Al Shanker and the Strike of 1968

Arts Extra

By Daniel Treiman

Published May 23, 2008, issue of May 30, 2008.
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Forty years ago this month, the new community-controlled school board in the largely black Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn summarily dismissed 18 white teachers and administrators. The school board’s action led to a series of citywide teacher strikes that roiled a city already on edge and strained traditional alliances — pitting liberals against labor and blacks against Jews.

At the center of the storm was Albert Shanker, leader of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. Over the previous decade, the junior high school teacher-turned-labor leader had played a key role in organizing New York City’s fractious teachers into a cohesive force and winning them the right to bargain collectively, finally taking the UFT’s reins in 1964.

A social democrat and staunch supporter of the civil rights movement, Shanker took a tough line in demanding the reinstatement of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville educators. He led New York City teachers out on strike not once, not twice, but three times in the fall of 1968, shutting down the public schools for a total of 36 days. Shanker faced down threats, intimidation and occasional antisemitic rhetoric directed at him and his heavily Jewish union by supporters of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville board — as well as an often unsympathetic response from local officials and much of the city’s liberal intelligentsia. In the end, he emerged from the strike a figure of national prominence.

Over the next three decades, Shanker would become a giant of organized labor and one of the most important figures in American education. In 1974, he was elected president of the American Federation of Teachers. From this perch, he helped forge the nation’s teachers into a political powerhouse, vigorously fought conservative efforts to privatize public education through vouchers, and emerged as one of the country’s most influential voices on education policy, marshalling his members behind forward-looking school reforms.

Even as Shanker stood astride two pillars of American liberalism — the labor movement and public schools — the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville battle presaged other fights for the union leader. In the years that followed, Shanker stood out as an outspoken critic of emerging left-wing (and, eventually, liberal) orthodoxies on foreign policy, affirmative action, bilingual education and multiculturalism — earning him the lasting enmity of many on the left.

In an admiring new biography, “Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy” (Columbia University Press, 2007), education scholar Richard Kahlenberg tries to write the late labor leader back into the history of American liberalism. Kahlenberg makes the case that whether Shanker was fighting the right on behalf of trade unions and public schools or tangling with the left over foreign policy and affirmative action, ultimately his positions were rooted in a consistent liberal commitment to the principle of democracy. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, spoke with the Forward about the 1968 school strike and why Albert Shanker’s brand of “tough liberalism” remains relevant today.

What was the lasting legacy of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike?

One of the legacies was an acceptance of the idea of color-conscious hiring and firing. What happened in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, what precipitated the strikes, was really quite extraordinary. You had the community control board in the African-American ghetto of Ocean Hill-Brownsville firing a number of white teachers without cause. Moreover, the local superintendent, Rhody McCoy, had as an end goal an all-black teaching force. This was a huge departure from the classical liberal position, which was that hiring and firing ought to be based on merit and be colorblind. But what happened in Ocean Hill-Brownsville is that large numbers of liberals — white liberals, including many members of the upper-middle class — went along and supported this new notion of color-conscious firing and hiring. And so, in a sense, you had the acceptance of racial preferences, which we continue to live with today.

What did the strike mean in the near-term as far as how it affected the politics of the time and the years that immediately followed?

The one immediate impact was a fraying of the relationship between the black community and the Jewish community in New York, and to a certain extent nationally. So the two stalwart allies in the fight for civil rights and a fair society were split apart on this question, which was very important politically. In some ways, you could say that Ocean Hill-Brownsville helped spawn neoconservatism in New York City and nationally. I hasten to add, Albert Shanker wouldn’t be included in that group. What made him interesting is that he agreed with many neoconservatives on opposition to racial quotas, the need to have a strong defense, but he himself never fully joined the neoconservative camp on economic issues, on issues of labor, and maintained his allegiance to the Democratic Party.

What was the impact of the strike specifically on Shanker and on his future trajectory?

I’d say it was mixed. On the one hand, it established Al Shanker as a powerful political figure in New York City who could, with his members, paralyze the city school system. It became clear that he had the ability to help convince teachers that they should stay out on strike for very long periods of time. This was something that no mayor wanted to confront, and so immediately after the school strike, Mayor Lindsay did agree to a pretty hefty pay increase for teachers. So it increased Al Shanker’s power. It increased his stature nationally, because this was something that was widely reported upon.

I’d say the impact was mixed on him, though, because many people incorrectly concluded that Al Shanker was somehow anti-black because many of the community-control supporters were African American. So many people simplistically saw this as white vs. black, whereas Al Shanker always saw it as an issue of justice for workers of whatever color, that it was important to hold true to the principle that you couldn’t simply be fired for no good reason.

Why did you decide to write about Shanker?

