Albert Shanker: No Flowers

Paul Buhle

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 23, Summer 1997]

Paul Buhle's latest book, a collection of his labor history essays, From the Knights of Labor to the New World Order, was recently published by Garland.

OUTSIDE THE WASHINGTON BELTWAY AND WEST OF THE HUDSON, one image of the late American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Albert Shanker is most likely to remain in memory: Shanker, on the 1995 convention dais, fairly choking with rage and frustration, handing over leadership of the AFL-CIO to the reform forces in the person of John Sweeney. The Kirkland clique of autocratic functionaries, heretofore failures at almost everything except retaining power, was in disarray. Their credibility had been undermined and with it, the presumed legacy of Albert Shanker as a historic labor figure as well.

The story of Albert Shanker and the teachers union goes back to Depression days and further, to the movements of high school instructors in the 1910s golden days of Debsian Socialism. In Chicago and New York among other cities, teachers led by the left sought desperately to establish their professionalism, while seeking just as urgently (albeit with more ambivalence) to ally themselves with the labor movement.

The AFT's true if unacknowledged precursor is the Teachers Union (TU), originally an AFL body led by Communist regulars, Lovestoneites, Trotskyists, Socialists and other leftwingers in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and elsewhere, encompassing college instructors and public school teachers. During the dynamic later 1930s, the TU influence was disproportionately New Yorkish, as well as Jewish, and especially strong among the terribly exploited substitute teachers. With the union split on a handful of issues (including philosopher John Dewey's bold defense of Leon Trotsky against Stalin's charges), the socialist/anti-Communist faction first seceded to form the Teachers Guild, and then successfully arranged the expulsion of the TU from the AFL in 1941. The Guild, subsequently reorganized as the AFT, had all the respectability that the isolated TU lacked, and might have had the field to itself when the latter gave up the ghost in 1964 but for the competitor National Educational Association's own quasi-unionist professionalism and the bad blood left behind by decades of fierce red-baiting.

The TU, for all its weaknesses (most of all, a weakness toward things Russian), had often exemplified the democratic impulses of the teachers. Anyone who enters a classroom today to teach American history or government should gaze back with wonderment at the early struggles for antiracist curricula highlighting rather than demeaning abolitionist John Brown or race leader W.E.B. DuBois, for the determined inclusion of minority populations in a broadened social history at a time when civics was equated (as those of us remember so well from public schools of the 1950s) with a recitation of the presidents.1

The AFT, meanwhile taking over TU members as much as possible and conditioned by a certain social democratic bearing, sought to maneuver teacher unionism around the challenge of the civil rights movement. Just as the AFL-CIO perennially urged Congressional action while ignoring the blatant racism in its own ranks, so the AFT filed friend-of-the-court briefs for school desegregation and simultaneously resisted organized efforts to administer integration of the student body and teacher staffs. This calculated ambivalence would characterize the AFT's main unit, the United Federation of Teachers, more than anything else during the racial storm ahead.2

The complexities of teacher union history during the 1960s-90s cannot be explored at any length here. The role of lobbying state legislatures for permission to organize and for larger benefits on the one hand, and the relationship of teachers with their students (and the communities from which they come) on the other, is far too localized for easy generalization in any case. On occasion (as in a 1996 Oakland teachers strike) the community was mobilized to good effect; too often, AFT (also NEA) leaders invited the portrayal of their organizations' members as agents of "special interests" through closed-door deals with local or state elected officials and business elites. Rather than generalizing the issues of public resources, they narrowed the terms of negotiation to their own welfare, effectively cutting themselves off from potential allies and making fiscal counterattacks inevitable.

More than a single union or profession, in fact an entire historical view of American labor, is at stake on this point. A recent "revisionist" labor history (looking a great deal like the "old" pre-1960 labor histories endowed by union leaders to celebrate their accomplishments) suggests the AFT/UFT's lobbying model as the logical successor to historic mass mobilization and final outcome to the CIO experience. According to this reading, the Taft-Hartley Act, the expulsion of Communists and the suppression of internal dissent at large was a necessary and logical price to free union leaders' hands and to pay in kind for the assistance of the state in sustaining white collar unionism.3 The state and the business community rewarded order, as they punished the movements from below characterized as disorder.

