ALBERT SHANKER’S UFT
New Haven, Conn.
I was as surprised to see myself keening for a “big tent” liberalism in Thomas J. Sugrue’s “Albert Shanker Blows Up the World” [Nov. 12] as I imagine Sugrue was to see me holding forth elsewhere in the same issue of The Nation. And he may be more surprised by my review of Richard Kahlenberg’s Shanker biography in the “big tent” Democracy Journal (www.democracyjournal.com) in December. I fault Shanker much as Sugrue does, especially on foreign policy, although Clay Risen, Democracy Journal‘s managing editor, notes that Sugrue’s Shanker seems to have slept more easily with his blunders than my Shanker did.
But I do insist that Shanker was wiser about race than the left, which used it tactically as a proxy for class (because law responded better) but also too often essentialized it, indulging impresarios of racialist street theater and a politics of racial paroxysm that dominated the 1980s and ’90s. That buried, as Bull Connor never could, most blacks’ uncompromising stance as the “omni-Americans” of Albert Murray’s, Ralph Ellison’s and Bayard Rustin’s hopes, carriers of a civic-republican project in whose success they had the highest stakes but in whose failure many leftists, truth to tell, were deeply invested. Rustin, Michael Harrington and others were lonelier voices than Sugrue allows, with consequences for the left and the Democrats that Shanker foresaw and many historians and others on the left did not.
Thomas J. Sugrue does a good job summarizing the accomplishments and failings of Albert Shanker. But one glaring misconception prevents him from accurately assessing Shanker’s motive for leading the infamous and destructive series of strikes in 1968. The teachers in Ocean Hill-Brownsville were not fired. They did not lose their licenses, salaries or status as teachers. They were referred to personnel for reassignment. They were involuntarily transferred. This had happened before. The UFT grieved, arbitrated, etc. but did not strike.
It is happening now on a vast scale, as the Department of Education “redesigns” and closes schools, dispersing at least half the teachers to schools unknown. Yet there is not a whisper about striking. The 1968 strikes were not about “hard-won work rules.” The decentralization experiment threatened the power and control of Shanker and his UFT cohorts. There would be too many chances for new leadership and opposition voices to emerge in a decentralized system. Dealing with one all-powerful central authority complemented and supported the power of UFT leadership as a decentralized system could not.
Perhaps at first there was some concern about lack of due process for nineteen teachers, eventually ten. (Imagine the inanity and recklessness of bringing a great city to the brink of chaos over the assignment of ten teachers.) But as the crisis wore on it became an ugly, racially charged battle of will and raw power during which both sides rejected reasonable compromises. On the UFT side, the preservation of Shanker’s power and the machine he built within the UFT dominated his actions. Nothing less than the destruction or severe dilution of decentralization would satisfy him.