I first met him in the mid-1990s, and I was writing a book about affirmative action, arguing that we should base preferences on class rather than race. He was completely sympathetic to the idea — and, moreover, was really the only prominent figure on the left, broadly speaking, who was engaged with this notion that Democrats should be ultimately concerned about class, and that in terms of our social policies there were a lot of divisions created by racial preferences and racial quotas. I had this strange experience where all these conservatives liked what I was saying — I consider myself a liberal Democrat — and so Shanker was unique in that sense. So I became interested in finding out more about him at that point.

Then I started writing about education, and he hovers over all the great education debates that we’re having today, and was such an innovative thinker. Then finally, I wanted to know more about the teacher union movement, because to my mind teacher unions stand at the intersection of the two great movements for more equality and social mobility in this country: public education on the one hand and trade unions on the other. The AFT, which Shanker led, is the only institution that’s right there at that intersection — because the much larger union, the NEA, is not part of the AFL-CIO, and always considered itself kind of above that, whereas Shanker thought it was crucial for teachers to be part of the labor movement to promote greater equality. For all those reasons coming together, I was interested in Al Shanker’s life, and was kind of astounded that no one else had done this already, given all that he had done in his life.

The sympathetic reception your book has received from some conservative publications doesn’t necessarily fit neatly with your own political agenda. It sort of, in some ways, seems to lend credence to the critique of Shanker that was made in The Nation’s review of your book, which is that Shanker served a useful purpose for the rise of the right. Any thoughts on that?

There were many people who essentially saw him as a neoconservative, because of his opposition to quotas. He had some concerns about bilingual education and extreme forms of multiculturalism, and because he was a tough anti-communist. But he wasn’t a neoconservative. They thought he was a neoconservative, and then in 1980, when all of his neoconservative friends went for Ronald Reagan, Al Shanker endorsed Ted Kennedy, because he was so committed to social-mobility programs. For him it was all very personal. Trade unions had helped his family earn a more decent living. His mother was a member of the ILGWU. Public schools had been the way out of a tough neighborhood for him. And, I would argue, it’s the folks who betrayed liberalism on issues like racial quotas and national defense that have sunk liberalism for the last 30 years, not Al Shanker.

You call Shanker “arguably the single individual most responsible for preserving public education in the United States during the last quarter of the twentieth century.” That’s really high praise. What do you mean by that?

I think there are two reasons that we continue to have public schools which educate 90% of American schoolchildren. That’s extraordinary in an economy where everything else is free markets and privatization, that we have a system of compulsory public education that applies to the vast majority of kids. Shanker had two things that he contributed to that: First, he was one of the founding fathers of modern teacher unions, and there’s no institution today politically that has the sophistication and the manpower to stop private-school initiatives when they’re on the referendum or in the legislature as the trade union movement.

But then the second piece is that as an education reformer, he was able to respond to the legitimate criticisms of public education. I think if trade unions had just relied on political muscle without showing any reasonableness on public-education reform issues, we’d see a lot more private-school voucher initiatives out there succeeding. So he was able to reform public education in order to save it on the one hand, and he was able to help create the institution that has the political muscle to preserve public education.

On the right, the popular argument is that teachers’ unions are the problem with America’s public education system. They argue that teachers are just another group looking out for their own interests. So conservatives would say that this “founding father of modern teacher unions,” as you call him, didn’t do us a favor.

You have to look at what life was like for teachers before Al Shanker and some others created the modern teacher union movement. The reason I say “modern” is that teacher unions existed before Al Shanker; it’s just that they weren’t really unions; they didn’t bargain collectively. I would say look at why these powerful unions were created in the first place: When Al Shanker started teaching, New York City teachers were paid less than those who washed cars for a living. There was a lot of turnover. There wasn’t much dignity for teachers. He had one assistant principal who would spy on him with binoculars across a courtyard, so there were reasons that teacher unions came into power to protect the interests of teachers.

But then Al Shanker later in his life tried to more closely align the interests of kids and teachers and argue to teachers: We can’t oppose some of these innovative reforms, because if we do we will end up with a privatized system. So, in fact, what’s good for kids should be at the center of what teacher unions pursue. And I think in most cases that’s true.

There’s this line from the right that says: We’d rather have people who are looking out for the interest of kids rather than teachers. And I always ask: Well, who are those people? I’m not sure who it is out there that will have the interests of kids foremost in their minds to the exclusion of everything else. I think that’s a fantasy world. Then you have to ask whose interests are most closely aligned. I think the interests of teachers are normally aligned pretty closely with kids — not always, but normally.

You argue that Shanker’s “tough liberalism” provides a recipe for building a left-liberal political majority. But if Shanker’s political orientation is so great and potentially attractive, why is it so marginal today?

There are various interest groups that have a big play in American politics — as they should — and so it’s not just a matter of finding a political theme that has resonance and then getting people to vote for you. Within the Democratic Party there’s a strong peace movement that can sometimes be soft on dictators on the left, and there are lots of groups — as there should be — to defend a certain agenda on racial issues having to do with affirmative action. That is an area where Bill Clinton saw the poll numbers and said, okay let’s shift to preferences based on economic status not race, and immediately Jesse Jackson threatened to run for president in 1996. They made a political decision. So there are certain forces.