This might, indeed, properly be described as the Shanker Narrative. But along with recklessly mangling labor history, it mistakes the wheeling-dealing of leaders for the sacrifices of union activists who urgently wanted to be good teachers and good citizens, in the inner cities quite as much as the suburbs. Like the parson's wife and the town atheist, the teacher was the small-town radical of many generations, the first socialist voice heard by many a youngster growing up outside a leftwing family (in my own case, the first black voice I'd ever heard on the subject of American history: the very inspiration to become a historian). Children of blue collar unionists or of those crushed during the Depression years lived their jobs without any of the homage toward hawkish weapons-industry politicians that Shanker so admired or the meanness toward disadvantaged students that his leadership more and more came to epitomize. Despite all the heartbreak of sharpened class divisions, drugs and gangs, "White Flight" from public schools and drastically diminished resources, many thousands of them still do.

ALL THIS PLAYED VERY STRANGELY IN THE LATER 1960S, as the War on Poverty was being junked for the Vietnam War and a generation of African American (along with white working class) male youth was sent half-way across the world to kill and be killed. As AFT/UFT dissident Steve Zeluck keenly observed, the very victories of the UFT and then the AFT for union recognition through the 60s, placed the two bodies in the paradoxical position of having won a crucial base in the cities just as the cities themselves drastically changed. Only 10 or 15 years earlier, teachers had been more leftwing, and blacks less numerous, sustaining many tender pedagogical (as well as parent-teacher) relationships and the hope of political coalition to come. As union bargaining power became real, a new and hostile relation set in; the consumer society offered new temptations and the black community simultaneously began to make long-postponed demands for recognition and influence. This baneful shift mirrored, and for a time dramatized, the collapse of American liberalism.

The social-democratic background of the UFT (giving it the appearance of the left within the AFT) was one unique factor. Jewish garment union leaders who left the old Socialist Labor Party and Daniel DeLeon back in the 1890s or early years of the new century, spoke warmly about socialist ideals and meanwhile savagely attacked the Industrial Workers of the World for threatening their power base. They remained in office long enough to repudiate Communist rank-and-file insurgency movements of the 1920s as "gilgul DeLeonism," creatures of disruption, and to meet the deformations of Stalinism with bureaucratic deformations of their own. Always, throughout this history, there has been an enemy on the left to excoriate, just as despised and much closer to attack than the exploitation and inherent unfairness of capitalism. Indeed, when the very category of "exploitation" disappeared as unearned wealth (it sometimes reappeared as "excessively" low wages), the problems of capitalism were attributed more and more exclusively to the wildly varied "enemies of democracy."

The lineal successors to David Dubinsky squeezed the New Left and Black Power into a pre-fit mold, adding far-off Palestinians for good measure. All of these were enemies, just as all serious criticisms made of UFT and AFT leadership were treated as "blood libels" outside the bounds of proper discussion.4 Thus dissenters like high school teacher and dissident Steve Zeluck were not only to be denied the normal means of communicating democratic opposition, but cursed in official resolutions as "antiunion." The Communist Party bureaucrats had never done any better for themselves, which is to say, any worse for movements that they claimed to represent and so often badly misled.

Historian Jerald Podair has brilliantly captured the ambience of the social democratic milieu under pressure. UFTers of the middle 1960s determinedly insisted, for instance, upon a racially inclusive curriculum, but with entirely predictable contours. The union's Committee on African-American History seemed to bury the old mint julep version of slavery and reconstruction. But it just as effectively buried Malcolm X (indeed, Shanker seized and destroyed thousands of copies of a curriculum guide which credited Malcolm's historical contribution) and any approach which placed the black experience outside the melting pot that usefully melts all the unfortunate group traits of worthy aspirants in the process of a cheerful upward mobility.5

