Al Shanker and the Strike of 1968
By Daniel Treiman / The FORWARD / Fri. May 23, 2008
Forty years ago this month, the new community-controlled school board in the largely black Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn summarily dismissed 18 white teachers and administrators. The school board’s action led to a series of citywide teacher strikes that roiled a city already on edge and strained traditional alliances — pitting liberals against labor and blacks against Jews.
At the center of the storm was Albert Shanker, leader of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. Over the previous decade, the junior high school teacher-turned-labor leader had played a key role in organizing New York City’s fractious teachers into a cohesive force and winning them the right to bargain collectively, finally taking the UFT’s reins in 1964.
A social democrat and staunch supporter of the civil rights movement, Shanker took a tough line in demanding the reinstatement of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville educators. He led New York City teachers out on strike not once, not twice, but three times in the fall of 1968, shutting down the public schools for a total of 36 days. Shanker faced down threats, intimidation and occasional antisemitic rhetoric directed at him and his heavily Jewish union by supporters of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville board — as well as an often unsympathetic response from local officials and much of the city’s liberal intelligentsia. In the end, he emerged from the strike a figure of national prominence.
Over the next three decades, Shanker would become a giant of organized labor and one of the most important figures in American education. In 1974, he was elected president of the American Federation of Teachers. From this perch, he helped forge the nation’s teachers into a political powerhouse, vigorously fought conservative efforts to privatize public education through vouchers, and emerged as one of the country’s most influential voices on education policy, marshalling his members behind forward-looking school reforms.
Even as Shanker stood astride two pillars of American liberalism — the labor movement and public schools — the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville battle presaged other fights for the union leader. In the years that followed, Shanker stood out as an outspoken critic of emerging left-wing (and, eventually, liberal) orthodoxies on foreign policy, affirmative action, bilingual education and multiculturalism — earning him the lasting enmity of many on the left.
In an admiring new biography, “Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy” (Columbia University Press, 2007), education scholar Richard Kahlenberg tries to write the late labor leader back into the history of American liberalism. Kahlenberg makes the case that whether Shanker was fighting the right on behalf of trade unions and public schools or tangling with the left over foreign policy and affirmative action, ultimately his positions were rooted in a consistent liberal commitment to the principle of democracy. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, spoke with the Forward about the 1968 school strike and why Albert Shanker’s brand of “tough liberalism” remains relevant today.