Book shows a tenacious fighter, warts and all
Sep 20, 2007 3:40 PM
UFT President Randi Weingarten discusses the Albert Shanker biography with author Richard Kahlenberg.
Nobody’s as big as their myth, but Al Shanker comes close. The son of impoverished Jewish working-class parents, themselves immigrants from Tsarist Russia, Shanker came on the 1950s scene at a time when teachers in New York City had no power, and fully half were at-will employees serving at the whim of a principal and paid less than car washers.
A lifelong democrat, economic liberal and widely acknowledged as a brilliant tactician, Shanker — who presided over both the UFT and the AFT throughout much of the 1960s through the 1990s — believed that public education and unions were essential in maintaining democracy at home and abroad and in growing a middle class. He also believed unions were necessary checks and balances on corporate and government power, even as he saw democratic government, as he wrote in 1982 in his weekly New York Times column, “Where We Stand,” as “the indispensable instrument of human progress.”
Successful people are fortunate to be known for one big thing; Shanker is known for at least three: one of the founders of the modern teacher union movement, an “education reformer” and a cogent exponent of what author Richard Kahlenberg calls a “tough” and unapologetic liberalism. All Shanker’s strengths and weaknesses as UFT President Randi Weingarten attested at a recent UFT book-signing party for Kahlenberg, [see p.4] are portrayed in Kahlenberg’s “Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy,” (Columbia U. Press) a finely tuned, must-read biography of a singular union leader.
Shanker was a defender of public schools who sought not only to protect teachers’ livelihoods but to build a good school system and defeat parasitic private initiatives that could have eliminated the common school. Kahlenberg calls the late union leader “arguably the single individual most responsible for preserving public education in the United States during the last quarter of the 20th century. It’s a fair portrayal.
Shanker came into his own at a time when some thought professionalism and unionism didn’t mix, when strikes by public employees were not only illegal but career-ending, and when teachers in New York were scattered over 106 teacher organizations, including two other unions. He and others soon led the UFT — a merger of the old Teachers Guild with the newly formed Community for Action Through Unity — through two strikes for collective bargaining in 1960 and a first contract in 1962 and through divisive fights over community control of schools in 1967 and 1968 that had nasty racial and religious overtones.
In the 1980s, Shanker became an education reformer and advocate of national education standards. A fierce critic of vouchers, he pioneered the idea of teacher-led charter schools as an alternative, though not as for-profit entities capable of sucking public money away from public education. He saw them instead as centers of learning in which teachers had room enough and time — with small classes, adequate resources, professional development opportunities, mentoring — to be their best in innovative settings.
As president of the AFT from 1974 until his death in 1997, Shanker presided over the AFT’s shift toward political involvement, making the union a first-rate player on the national level. His Times column, running as a paid ad, was widely read.
Kahlenberg succeeds in explaining just how much the country has changed in the last 40 years and what Shanker and his fellow UFTers did to make that happen. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. needed help organizing the civil rights movement, Shanker and the UFT were there; they donated station wagons and wrote a check for $10,000. They gave King the union’s John Dewey Award.
Shanker, tough liberal that he was, also took his civil rights crusade on the road, marching from Selma to Montgomery at a time when the Klan, the county sheriff or the governor of Alabama would just as soon shoot a New York Jew as a Southern black.
Kahlenberg also has an excellent description of the battle over school decentralization in Brooklyn’s impoverished Ocean Hill-Brownsville section. There, Shanker, a longtime and valued supporter of desegregation and backer in 1966 of the controversial independent Civilian Police Review Board, which would have investigated allegations of police misconduct, was unfairly branded a racist for fighting the firings of teachers discharged simply because they were white. He supported affirmative action as an aggressive outreach and recruitment program, but not as the system of racial preferences and quotas it later often became.
Shanker insisted that due process and a union contract were sacrosanct but he also led the fight to increase the number of minority teachers by both organizing paraprofessionals and negotiating a career ladder for them to become classroom teachers. Civil rights veteran Bayard Rustin called the successful organizing of the city’s mostly black and Hispanic (and notoriously low-paid) paraprofessionals “the most effective affirmative action effort in the nation.”
