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March 1, 1993
Vol. 50
No. 6

A Portrait of Albert Shanker

Albert Shanker's quintessential New Yorker qualities—brashness, informality, social awareness, and volubility—are known far and wide. His career has taken him many places—to visit such world figures as Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, to meet with mayors and governors, and even, with some frequency, to visit the Oval Office. As longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, Shanker has the ear of cabinet secretaries, U.S. senators, and members of Congress, as well as leading business people and heads of state of other countries. But these are images of Al Shanker today. What forces and events shaped the person that he is now?

A Budding Social Conscience

New York City in the 1930s and '40s was home to Al Shanker. When Shanker started school, he spoke no English. His parents—Yiddish-speaking immigrants from then-Czarist Russia—instilled in young Albert a love of the United States with their frequent stories of how bad things were in “the Old Country.”
Shanker did not have to look far to see harsh conditions in his own surroundings. His mother, a garment worker, worked a 75-hour week. His father, too, worked long hours every day. Starting at 2 a.m., he delivered morning and evening papers behind a pushcart.
Growing up in this era inspired a social conscience in young Shanker. He recalls that at 8, he “went to a Roosevelt headquarters to get leaflets and buttons to distribute.” In the late 1930s, Father Coughlin's anti-Semitic radio program was popular in his neighborhood, and strong premonitions of what was about to happen in Europe pervaded the community. At 12, Shanker joined various interventionist committees that supported the entry of the United States into the war against Hitler.
Shortly before the United States entered World War II, Shanker joined the Boy Scout troop in a nearby housing project and experienced his first taste of leadership. Before long, he presented a petition to the scoutmaster, urging that the way the troop was run be changed. Later, when the scoutmaster was drafted for military service, he asked 14-year-old Shanker—bright, tough-minded, and already over six feet—to take over. Running the troop of 30 to 70 youngsters gave Shanker a model for how to run an educational program “where kids didn't have to sit still and be quiet and listen to somebody.”

A Strong Voice for Teachers

In 1952, after completing college at the University of Illinois and three years of graduate school at Columbia University, Shanker began teaching. His salary, including a differential for graduate work, was $2,400. In New York City at that time, there was no powerful teachers' union, not even the hint of collective bargaining. There were 106 small teacher organizations, some ideological, others educational, and a few largely social. Teachers had no lunch or duty-free period, and class size was more than 40 students. After-school meetings were at the whim of the principal, and the hottest topic in Shanker's school was the size of the gift for the principal at the end-of-years party.
It was at this point that Shanker's mother—a long-time member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union and the International Ladies Garment Workers—put things into perspective for him: “Even in the sweat shop, we have time for lunch. You teachers are supposed to be so smart, but you're dumb not to have a union.”
In 1952, the Condon-Wadlin Act barred public employees from striking; the prevailing attitude toward authority was a “general feeling of helplessness.” Shanker recalled that many years later, in a terrible confrontation over race, he watched a heated debate between a racially mixed faculty and the superintendent of schools: “Tears came to my eyes because I never thought I'd live to see the day when teachers who had been so frightened of authority would take on the superintendent.”
All through the '50s, Shanker taught and worked tirelessly with colleagues to create a union, the beginning of two decades of high drama and political brinkmanship. The Teachers Guild was Shanker's organization, the New York affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the precursor to the modern teachers' union. The Guild provided helpful information on pension rights, and later, when the board of education established a Staff Relations Plan, it provided training for members of the Staff Relations Committee, who would meet with administrators to discuss conditions in the schools.

