Teacher unionism in New York City has a century-long and at times troubled history, dating back to the founding of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in 1916. The leaders of the AFT and NYC’s Teachers’ Union (Local 5) fought the first US government-instigated Red Scare in 1919 that targeted teachers and union organizers.
But that defense of academic freedom and trade union organizing did not last. The union that later became the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) would literally grow out of the shell of the older Teachers’ Guild (TG), a social-democratic split off from the more radical New York Teachers’ Union (TU), which Communist Party activists had helped reorganize as a CIO union during the Great Depression. The early UFT, like its Teachers’ Guild ancestor, succeeded, in large measure, as a result of the evisceration of the Teachers’ Union, which had been expelled from the AFT in 1940 and effectively destroyed in the late 1950s amidst a swelling chorus of McCarthyite red-baiting, propagated in large part by TG leaders.
A particular target was the CP’s and the TU’s militant and enduring commitment to anti-racist, pro-community politics and mass struggles and actions in New York City throughout the late 1940s and 1950s. Tough craft and business unionism was the TG/UFT response to the TU’s social-movement unionism.
The disappearance of the TU and the concomitant emergence of the UFT after 1960 allowed the NYC Board of Ed to regularize and normalize its relationship with its huge teaching workforce. Beginning in 1961, the Board agreed to collectively bargain teacher salaries and fringe benefits along with working conditions in the schools as well as policies and procedures about teacher transfers and employee protections.
The UFT won its first formal contract in 1961 at a moment in which the demographics of the NYC public schools were dramatically changing and the school system was becoming increasingly racially segregated and inequitable. The overwhelmingly white and largely Jewish unionized teaching workforce taught an increasingly black and Puerto Rican student population that constituted almost half of the one million public school students in the NYC public schools by the late 1960s.
NYC’s students of color were forced to attend inferior, decaying, and racially segregated neighborhood schools. Despite lip service paid to the ideal of integration by both the NYC Board of Ed and the UFT, the city schools were, if anything, becoming more segregated rather than less as the decade of the 1960s unfolded.
Fed up with repeated failures to integrate the city’s public schools and/or equitably distribute educational funding, community advocates — black, white, and Puerto Rican — argued that the only way neighborhood schools could finally be improved was for parents to determine who taught in and administered their schools, what subjects were taught, and who should assess the quality of the teaching. With support from city leaders and powerful philanthropic organizations (especially the Ford Foundation), three demonstration districts in East Harlem, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville (OH-B) neighborhood were established in 1967 and governed by boards of elected parent representatives.
The UFT at first supported the fledgling movement for community control. But the union soon turned against the experiment, following a particularly ugly confrontation between the union and black and Puerto Rican parents during a fall 1967 UFT strike for a new contract. The opposition of communities of color to the UFT had been precipitated by a controversy over how teachers were to deal with “disruptive children” (read: black and brown children) in public school classrooms. In May the following year, the OH-B community-control board dismissed nineteen teachers and administrators from OH-B schools because the largely white group was said to have been hostile to community control. In response, in early September 1968, and extending for more than ten weeks through mid-November, the UFT had walked out, putting some 50,000 public school teachers on picket lines; hundreds of thousands of students and their parents now faced shuttered schools.
Rather than rehash familiar political and ideological debates that defined the 1968 UFT strike, I want to explore how and why most unionized, white, New York City public school teachers came to support the particular kind of trade unionism that the UFT and its president, Albert Shanker, embodied and practiced. To understand that requires exploring the ways that a commitment to a particular form of labor organization and trade union ideology led the UFT and its members to bitterly oppose the community-control experiment.
The primary cause of the polarized and increasingly hostile relationship between unionized teachers and communities of color before, during, and after the 1968 strike was directly tied to the tactical and ideological decisions the UFT made in these years and the long-term implications that those decisions had on ongoing union/community relations.
The Roots of the UFT’s Politics
It is important to consider three core principles that shaped the behavior and beliefs of UFT leaders and members in these years: 1) a rigid and sectarian anticommunist and anti-radical politics and ideology, shaped by an embrace of the ideas and beliefs of Max Shachtman; 2) the UFT’s espousal of its identity as a traditional craft union, narrowly focused on improving the wages and working conditions of its members; and 3) its fervent commitment to notions of teacher professionalism.
The UFT and most of its leaders, especially Albert Shanker — who won the UFT presidency in 1964 — were in intellectual and political thrall to Max Shachtman. Shachtman, a former Trotskyist, served as the intellectual progenitor of a conservative form of social democracy that articulated a staunch anti-Stalinism within which its intense anticommunism was very much in tune with the national McCarthyite sensibilities in the 1950s.
Alongside this politics of relentless antagonism to all things Soviet was an expressed integrationist stance based on a belief in the need to unite the American working class across racial and ethnic lines. Like Shanker, Shachtman supported the mainstream Civil Rights Movement and its recognized leaders in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But both men were also vehemently opposed to the various forms of radicalism and racial and ethnic nationalism that emerged in the mid-1960s with the rise of the Black Power movement.
As was the case with so many left sectarians who experienced the struggles of the 1930s, Shachtman was also a proponent of a bare-knuckles style of politics and ideological engagement, a kind of “kill-or-be-killed” mentality toward political opponents. Shachtman’s influence would be felt decisively within the leadership corps of the UFT. Shanker, in particular, became a devoted protégé. He hired Shachtman’s wife, Yetta Barsh, as his assistant and the two men saw each other regularly at Shachtman’s home, where the two couples socialized and talked politics. Shanker, who was twenty-four years Shachtman’s junior, apparently learned his political and ideological lessons well.
