Trade Unionist McElroy Takes Helm of AFT Labor Union

Published September 1, 2004

At its July 14-17 convention in Washington DC, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) installed union secretary-treasurer Edward McElroy as president, replacing outgoing president Sandra Feldman, who did not seek reelection due to health concerns.

“If the dictionary had a definition of trade unionist, it would have Ed McElroy’s picture on it,” said Mark Richard, the AFT’s administrator of the United Teachers of Dade.

Richard’s comment illustrates the philosophical differences between AFT and the National Education Association (NEA). Without a doubt, the clearest distinction is that AFT embraces the labor union image.

By contrast, a majority of NEA members and affiliates want nothing to do with the AFL-CIO. Many NEA state affiliates flatly deny they are labor unions. Most NEA members want to be associated in the public’s mind with doctors, lawyers, and engineers–not truckers, mine workers, and longshoremen.

Under Al Shanker and Sandra Feldman, that distinction wasn’t always obvious. But in Edward McElroy, AFT now has a president who is 100 percent old-fashioned unionist.

In his first speech as AFT president, McElroy hit all the usual highlights–damning Bush, urging activism for Kerry, promising to help fix and fund the No Child Left Behind Act, and so on. But he also spoke at length about the labor movement as a whole–something never heard from an NEA president, leader of the largest single union in the nation.

“It’s no secret that these are not the easiest times for labor unions,” McElroy said, noting that although AFT has grown in the past two years, it was an exception. He recounted the declining membership numbers in private-sector unions, now constituting less than 9 percent of the U.S. workforce. “It hasn’t been a walk in the park lately for public-sector unions, either,” he said.

McElroy told the delegates they had a responsibility to assist other unions the way the industrial unions assisted AFT in its formative days. “Steel workers and teachers. Auto workers and nurses. Factory workers and government workers. We all have a bond,” he said.

Mike Antonucci ([email protected]) is director of the Education Intelligence Agency, which conducts public education research, analysis, and investigations. He also publishes a weekly Communiqué on teacher union activities, in which this information first appeared.