Building the Union

The first teachers' strike in New York City was in 1959, when the evening school teachers went out. Although initiated by a rival organization, Shanker convinced his Guild colleagues to support the strike and even used his Volkswagen micro-bus as a coffee-mobile. The strike was successful, resulting in nearly tripled salaries for evening teachers.
Shanker soon became the first full-time field representative for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in New York. In 1960, with the initial merger of the Guild with a rival organization, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) was born. In his new capacity, Shanker worked to gain official recognition for teachers and to present such serious demands as collective bargaining, duty-free lunch, dues check-off, and other standard features in contracts these past 20 years. Superintendent John J. Theobold's response was, “I don't negotiate with members of my own family.” Shanker characterized this comment as the “quintessential paternalistic response.”
Basically, the leadership was three men: Shanker, Charles Cogen (president of the AFT), and David Selden of the AFL-CIO, whom Shanker described as “a brilliant visionary who saw all along that when the election comes, the teachers would support the organization that supported collective bargaining.” Prolonged debate ensued over whether to strike. Shanker agonized over a decision, contending with “tremendous fears that I was leading people into a terrible trap.” Publicly, the union's lawyer said that the Condon-Wadlin Act was “unconstitutional,” but privately he told the union leadership that no judge would support that opinion.
In the end, Shanker recommended that the union remain steadfast: “If we were to call this off, that's the end of the union. This way at least there's a chance.” The strike lasted one day, and negotiations resumed. Only 5,000 teachers went out on strike, but it was enough to convince the board. Recalled Shanker, “It was a beautiful moment.”
But negotiations dragged on. George Meany, President of the AFL-CIO, intervened with Mayor Wagner on behalf of the union. Scandals plagued the city, a mayoral election was approaching, and the mayor felt weakened. Reluctantly, the board and Mayor Wagner permitted a referendum to see whether teachers wanted a union. The National Education Association, the dominant teachers' organization, campaigned against collective bargaining and unionism. But the teachers voted in favor of collective bargaining by 22,000 to 8,000. “In spite of the fact that 45,000 teachers had walked through the picket lines, we managed to pull it off ... a miracle.” A labor arbitrator for the University of Wisconsin, Nathan Feinsinger, was appointed by the board to develop procedures for collective bargaining. When a second vote was held, this time to choose a bargaining agent, again the fledgling union won handily.
The first round of negotiations took place in 1962. A one-day strike ensued, but this time 22,000 teachers respected the picket lines. The upshot was “a tremendous first contract,” including a duty-free lunch, a preparation period, a grievance procedure to binding arbitration, and an increase of $995 per teacher, as opposed to the usual $200 increase granted before collective bargaining.
Although the union now had a 70-page document to use as a model throughout the country, many problems lingered—not the least of which was, recalled Shanker, “the Young Turks were getting ready to try to oust Charlie Cogen from the UFT presidency” for not being militant enough. Campaigns to build a more powerful union needed to be waged in such cities as Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boston, and Detroit. Almost immediately, Cogen announced that he would retire in 1964. In a hotly contested election, Shanker was voted president. Soon the AFT won secret ballot elections in all of the cities named above.

The Radical '60s

Although the next two contracts were negotiated without strikes, the mid-60s witnessed a radical shift in thinking. The first school battle was over whether black power groups—led by such activists as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown—could replace a white principal from Intermediate School 201 with a black principal of their choice. They also demanded that selected teachers, white and black, be replaced. Black and white faculty members defended the white principal, as did Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, two highly respected black leaders.
A second issue was over what to do about difficult schools, with the union calling for a More Effective Schools program: small classes, summer school, all-day kindergarten, and intensive counseling. Shanker bused his own 3-year-old child to a school in Brooklyn for a pre-school program.
In 1967 a very bitter strike ensued for almost three weeks. Rhody McCoy, district superintendent in predominantly black and economically depressed Ocean Hill-Brownsville, was “a controversy waiting to erupt” into the most serious clash in the history of the New York City schools. Recalled Shanker, “McCoy gave the local draft board the names of all the people on strike.” When the strike was settled, the union got an outstanding agreement, preserving More Effective Schools and class size.
Although Martin Luther King, Jr., issued a statement supporting the union's educational program, “almost everything in negotiations became subject to racial interpretation.” Radical black activist Sonny Carson was operating in the schools, the issues of what decentralization and local control meant were festering, and the city was about to enter the Great School War.
In May 1968, Rhody McCoy sent letters of dismissal to 17 teachers “to show that he had total community control, that the union rules and the board of education tenure rules did not hold.” The courts upheld the union, but racial tension was highly charged. The past three years had seen riots in several cities, including New York, and now both the Black Panthers and Sonny Carson's people were in several Brooklyn schools. When the city would not enforce the court order to reinstate the 17 teachers, the union shut down Ocean Hill-Brownsville. If the situation continued into September, the union would have “no choice but to shut the whole city down.” Anti-Semitism became overt and vicious. When the Afro-American Teachers Association circulated vicious anti-Semitic material, it became a divisive issue in the union.
Perhaps this was the saddest episode in all of New York City's educational history. Shanker and McCoy debated. There were endless recriminations. “Mayor Lindsay said, `Al, you're right,' but he couldn't figure out how to re-open the schools without setting off a race riot,” Shanker remembered. “John Doar, president of the board of education, said that the union was right and the teachers would be reinstated.” Ultimately, Doar told Shanker he could not re-open the schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville because “I'm not going to have that blood on my hands.” Shanker responded, “What do you think will happen at the next school, and the next school, and the one after that?” Lindsay offered to shut down any school Shanker considered unsafe if he would end the strike. In a politically astute answer, Shanker told Lindsay, “You can't live up to it. You can't give the power to close schools to the head of the teachers' union.”
The strike lasted until November 19, the longest in teacher history in the United States. One day Senator Javits, the senior U.S. Senator from New York, asked Shanker to take a walk with him, ostensibly to expostulate with him about a face-saving settlement on the grounds that the union had little minority support. During the walk, blacks and Hispanics approached Shanker asking for his autograph. Shanker long ago had concluded that “the black people in New York City did not want the Panthers or the Revolutionary Action Movement taking over their schools.”
The strike was finally settled by the establishment of a three-person committee appointed by the state commissioner of education, which would rule on the safety of schools. Decentralization was a fact, but the union contract and board of education tenure agreements would prevail. Within a year, McCoy and his supporters “just disappeared,” and the city entered a period of relative tranquility in contract negotiations.