For this worldview, closely reflecting the pseudo-sociology of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a "culture of poverty" rooted in a matriarchal black community rather than the repressive social conditions of the rural south or the increasingly jobless north was the real hindrance to African American advance. Such cultural determinists prided themselves upon banishing genetic theories of inferiority, but by assuming that youth could be remolded without broad changes in the property relations of society, they substituted a subtextually race-linked hypothesis just as virulent for the new era. Rising neoconservative operatives, like Shanker ally (and Reagan Administration official) Diane Ravitch, naturally used the cry of "competence" as a meritocratic club over the heads of victims in the failing systems, as if all school systems or individuals had access to the same resources or as if the ability of a talented and fortunate tenth of a talented tenth demonstrated the hopelessness of the 99 percent.

Ironically, the most articulately ferocious opponents of the UFT, the black middle class, shared this ideology to a very large extent, although with a difference. It wanted and demanded an affirmative action adjustment of available resources, exactly what the ideologues of meritocracy could never grant.

BLACK/JEWISH TENSIONS MEANWHILE FLARED, and not only in New York or among teachers, students and parents, but in the general population. Ranging from the emerging Jewish institutional support for the Vietnam war (which, it should be noted, ordinary Jews overwhelmingly opposed), subsidies to suburbanization alongside the abandonment of the inner cities, and the all-too-familiar black street rage at the Jewish teachers, lawyers, landlords, employers and caseworkers (many of whom warmly assisted African Americans, while others coldly cheated or demeaned them), the temperature rose.6 Power-seeking nationalists, most if not all of them thoroughly regressive, seized the moment on both sides -- notwithstanding the media spin that portrayed one side of the polemic as civilized discourse and the other as barbaric noise.

Albert Shanker's chief historic role was to pour gasoline on the spreading fire.7 Another, very different kind of leader might have taken early pride in the levels of teacher unionization achieved, and spent the next era striving to cool tempers. It would have been an honorable if not morally unmarred history, and a very unlikely one in this case. Shanker had a personal stake in the spotlight, according to friend and foe, amounting to megalomania. Like the calculating Vietnam hawk-propagandist-priest John O'Connor who raised himself through connections within the post-Vatican II's New Right Church leadership into Cardinal status, Shanker was not just fighting for his political life. In his mind's eye, he saw his name carved upon the historical record.

Joining the inner circle of George Meany's AFL-CIO cronies who regarded Martin Luther King, Jr., as an ingrate for pressing too hard on integration and for coming out against the Vietnam war, and shunning even the cautious reformer Walter Reuther for the hawk faction gathering politically around Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, Shanker made himself a national labor figure.

A major element in his emerging labor statesmanship was his handling of race issues in the approved AFL-CIO fashion. As Maurice Berube explained so clearly in these pages, in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis Shanker was encouraged b a group of self-proclaimed "democratic socialists" including, among others, Michael Harrington, Tom Kahn and Bayard Rustin, with Max Shachtman in the background as the powerful grey eminence. They considered parents' "interference" to be intolerable for teacher-unionists, but they had a purpose far beyond the districts of Greater New York. By 1968, they envisioned themselves the heirs to the Meany labor empire. To demonstrate their capacity to deliver the labor support and labor votes for a greater coalition, however, they had to keep order -- at any cost.8

Even then the disaster might have been avoided through careful negotiation. But Shanker called "his" teachers out on strike. Yesterday's socialists who have become today's Manhattan Institute operators correctly describe that moment as a turning point in New York City's history. But they are most unwilling to see the complicity of their mentor/allies in the bitter, destructive outcome.

And so Shankerism, hammered out against a background of both middle class yearnings and ghetto rage, became the oddest possible American-style parody of "democratic socialism." The debates raged from New Politics and Dissent to the New York Times, with curious undertones which formal politics alone cannot fully encompass.