Too hard on Beame
The chapters on New York City’s near default in 1975, in which union pension funds were invested in city bonds that kept the city fiscally afloat, accurately reflect the pressures on city workers, though Kahlenberg goes too hard on Mayor Abe Beame, a former public school teacher and union rep who understood poverty and joblessness, and too easy on the city bankers for laying off teachers and other city workers during the fiscal crisis.
The section on the early education standards movement is also superb, as is his depiction of Shanker’s focus on school safety, where removing chronically disruptive children from the classroom — something he insisted had to be done so that other children were not prevented from learning — also meant offering them first-rate alternative educational settings.
If there’s a weakness to the book, it’s Kahlenberg’s blurring the lines between biographer and advocate. Lilies don’t need gilding. Shanker and other liberal “hawks” weren’t alone in respecting trade union rights and soberly assessing the totalitarian aspects at the heart of international communism. But respecting democracy and rejecting totalitarianism didn’t have to equal supporting the American military policy in the Vietnam War, backing the defense buildup under Ronald Reagan or arming the fascist yet-anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua. Plenty of critics of unilateral U.S. intervention around the world were good trade unionists, too.
Representing Shanker’s essential view that independent unions are necessary worldwide is one thing, as Kahlenberg does well, especially in his section on the AFT’s backing for Poland’s independent national trade union, Solidarity, and in its support for teachers unions in developing countries. But caricaturing the views of former Shanker allies such as socialist leaders Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington — who actively supported the UFT in its earlier fight with racial separatists in Brooklyn, but who then broke with him over the Vietnam War — as insufficiently tough on left-wing dictatorships is not. Right or wrong, Shanker was free to believe, for example, that George McGovern’s campaign slogan, “Come Home, America,” was “a left-wing version of traditional right-wing isolationism,” but not for Kahlenberg to uncritically accept the description of George McGovern as anti-labor. (He wasn’t; he had a 93 percent AFL-CIO approval rating.)
According to the book, Shanker believed that McGovern supporters were “an elitist upper-middle-class movement” that sought to take over the party from its traditional base of working-class and poor voters. If so, he missed union stalwarts, such as UFT Vice Presidents George Altomare and John Soldini, who were pro-labor and pro-McGovern even as they were critics of U.S. militarism in Vietnam.
Excessive blame on ‘New Left’
If the book has a flaw, then, it’s an overload of blame placed on the “New Left,” or the “New Politics” or “McGovernites” for splitting the New Deal/liberal/labor coalition, causing the Nixon landslide in 1972. Shanker was free to believe the demise of labor, the country’s swing to the right, the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan and the rebirth of the Republican Party were due to the excesses of the Left rather than the race-baiting of the Right and the irreconcilability of the guns and butter politics that dominated Cold-War liberalism. Kahlenberg, as biographer, however, needn’t be an uncritical booster for the idea.
One last caveat: Kahlenberg makes Shanker appear like “super Al,” who did it alone. In fact, he had lots of help. There was minimally a core of 100 dedicated veteran teachers who assisted first UFT President Charles Cogen and organizer and later AFT President David Selden. Altomare calls Cogen the real George Washington of the UFT, with Shanker as Thomas Jefferson and Selden a founding father, too.
UFT veterans remember Shanker repeatedly acknowledging that without Selden, there would be no UFT, something Shanker also said publicly at the 1974 AFT convention after defeating Selden in an acrimonious contest. Shanker was clearly singular, but like the Roeblings — father, son and daughter in-law, builders of the Brooklyn Bridge — he didn’t do it alone.
If there’s a fitting coda to the Shanker story, it was given by teacher Rhoda Cohen. She told The New York Times at a Shanker commemoration in Washington, D.C., in 1997: “He made teachers go from being people who took orders, who had very little impact on their careers, and who felt threatened by administrative authority, to being people who were respected and gained self-respect.”
That’s no myth.