The other big one is our campaign-finance system. The “tough liberalism” that I’m describing is really the antithesis of what most campaign contributors on the Democratic side embrace. A lot of wealthy people who contribute to campaigns are not generally economically populist the way Shanker was. At the same time, they’ve kind of made their peace on issues like racial preferences or are maybe more socially liberal and are likely to be more liberal on foreign-policy issues, which is why they’re attracted to the Democratic Party. I would say that the biggest obstacle is finding a way to make “tough liberalism” work given our current campaign-finance system.

You sometimes refer in your book to Shanker’s political orientation using a newer term, “radical centrism.” What does that mean?

There are two political centers in this country. There are economically conservative, socially liberal, upper-status individuals who are referred to as kind of the “moderate middle.” When the media talks about moderates, that’s usually what they mean. They’re pro-choice on abortion, not defense hawks, and not wanting to shake things up in the economy too much. But then there’s this second center, or swing group. They used to be called the Reagan Democrats. They are downscale, white, working-class voters who are the mirror opposite. They’re a little more conservative on cultural issues, and think that racial preferences and issues like that are unfair, but are more supportive of efforts to promote economic equality. Shanker really appealed to that type of centrist voter. I think the political lesson of the last several decades is that when these swing voters — the white working-class voters — vote their race, Republicans win. And when they vote their class, Democrats win. The problem is that Democrats have been having a very hard time appealing to those voters.

What role did Shanker’s Jewish identity play in the development of his worldview?

Al Shanker was not an observant Jew. He was in his childhood, and then essentially became nonreligious. But his Judaism was very important to him at the same time. In part, it was the horrific experiences of antisemitism that he faced as a child that I think made him such a strong advocate of nondiscrimination throughout his life. Having tasted really terrible antisemitism as a child, he had sympathy for people who were discriminated against and became a staunch advocate of civil rights for all people. But the civil rights movement obviously was of particular importance to African Americans, so that informed his support for Martin Luther King, marching in Selma, his anti-segregation stances — and also his later antipathy towards racial preferences, because he thought that was unfair.

I would say his support for democracy naturally led him to be a strong supporter of Israel, and he also felt some identification, obviously, with those who had suffered in the Holocaust. It’s interesting in his early years as a socialist he was an anti-Zionist, because he just saw issues in terms of class and was not supportive of nationalism. In fact, when he was [a student] at Stuyvesant [High School in New York], which was heavily Jewish at that point, he was a strong supporter of the Arabs. But then later in life, I think that obviously he became a strong supporter of Israel. And I think just the general desire for making life more fair for people could be connected to his Judaism as well.

Do you think that his experience with childhood antisemitism influenced the way in which he responded to the Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict?

I think so — and this is getting into a little bit of dangerous territory. I didn’t find strong evidence of this, but there was some interesting reaction and split within the Jewish community over Ocean Hill-Brownsville. It tended to be upper-middle-class Jews who were much more supportive of the Black Power movement than lower-middle-class Jews in the outer boroughs who saw Shanker as a hero for standing up to the Black Power movement. But I think the fact that he knew what antisemitism was all about as a child — and there was one point at which he was strung up in a tree, just horrible incidents — so he wasn’t going to just kind of dismiss it, the way some more privileged Jews had. There was a sense among some upper-middle-class liberals — Jewish and non-Jewish — that, well, we can overlook black antisemitism, because look what they’ve gone through. I think that was an insulting way to look at that issue, that discrimination had to be taken seriously no matter what the source was, and that Al Shanker was right on this.

It seems like he may have had strong ideals, but, in part because he had such a hardscrabble childhood in Queens, he wasn’t going to let ideology override reality. You wrote about his dark view of human nature and how that may have influenced his views on, say, discipline and on the need for orderly schools.

Yes. The issue of discipline was one that he’d faced throughout his life. He was beat up a lot at school. He knew what it was like to be beat up. He knew that no learning was going on. But he did have this realistic view of human nature that I think was part of the “tough” part of “tough liberalism.” He fought communists within the teachers union and knew the tactics that they would use. So he did not have a romantic view of communists. At the same time, he didn’t have a romantic view of employers, either. He knew that garment workers had died in a fire because the employer was trying to get every penny he could and therefore locked the doors from the outside, worrying about theft from the store. You had to be tough with employers as well as with communists.

One could, in some ways, read your book as an instance of how a very particular strain of New York Jewish socialism, through a very gifted exponent in Shanker, managed to essentially transform education in America. How would you respond to that?

Yes. And it wasn’t just Al Shanker. He had a cadre of people at the AFT who came out of the social-democratic movement — some of whom were Jewish, some of whom weren’t, but many of whom were Jewish. Together they had this vision, which put democracy at the center and had a lasting impact on what public education looks like today. So I think that’s not too much of a stretch.


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