Shanker’s and the UFT leadership’s Shachtmanite ideology was complemented by a tough, blue-collar-type trade unionism that was fully committed from the organization’s earliest years to using hard-ball negotiating tactics to improve the working conditions, wages, and status of rank-and-file teachers and was well within the mainstream of US trade unionism in this period.
The UFT won considerable gains through hard contract bargaining with the Board of Education and periodic strikes. The union also established an early alliance in 1960 with the city’s powerful, all-male building-trades unions, which dominated the New York City Central Labor Council (NYCCLC), headed by Harry Van Arsdale. Van Arsdale and the NYCCLC were committed to expanding the traditional ranks of organized labor in the city in these years by supporting workers in the emerging municipal sector, especially school teachers.
Encouraged by their links to the muscular craft-union ideology of the building trades, the early UFT leaders imagined teachers, in the words of one of them, as “assembly line workers … piece workers.” One UFT member, describing teachers’ behavior during a 1962 strike, recalled that “We were tough like truck drivers and Jimmy Hoffa.”
Strong identification with craft-union toughness by rank-and-file teachers and UFT leaders ultimately led to teachers’ proud refusal to be intimidated by their Board of Education bosses or, more importantly, by parents and community-control advocates. It is not surprising that the early UFT had its greatest organizing successes among the largely male junior high and high school workforce in the NY public schools; the largely female primary school teachers were not as keen on the UFT’s equation of teachers and truck drivers.
Moreover, both before but especially during the 1968 strikes, the UFT also practiced a very specific form of craft-union exclusionism by supporting policies that ended up restricting African-American and Puerto Rican entry into the ranks of new teachers and school supervisors. The UFT and its largely Jewish membership actively supported the NYC Board of Examiners’ decades-old system of competitive testing to determine who could become a classroom teacher and, more importantly, how individual teachers could build the necessary seniority to transfer into the “best” (read “white, middle-class”) schools in the system.
The Board of Examiners’ standardized test favored, as one historian has noted drily, “self-reliant individuals who were judged by standards of ‘objective merit’ divorced from considerations of racial group origin.”
The UFT’s continued support for the testing process effectively restricted the number of black and Puerto Rican teachers as well principals and assistant principals throughout the 1950s and 1960s. By the mid-1960s, only 3 percent of all principals working for the Board of Education and only 8 percent of its teachers were black, at a time when nearly half of the over one million students enrolled in the NYC public schools were students of color.
When the community-control school boards in East Harlem and in Ocean Hill-Brownsville called for greater numbers of black and Puerto Rican teachers and supervisors to work in the communities’ public schools, the UFT considered this an outright assault on the “objective” criteria used to determine access to the profession, and thus to union membership. The union bitterly opposed any effort to move beyond qualifying exams to diversify the workforce in the public schools, a response worthy of the most restrictive craft unions.
The third leg of the stool propping up the UFT’s reactionary labor ideology during the late 1960s community-control struggles was the union’s and its members’ abiding commitment to the idea of teacher professionalism.
Seemingly at odds with the tough, blue-collar, wage worker orientation of the early UFT, professionalism was in fact intimately connected to teachers’ embrace of their identity as and pride in being skilled workers who had earned a measure of control over their workplaces. Harkening back to the earliest expressions of professionalism and teacher pride embodied in the growth of the National Education Association after 1900, the UFT and the AFT, its parent body, argued for the white-collar status of its members.
In addition to the notion of skilled workers’ manliness and toughness, the union embraced teacher professionalism as a key ideological component in its organizing efforts during the 1960s.
Even the UFT’s early support for improvements in conditions inside New York City public school classrooms in the 1960s was not simply a product of teachers’ heightened “social conscience” or to their deep commitment to equal educational opportunities. According to Sandra Feldman (a Shanker protégé who later succeeded him at the helm of both the UFT and the AFT), “teacher consciousness,” which often translated into the union’s argument for more effective schools, “was largely, and understandably self-interest … a struggle to create a respected profession from a beleaguered, downgraded occupation.”
This focus on professional pride and workplace control ran headlong into the militant demands of parents and community activists who were using the idea of community control in the 1960s to fight for a major and equitable reorganization of the city’s public schools. In Shanker’s own blunt words, delivered during the 1968 strike, unionized teachers would never “teach in any school or district where professional decisions are made by laymen.”
A Toxic Brew
UFT unionism in the 1960s was thus built on a toxic combination of Shachtmanite anticommunist ideology, craft-union consciousness, and an embrace of teacher professionalism, tinged with an obsessive emphasis on the menace of community involvement and black nationalism.
That ideological brew helps explain the obdurate nature of the UFT’s political and organizational responses during and after the 1968 strikes. The community-control forces not only needed to be defeated when they tried to change the governance of local schools; they also had to be rooted out, defamed, and, finally, destroyed.
Shachtman had always promoted this kind of hostile response to political “enemies,” as had Shanker’s predecessors in their purge of the TU in the 1950s. Shanker himself exhibited the same level of hostility, undertaking political vendettas against the community-control forces and those who supported them.
The union’s ideological rigidity and racism poisoned for decades the possibilities of building viable alliances between teachers and working-class and poor communities of color in NYC.
Such labor/community coalitions were and remain essential to successful political and institutional struggles not only to transform New York City’s public schools but also to forge a strong democratic and ultimately (one hopes) socialist alternative to predatory capitalism.