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Man w/fist raised in front of a protest at the Arkansas capitol

History of the National Education Association and the U.S. Labor Movement

The National Education Association is the largest labor union in the country—when we unite and speak truth to power, we can and have made an enormous impact in our communities.
Published: July 2022

From the very beginning

This history of America is the story of the workers who built it. The labor movement has inspired more than the immediate interests surrounding someone’s job—it recognizes that no matter where we’re from or what we look like, our society is more just and fair when workers have a voice in the decisions that impact them, their families, and their communities.

1768 – 1950 The Rise of the American Labor Movement

From the beginning


The earliest recorded strike of workers (journeymen tailors) protesting a wage reduction.
The first


Formation of the first trade union, the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) in Philadelphia.


Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations in Philadelphia begins uniting unions within a single city under a central labor body.
Mill girls from Lowell

Before the right to vote

The first turnout of “mill girls” in Lowell, Massachusetts, to protest wage cuts.
Internationally known


Creation of the International Typographical Union begins bringing together local unions of the same trade from across the United States and Canada. 
Children in school room

Our beginning

National Teachers Association is founded by teachers and other educational professionals when ten state education associations issue a call to “unite … to advance the dignity, respectability, and usefulness of their calling.”
A vision for the future


Knights of Labor were founded, and was the first national labor force to recruit women and African Americans as a matter of policy, to organize throughout the country, and to attempt to unify industrial and agrarian workers.
NTA elects Emily Rice


Just three years after membership is opened to women, the National Teachers Association elects Emily Rice as Vice President of the Association. 
NTA becomes NEA


The NTA absorbs three smaller organizations, and gets its modern name: the National Education Association.
Enter the AFL


In Columbus, Ohio the American Federation of Labor (AFL) is founded and dedicated itself to gaining the right to bargain collectively for wages, benefits, hours, and working conditions.

We've always been organizers

Margaret Haley, Vice President of the Chicago Teachers’ Federation gives the "Why Teachers Should Organize" speech at the National Education Association convention. Haley’s speech addressed the need to legitimize teacher unionism and inspire other teachers to organize in order to advance democracy in education.
Leading the way


A decade before Congress granted women the right to vote, Ella Flagg Young (an ally of Margaret Haley) was elected as the NEA’s first female president and helped transform the union.
A dark day...


The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire killed 146 people, nearly all of them Jewish and Italian immigrant women and girls who toiled in the city’s garment industry. In response, the ILGWU called for a strike. Twenty thousand women across New York’s garment industry walked off their jobs in two days, picketing the unsafe conditions they labored under. It was the first major strike by women, for women, who held fast on the picket line as “sister strikers.”


NEA adopts its modern structure of affiliated state and local unions, with delegates to the Representative Assembly—the world's largest democratic deliberative assembly.
BSCP founded


The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was the first labor organization led by African Americans to receive a charter in the American Federation of Labor.


The CIO held its first convention in Pittsburgh adopting the name Congress of Industrial Organizations; in 1935 it had been formed in response to the enduring question of whether union organization should be based on skill or where you worked.
National Labor Relations Act


Created to protect workplace democracy by providing employees at private-sector workplaces the fundamental right to seek better working conditions and designation of representation without fear of retaliation.
Sit Down Strike


- A "sit-down" strike at the River Rouge plant forced Ford Motor Company, the last holdout among the major auto companies, to recognize and negotiate with the UAW, ushering in an era of industrial unionism.

1950 – 2000 The Emergence of Public Sector Unionism



The AFL and CIO merged, and the leadership of the newly combined organization used its collective resources to lobby for labor-friendly laws and to endorse and support pro-labor and pro-public sector lawmakers.
Public Sector Unionism


Wisconsin passes a collective bargaining law for its public employees.
By order...


President Kennedy enacts Executive Order 10988 granting federal employees the right to collectively bargain, setting the stage for NEA and other public sector unions to pursue bargaining rights state by state.

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A new beginning

NEA and ATA Merge


The Representative Assembly passed a resolution requiring racially segregated affiliates to merge. Two years later, NEA became fully integrated, when the NEA and ATA agree to merge at the 1966 Representative Assembly.


