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.
Ultimately the strikes drove a wedge between blacks and liberal Jews, helping to fracture a longstanding alliance of electoral and social importance. Sugrue is right that this is Shanker’s lasting and shameful legacy. Unfortunately, it was all for aggrandizement and power, not for union principle.
EDWARD BELLER, proud 1968 scab
Former member, UFT executive board
I applaud Jim Sleeper’s sharp criticism of liberal hawks in the same issue as my review. And I look forward to Sleeper on Shanker. But on the question of race, Sleeper has it all wrong. While some leftists essentialize race, and should be taken to task for it, the “politics of racial paroxysm” in the 1980s and ’90s was largely the result of the mainstream media’s hunger for conflict and their deafness to anything that comes close to a structural analysis of racial inequality. The most important work being done by grassroots black activists–with the support of a multicultural cast of left and liberal allies–focuses on issues too “boring” for the evening news, such as welfare reform, mass imprisonment, community economic development, and separate and unequal education. On race and class, Sleeper reifies a false binary distinction between the two that analysts and activists have long challenged.
In places as diverse as Philadelphia, New Haven, Greensboro and Los Angeles, civil rights and labor activists have forged alliances around issues of low-wage work, urban reinvestment and healthcare. Rustin and Harrington would have taken them seriously. We should too–rather than letting ourselves get distracted by the “impresarios of racialist street theater” and those journalists and academics like Sleeper who pay too much attention to them.
Edward Beller’s take on the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis is shared by many of Shanker’s critics. But whatever Shanker’s motivations, the history of trade unionism is replete with strikes on behalf of a small number of aggrieved workers. Teachers had long suffered politically or personally motivated transfers–and fought hard for protection against them. That does not vitiate Beller’s larger point about the ugly racialized nature of the strikes, their devastating consequences for race relations and Shanker’s responsibility for stoking the flames.
THOMAS J. SUGRUE
LETTER FROM PRISON
Thank you for seeing to it that I receive the enlightenment of The Nation in this part of the American gulag. The Nation helps me to wake up some of my fellow prisoners and get them to have their family members vote. I also use it to help turn around a few of the guards here who vote against their own interests. Though circumstances prevent my voting, please know that your publication has helped change the voting practices of some now former Republicans and also garnered a few votes for progressive issues. I appreciate your sending me The Nation.