NEW LIGHT CAST UPON SHANKER'S INTERNATIONAL INVOLVEMENTS greatly aids our understanding of his milieu. Eric Chester's important recent volume, Covert Network: Progressives, the International Rescue Committee and the CIA, offers a well-researched perspective on one of the most interesting Cold War (and post-Cold War) operations linked on one side to favorite causes of prominent liberals and on the other to assorted intelligence agency projects. Founded to assist refugees of the Second World War, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) became a central mechanism -- through its spin-off American Friends of Vietnam (AFVN) -- for selling the impending Vietnam War to the U.S. public and especially to liberals like Shanker during the later 1950s and early 1960s. The young Daniel Patrick Moynihan, working as its public relations officer, had described the IRC as the "ideal instrument of Psychological Warfare." The "psy-war" actually conducted by IRC leader Joseph Buttinger and evidently assisted by the CIA, even fooled aging Norman Thomas into making flattering public statements about the viciously repressive Diem regime under more pressure from its own beleaguered citizens than from the feared North Vietnamese.

By the time the bombs began to fall in huge numbers on Vietnamese civilians, Buttinger and a few cohorts had resigned from the IRC, but the devilish work of the propagandists had been done. The American public, its politicians and its journalists, had been prepared for the outright lies about the Gulf of Tonkin. The key converts to "counter-insurgency," for their own reasons, stayed converted. Like George Meany, Albert Shanker believed, evidently to his last breath, that the U.S. should never have left Vietnam. Like the Civil War for the American South, it remained the great Lost Cause and the source for binding emotional ties between the cerebral neoconservatives and the AFL-CIO Executive.

The IRC was subsequently involved directly or indirectly in a sheaf of other operations, some of them genuinely humanitarian (always with the intention of also advancing U.S. interests). But perhaps the most characteristic for the years of Shanker's IRC involvement was its Central America teams. As during the U.S. saturation bombing in Southeast Asia, the IRC followed U.S.-trained and funded military forces decimating large districts of El Salvador, driving peasants out of their homes and into makeshift camps. There, amidst the misery American foreign policy had created, the IRC offered enough logistical support to make a favorable (i.e., pro-American) impression on the survivors. Those who had not already died or were not scheduled to be dragged away for torture and "disappearance," could rejoice in the charitable side of counter-insurgency.9

The IR was headed for 40 years, it might be remembered, by one of Albert Shanker's greatest admirers, Leo Cherne. An all-out supporter of the Vietnam War, Cherne most bitterly opposed George McGovern's peacenik campaign of 1972, serving as vice-chair of Democrats for Nixon. Like Albert Shanker and the AFL-CIO leadership, the IRC under Cherne found in the Reagan Administration nearly all one could hope for in foreign policy, including the best of companions. Future spymaster William Casey, the president of IRC in 1970-71, who played a major role in the organization's Asian affairs, predictably joined Reagan as campaign director in 1980. Casey fathered the Iran-Contra operators' deceptions of Congress (as well as violations of the U.S. Constitution), and apparently carried the secrets of U.S. dealings in assorted war crimes with him to the grave. Until his death Bayard Rustin remained a vice president of IRC, and Albert Shanker remained on its board, both of them in lockstep with the Contra wars and "low intensity" (but extremely high civilian casualty) episodes in Southern Africa and elsewhere. If this story begins to grow as familiar as a spy novel, that is because it should be.10

THIS INTERNATIONAL WEST-OVER-EAST, NORTH-OVER-SOUTH DETERMINATION had its clear domestic counterparts. "Nothing could damp[en] Shanker's commitment to civil rights," exclaimed an unintentionally comic eulogist in the Jewish Forward.11 Shanker's commitment could be measured, in later years, in his virulent opposition to "world history" efforts which he described as "a travesty" for failing to accord a central heroic place to the West at large and America in particular. Diane Ravitch, Reagan's Secretary of Education and touted educational ideologue, naturally saluted Shanker's "intellectual courage" in standing up against multi-culturalism.