NEA membership grows by over one million members.


Florida statewide teachers’ strike—40% of Florida’s teachers strike over salaries and funding for classrooms. This is the first statewide strike in the nation.
Minneapolis is a Union Town


Although illegal in Minnesota at the time, Minneapolis teachers go on strike over low salaries prompting the state to enact the Minnesota Public Employees Labor Relations Act, which protects teachers’ ability to strike.
Supreme Court B&W


NEA wins US Supreme Court case striking down mandatory maternity leave for pregnant teachers.


NEA membership grows over two million members.

A Growing 21st Century Labor Movement

Over 3 Million Members Strong


NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States. We bring the expertise, drive, and dedication of 3 million educators and allies to advancing justice and excellence in public education.


In late February, teachers and support staff shuttered schools in all fifty-five counties in West Virginia over low wages, lack of support, and disrespect. This was the beginning of the #RedForEd movement. There were direct labor actions in Oklahoma, Arizona, North Carolina, and Kentucky. More than 375,000 education workers engaged in a work stoppage to advocate for the schools their students deserved. 
The movement continues


The #RedForEd movement continued. Strikes and work actions empowered hundreds of thousands of educators. Los Angeles, Chicago, Oakland, led their fights for “common good” demands such as increased nurses and counselors, as well as smaller class sizes. Indiana teachers organized a statewide walkout to demand more funding, better pay, and an end to over-testing. Denver educators and their community led a successful strike after their bargain with the district failed and that fall in Little Rock educators organized their community for a one-day strike to stop the resegregation of their schools.
Together, We're Stronger


The members of the Saint Paul Federation of Educators, which include licensed and non-licensed staff, went on strike March 10-12, 2020 after nine months of contract negotiations.
Together, We're Heard


NEA fought for the safe return to in-person instruction and to assert the professional authority of our educators to ensure that all stakeholders, including educators, parents, and the community, provide input into how rescue funds were spent. Additionally, we saw Bourbonnais educators in Illinois on strike when their school district attempted to undermine their healthcare access. Youngstown State University faculty and staff went on strike to retain the rights to their intellectual property. The Geneva Area Teachers Association and their community came together in a 3-day strike to ensure a fair contract and a quality education for their students.
The Schools Our Students Deserve
CEA Strike


Columbus teachers went on strike in 2022 and their top issues had nothing to do with pay. They wanted safer classrooms, smaller class sizes, and more student access to art, music, and P.E. From Oakland, CA where educators led a 1-day strike to condemn the closing of schools in Black and brown neighborhoods to the Twin Cities where educators, families, and the Minneapolis community went on a 20-day strike to ensure education support professionals had a living wage, mental health support for students, and lowering class sizes. Our movement for the safe and equitable schools our students deserve is only growing.

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Across the nation.

New American Union Movement.

More than 200 Starbucks stores have officially voted to unionize according to the National Labor Relations Board. We've also seen first-ever unions formed at REI, Trader Joe’s, Kickstarter, and Medieval Times.
No signs of stopping.

The Future.

Despite Amazon spending millions of dollars in union-busting efforts, workers at the Staten Island facility overcame the odds and voted to unionize by a wide margin. This labor movement is only going to grow. 74% of workers 18 to 24 say they would vote to join a union if they could, and a Gallup poll found that 77% of Americans 18 to 34 approve of unions.

Inspiring us all

Richmond Education Association members made history when they organized, mobilized, and inspired their community to come together to become the first local in more than 40 years to gain the ability to collectively bargain their contracts in Virginia.

What our students deserve...

This year, after 7-days on strike, on picket lines, and in the streets, the Oakland Education Association won significant raises for ALL educators, with an even greater percentage increase for new teachers, to prioritize recruitment. They won social and educational changes that were common good priorities for their community. They won retroactive pay and bilingual stipends for teachers with dual language aptitudes. Their agreement also calls for more school librarians, school nurses, and guidance counselors (including at elementary schools for the first time).

Join our movement!

Together a stronger voice for educators.

When educators are heard, respected, and given the resources we need, we can give students our very best. With more members like you, National Education Association educators will have an even stronger voice to improve our daily lives and the lives of our students.


National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.