not always on overwhelming issues.”

Mr. Porter recently discussed teacher unionism with Assistant Editor Ann Bradley.

Q. Where do you see the A.F.T. going in the future?

A. The A.F.T. is involved in helping to preserve our industry--the public schools. You do that in a number of ways, but the confidence of the public in the public schools needs to be preserved and improved. In order to do that, you need better schools. This means that the A.F.T. must take a role in making the schools better.

You could take any union and say that that’s also their responsibility, but for us, being a professional union, it is even more so. We are concerned with professional issues, the role of the teacher in the school, the improvement of that role, the results that the schools obtain, improving academics for students, having a rise in the test scores rather than a decline of test scores. But mostly in the sense of making it better for students to earn a living and to live a useful life. So in that way our role is much, much broader than it used to be.

Q. It strikes me that there are some real contradictions or tight spots that you get into when you are trying to move from a more traditional union to a reform organization. when the Chicago school-reform coalition went down to Springfield to try to get some changes made in the new law there, one of the things they wanted was for the school principals to have more control over the buildings. The Chicago Teachers Union was against that proposal because the custodians are members of a union and the C.T.u. views itself as part of a labor movement. How do you reconcile that kind of thing?

A. That’s not the only situation where there is a great deal of controversy and a good deal of irony. I am not personally familiar with that attempt [in Chicago] ....

Our movement for education reform is not a movement to go back to the 1930’s, when school principals were all-powerful. Our proposals are to involve teachers and paraprofessionals and custodians and school-support personnel in the overall operation of the school plant and the purpose for which it exists. I don’t think you do that by setting up dictators of any kind, including school principals.

Like all things, including our own operations, it is necessary to get people together and meet and perhaps try to line up support rather than go to Springfield on your own and try to get legislation that does not consider others. Many unions will come along if they are properly coached. I don’t know whether they tried that or not in Chicago.

Q. What single thing over your 30 years here would you say has been the biggest change in unionism? Is it collective bargaining?

A. I came into the A.F.T. as the result of my work in a local. I was treasurer of the East St. Louis (Ill.) Teachers Union. It was the first local in the country in which the National Education Association and the A.?.W. were pitted against each other in an election. And we won.

Q. Did you invent that [process] as you went?

A. There was no beard, there were no rules, there was no law. There were precedents in the rest of the labor movement {for] collective bargaining. By the way, there were contracts between even some A.F.T. locals and their school employees prior to the 1957 election in East St. Louis--there was St. Paul, Pawtucket, R.I., and earlier, Butte, Mont. But they were contracts that arrived to the A.F.T. locals because we had all the teachers. There was no need for an election in those areas.

Q. So the right to represent the teachers when there were two choices had not been decided.

A. The right to choose from two or more unions had not occurred before. So I became active in my local and we won the election. That became common .... By 1965, all kinds of collective-bargaining elections had been held, with the A.F.T. winning most of the major cities in the country.

In the 60’s there were lots of strikes; in September of every year there were numerous large-city strikes and there were several years in which 60 to 70 different strikes were going on in September. This year we had to hunt for them--there were almost none.

Q. What does that say to you?

A. Part of it is that the method of resolving differences between employer and employee has been regularized and standardized and they can solve their problems through negotiations.

In the 60’s there were very few patterns, very few laws that applied. And so the method of resolving differences was new and acrimonious. Today, there’s another reason though, and that is that it is pretty well recognized that the public employer is broke. And, consequently, if you truly believe that they don’t have any money, what good does it do to strike? .

A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 1991 edition of Education Week as Q&A: A.F.T. Official Looks Back on 30 Years of Teacher Unionism