This ideological cul-de-sac was not a tragedy like a civil war or military invasion, with thousands dead or maimed. But it was a tragedy of striking proportions nevertheless, with long-range consequences. The liberal "socialists" or "social democrats" with large influence in some of the major unions could not imagine (or had ceased to imagine) the poor as a force acting on its own; for them the desperately impoverished, at home and abroad, seemed more and more a sort of sidebar/examplar lumpen proletariat of human devastation. Behind this thesis was a large historical-philosophical assumption which Albert Shanker's paid newspaper columns often reflected. History had been moving gradually toward human freedom, thanks in very large part to industrial capitalism. African Americans and indeed the bulk of the world population (i.e., non-whites) had been left behind, most unfortunately. Now, however, "development" was going to bring the best of them up to the level of the West -- if only they learned the skills of self-discipline and patience.

Did Western history have its bad moments? Yes -- and this was passed over as quickly as possible -- slavery was a blight, the dispossession and large-scale extermination of native peoples, really unfortunate. But even while enslaving, expropriating and exterminating, the West had raised the ideal of freedom and abundance. That should be convincing enough proof for anyone. Whoever disagreed, as Shanker argued in his last published column, was an enemy of democracy -- and a friend of multiculturalism.12

Perhaps most remarkable in this subtle and not-so-subtle alchemy was the way in which oldtime socialist ideals had been turned into something nearly approaching their opposite. On the occasion of Shanker's death, a resolution for the Workmen's Circle (an organization still usefully active in many cities, with a real commitment to the socialistic tradition of secular Yiddishkayt) closed, "Our continuing commitment to equality of opportunity for all people was shared by Al Shanker. He and we recognized that any effort to equalize results was doomed to fail" (my emphasis, PB).13 Equalize results? This phraseology would have been baffling to Eugene Debs, to whom personal upward mobility was never the goal of socialists and he permanence of capitalism never the solution. The very point of socialism was, naturally, real equal opportunity for humankind to live and work together in cooperative spirit, peace and prosperity -- through the expropriation of the bloody-handed expropriators. "To make it within our society," as Shanker often described the primary purpose of education, served better as the slogan of Norman Podhoretz's lifetime self-devotion; but then, the unembarrassed careerists of Podhoretz's circle had never been so far from Albert Shanker after all.14

Somehow, all the hopes raised for social progress during the 1960s have been poisoned, the promised accomplishments of a Great Society lost within decaying inner city neighborhoods and sprawling suburbs, the arrogance of the new rich matched with the deepening despair of the growing poor. Viewed from the more distant hopes of the 1940s, urban working class America had gone pretty much to hell. With well-paying industrial jobs gone and services crumbling, drugs (whether or not actually supplied by CIA's noted "assets" in assorted parts of the world: profit requires no conspiracy) found a natural home in the merchandizing of misery. Somehow, even the traces of the older, moderate socialism whose hopes had continued to play a symptomatic role in Jewish life had meanwhile vanished into a morally tainted meritocracy. No one person is nearly large enough to blame for this social tragedy, but Albert Shanker occupies a considerable role, as symbol and substance, within it.


  1. For background history, see Marjorie Murphy, Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900-1980 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1900); and Celia L. Zitron, The New York City Teachers Union, 1916-1964: A Story of Educational and Social Commitment (New York: Humanities, 1968). The stories of left-led teachers' unions outside New York from the 1910s onward have yet to be told fully, but would surely be revealing. return

  2. Various essays in New Politics' "old series" constitute the very best guide to the internal politics of the UFT/AFT, with so many rich details and so much insight that to attempt to summarize would do damage to the originals. See, for instance, Steve Zeluck, "The UFT Strike: A Blow Against Teacher Unionism," NP #25 (Winter 1968); Maurice Berube, " 'Democratic Socialists' and the Schools," #31 (Summer 1969); Lois Weiner, "Cracks in Shanker's Empire," #44 (Fall 1976), and an exchange between Albert Shanker and Herbert Hill, "Black Protest, Union Democracy and the UFT," #32 (Fall 1970). return

  3. Melvyn Dubofsky, The State and Labor in Modern America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994). return