An Educational Statesman

In 1974, Shanker was elected President of the AFT, which has its office in Washington, D.C. However, with New York City in a period of near-bankruptcy, Shanker felt the membership might be demoralized if he departed to D.C. full time. So, accepting only one salary, he performed both jobs until 1986. In New York City Shanker found himself “in a new role of lending billions of dollars of pension funds to the city and negotiating give-backs.” He also broadened his understanding of education by meeting regularly with the business community.
Shanker's “Where We Stand” column had begun appearing in the New York Times in 1970, and by 1975 it was in 60 other papers. “Where We Stand” addressed not only educational initiatives and commentary, but everything from the moral fiber of the country to events in eastern Europe. Al Shanker had begun to assume the mantle of educational statesman and moral conscience of the profession. His ascendancy to the AFT presidency gave him increased national recognition.
Always active in behalf of civil rights issues, in the 1960s Shanker had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Alabama and Mississippi. In the late 1980s, Shanker's term on the National Endowment for Democracy—an organization that “enables business groups, trade unions, and the Democratic and Republican parties to work with like-minded groups overseas to promote democracy”—took him to Poland, Chile, Czechoslovakia, and the Philippines. During this time, he helped raise funds to overthrow the Pinochet regime in Chile, marched with Lech Walesa, and helped organize a key group that exposed Ferdinand Marcos's final election in the Philippines as fraudulent.
Shanker is an active member of such organizations as the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, the AFL-CIO Executive Committee, the Trilateral Commission, the Jewish Labor Committee, the National Academy of Education, and the National Board for Professional Standards.
Shanker's central focus, however, remains education, and his commitment to his membership is unwavering. He speaks to education and business groups dozens of times each year and is one of the most quoted educational leaders in the land. He has spoken out in favor of shared decision making, national standards for testing, and serious school restructuring to improve education. Ever the tough-minded realist, Shanker told me, “In these difficult economic times, you're not going to substantially raise the salaries of 2.5 million people or significantly reduce class size. The only way to get these things is to organize schools in a different way.” Shanker has promoted everything from teacher teams to the increased use of technology. He understands that teachers need a very different workplace and that students must be more fully engaged. “Historically, very few students have been able to sit still, keep quiet, and learn by listening to somebody called `the teacher' talk to them. If you look at the General Motors Saturn Automobile plant, you see cars being produced totally differently from the way they are in traditional plants. Why not re-think the way schools operate?”
No person whose accomplishment is as large and extraordinary as Al Shanker's is works alone, but he has been the dominant force for more than 30 years in the progress of UFT and AFT. Under his leadership, the UFT has grown from 2,500 to 110,000 members. In a very delicate series of negotiations, he was even able to organize paraprofessionals into the union. Largely black and Hispanic, “here were people who were being exploited and who could be a bridge between the teachers' union and the community.” This happened in 1969, one year after the Ocean Hill-Brownsville battle, and it is a particular source of pride for Shanker because he was able to help minority workers. Since Shanker became president in 1974, the AFT has more than doubled its membership to 796,000.
When I asked Shanker if he had any special hero or role model, without hesitation he named Bayard Rustin, for many years an important civil rights leader in the Afro-American community. In Shanker's words, “The great thing about Rustin was that he didn't put his finger up to see which way the wind was blowing. He had the guts to say what he felt was right no matter how unpopular it was.”
Shanker's tribute to Rustin is an apt description of himself. Throughout his career, Shanker has given colleagues, friends, opponents, and great figures and dignitaries a piece of his mind, always resolutely, plainly, forthrightly.

Mark F. Goldberg, Ph.D.

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