Shanker Blows Up the World | The Nation


Shanker Blows Up the World

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Much about Shanker's career is admirable--his unstinting commitment to unionism, his dedication to the principle of public education and his sympathy for the downtrodden. Shanker deserves credit for his role in the expansion of public-sector unionism and particularly for his successful efforts to expand the umbrella of teachers' union protections to mostly minority, poorly compensated and often badly treated teachers' aides. But in his rush to canonize Shanker as the visionary who could have saved the Democrats from themselves, Kahlenberg all too often sacrifices critical distance for hagiography. Halfway into his public career, which lasted more than four decades, Shanker had often discredited liberalism in the name of saving it. Shanker was no bystander in the rise of market populism, social conservatism and neo-imperialism. He was present at liberalism's destruction.

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Thomas J. Sugrue
Thomas J. Sugrue is David Boies Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of...

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Albert Shanker came of age in a distinctive political and social milieu--one that profoundly shaped his career. Born in 1928 to working-class Jewish immigrants, he grew up in rough-and-tumble, mostly Catholic Long Island City. His Queens neighborhood was a tough place to be an awkward, bookish Jewish boy. Shanker suffered the slings and arrows of everyday anti-Semitism. He was ostracized and regularly beaten up by his non-Jewish classmates; and he attended a school where one teacher offered encomiums to Hitler and where others mocked his Jewish identity. Shanker was wounded by the deep political and cultural divisions between Catholics and Jews that Zeitz documents so well. But like many New York Jews during the first half of the twentieth century, Shanker also came of age in a place where socialists really did see themselves as the left wing of the possible and often allied with Democrats, even if the party of FDR and Truman was a little too far to the right for their taste. The young Shanker found his calling in the tracts of socialist intellectuals and found it reinforced in the circles of young idealists who gathered around sectarian gurus like Max Shachtman. For the rest of his life, Shanker believed in speaking his mind, regardless of the cost; he embraced the values of freethinking, hard work and merit. And he never wholly jettisoned his socialism.

By the time he was in his 20s--having grown disillusioned with graduate study in philosophy--Shanker followed the time-honored path of well-educated New York Jews, who still faced barriers in the professions. He became a schoolteacher in a district whose teaching staff was disproportionately Jewish (by 1940, 56 percent of new teachers in New York City were Jewish women). It was admirable work but difficult and often demoralizing, and he was abysmally paid. In 1953 Shanker joined the tiny socialist-led New York Teachers Guild and began to push for collective bargaining rights for teachers, an uphill battle even in union-friendly New York City, which did not recognize the bargaining rights of public employees until 1958. By 1962, taking advantage of New York's new collective-bargaining law--and organizing tirelessly among teachers--Shanker and his predecessor Charles Cogen had succeeded in winning a generous contract for New York schoolteachers. Over the course of the 1960s, Shanker took the message of teacher unionism nationwide. By the end of his career, teaching was the second most unionized profession in the United States (behind only the postal system)--in no small part because of the galvanic effect of Shanker's widely heralded victory in New York City.

Shanker's rise to power coincided with the dramatic racial transformation of urban schools. Since his days as a student, Shanker had supported the civil rights movement. He had been a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and later collaborated with A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr., who saw a labor-civil rights alliance as essential to the goals of racial equality. But the battles over race and education unleashed a political whirlwind that eventually proved to be Shanker's undoing. In a story that gets short shrift in Kahlenberg's book, civil rights activists targeted Northern schools every bit as intensely as they did their Jim Crow counterparts in the South. Shanker supported the principle of integrated schooling, but his position was unpopular. New York whites fled the public schools in record numbers; black parents led school boycotts and massive demonstrations, and educational politics became a flashpoint of racial conflict. As districts like New York grew blacker, more Hispanic and poorer, the city's tax base dwindled. Minority parents grew increasingly disillusioned, both with the unmet promises of racial equality and the reality of overcrowding and inferior education in their schools. By the mid-1960s, influenced by black power, a vocal minority of black parents (joined by some white leftists and liberal foundations) began to support experiments in school decentralization and community control.

Shanker--along with many leftists and civil rights activists, both black and white--was skeptical of community control. That skepticism was well founded: the notion that a shift in school governance would magically transform classrooms was dubious. And as Michael Harrington and other leftist critics of decentralization pointed out at the time, white racists had long used local control as a way of keeping schools segregated. The issue came to a head in Ocean Hill-Brownsville in 1968, where a community-control experiment put local schools in the hands of black militants who, in an act that outraged unionists, violated union rules and fired a group of mostly Jewish white teachers en masse. Shanker defiantly led three lengthy strikes, paralyzing New York's public schools. He insisted that the strike was a defense of hard-won work rules--which it was.

But the Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict was much more. It became a shouting match between black radicals (who accused the white teachers of racism and occasionally resorted to anti-Semitic sloganeering) and white teachers and their supporters (who were more often than not condescending, if not usually the racists that their critics charged). The results were explosive. And Shanker, whom Kahlenberg tries mightily to defend, poured gasoline onto the fire of racial conflict by reprinting and widely distributing an anti-Semitic brochure that appeared during the crisis.

The community-control experiment continued after 1968, but in a weakened form. The teachers union successfully defended its members from politically motivated firings. But Ocean Hill-Brownsville was poisonous to race relations in New York and nationwide. Kahlenberg describes the aftermath in Manichean terms: it was, he argues, the beginning of a struggle between "two forms of liberalism--one pro-labor, pro-integration, and color blind, the other anti-labor, pro-community control, and race conscious." That's not quite right. Many labor activists supported integration--but also the use of race-sensitive programs like affirmative action. Many advocates of colorblindness were blind to the ways that race profoundly shaped the life chances of blacks and other minorities; and many members of the most vocal and effective unions, especially the skilled trades, fought to protect their white power and privilege against encroachments by women and minorities.

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