  4. See "Herbert Hill Replies," NP #32 (Fall 1970), 33-35, for documentation of this bit of skullduggery. return

  5. Jerald Podair, " 'White' Values,'Black' Values: The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Controversy and New York City Culture, 1967-1975," Radical History Review, #59 (Spring 1994), 36-59, remains, in many ways, the most sensitive and up-to-date account of the subject. return

  6. See several essays in Jack Saltzman and Cornel West, eds., Struggles in the Promised Land: Toward a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States (New York: Oxford, 1997), especially Earl Lewis, "The Need to Remember: Three Phases in Black and Jewish Educational Relations," 231-56; and Paul Buhle and Robin D.G. Kelley, "Allies of a Different Sort: Jews and Blacks in the American Left," 197-230. return

  7. Close watchers of the controversy about the blatantly anti-Semitic leaflet reprinted and widely distributed by Shanker's machine during the turbulent Ocean Hill-Brownsville events will want to consult Earl Lewis's conclusion that the leaflet identified a non-existent group, that no one has ever claimed credit for it and consider seriously his suggestion that, in this era of many thousands of disguised police agents engaged in provocative actions, it may well have been a COINTELPRO project. Recent revelations about the Anti-Defamation League's secret activities to discover and make available damaging data on Martin Luther King for J. Edgar Hoover's purposes, point to some of the still murkier, intelligence-related sides of contemporary controversy. It would be shocking but not surprising to learn that Shanker's office concocted the "perfect" anti-Semitic document to crystalize support for the UFT leadership. See Lewis, "The Need to Remember," pp. 254-55, n.51 (op. cit.); and Robert I. Friedman, "The Enemy from Within: How the Anti-Defamation League Turned the Notion of Human Rights on its Head," Village Voice, May 11, 1993. return

  8. Berube, "'Democratic Socialists' and the Schools," New Politics, (Summer 1969), p. 60. Berube argues interestingly that Shanker, the hard-nosed business unionist, was drawn into the race narrative by liberal-socialist intellectuals and in doing so had "come home" to the labor establishment which relished its intellectual apologists. return

  9. Erich Thomas Chester, Covert Network: Progressives, the International Rescue Committee, and the CIA (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1995). Chester notes that under Reagan, the National Endowment for Democracy took up some of the tasks earlier conducted by CIA and IRC operations. Supporters of the IRC will eagerly claim, as did Shanker in his lifetime, that liberal anti-Communists had played a vital role in supporting Polish Solidarity; many members of Solidarity would note that the real purpose of such support was to undermine the movement for workers' control no less than to undermine the Communist government, and that IRC leaders proudly claimed to have "brought together" Solidarity leaders with American investors -- along with their Polish counterparts, the new elite class to rule ordinary Polish workers. return

  10. Understandably, Cherne is one of those most fervently devoted to Shanker's memory, along with Diane Ravitch and the disgraced Elliot Abrams. Jonathan Mahler, "How Albert Shanker Set the Agenda for a Generation," an excellent if ironic title, indeed, Jewish Forward, February 28, 1997. Sadly, Irving Howe, too, remained on the IRC board, but that at least he opposed both the Central American adventure and the warm sponsorship of major Angolan war criminal Jonas Savimbi by Freedom House and AFL-CIO operatives around Jay Lovestone's equally oily protege, Irving Brown. return

  11. Jonathan Mahler, "How Albert Shanker Set the Agenda for a Generation." return

  12. "Albert Shanker's Last Stand," Jewish Forward, February 28, 1997, taken from a 1996 address in Prague. Thankfully, the decades of paid advertisements whose cost to AFT members could easily have saved a large redwood grove from destruction seem to have ceased at last. Shanker's potential successors have not rushed to mimic him. Indeed, Edward McElroy, Jr., a decent and honest unionist and AFT Washington underling with a genuine pro-peace background, was said to have a shot at the presidency. The mendacious Sandra Feldman, however, gained the office in May. return

  13. "Where We Stand," Jewish Forward, February 28, 1997. return

  14. Quote in Podair, "`White' Values," p. 49. Emphasis in Shanker's original. return

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