April 15, 1998
The AFT and Albert Shanker
(published in Black Radical Congress, 6 November 2000)
By Rich Gibson

The AFT, the AFL's creation to combat the company-union NEA, organized for years in urban school systems. Early on, their biggest base was in Chicago, but the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike in New York City put the union on the map. Led by ALbert Shanker, the 1968 teacher's racist strike against the black community made the AFT infamous among minority workers, famous among the mostly white teaching force. In brief, AFT struck against attempts to integrate the teaching force in minority schools. In a perverse way, the AFT won the strike. 

With more than 500,000 members, making it one of the larger unions in the AFL-CIO, AFT's base is mostly urban, indeed, most heavily New York state. The AFT membership reflects its urban focus. Since the economic collapse is greatest in the cities, AFT had to confront issues only peripheral to NEA. On the one hand, the possibility of rebellion is far greater in urban areas and teachers hold potentially powerful positions. On the other, tax revenues and other resources are minimal in the cities. The governing class needs more and can pay less. 

AFT does all it can to help out. The union parented the concessions movement when it, along with AFSCME, turned over the members' pensions to the City of New York to stave off the city's bankruptcy. AFT's boss, Al Shanker hobnobs with upper crust economic financiers like Felix Rohatyn and sits on a variety of corporate boards. Still Shanker after all these years, is in the forefront promoting "quality of work" programs in the schools which seek to mask class differences, to convince school workers that they and Shanker's banker friends are all in the same boat. 

Shanker, born in 1928, rankles NEA publicists by getting ink as a school reformer far out of proportion to the comparative membership figures of the two unions. His weekly Sunday columns in the New York Times give him a panache of intelligence as well as an ongoing publicity base to press his concept of school reform. But observable life is stubborn, after 24 years in power, Shanker's urban schools only reformed backwards. 

AFT's urban base, strongly represented by black professionals, sometimes key gate-keepers in the black community, at once better off yet better positioned to make change than most of their neighbors, has most frequently cast its lot, on advice of leaders, with the white elites in controlling volatility in the schools. For example, Mary Ellen Riordan , a white former teacher, was long the President of the Detroit AFT. In the mid-seventies Riordan led a Detroit teachers strike which quickly headed toward failure. Leaders of other Detroit unions, especially the unions representing welfare workers and clients, called on Riordan to call a mass community demonstration in support of the strike. Riordan rejected the idea immediately saying, "They would riot. Those black kids can't march." Eventually, Riordan declared a strike victory and hurried her largely black rank and file back to work. Subsequent to her passivity, Detroit schools enjoyed the quietest of riots, as has the entire city, awash in crack, murder, violence and police sweeps in the schools, mass Halloween arson, a collapsed welfare system, and just a boundary line away, is Gross Pointe, one of the richest cities in the nation, where teachers do not hesitate to mobilize their community in favor of bigger educator salaries. (Interview with Tom Suber, former AFSCME Detroit welfare local official, 12-19-92, Washington D.C.) 

Remarkably, AFT's urban base once made the union a leader in the struggle for integration. Today AFT is notorious as an actively racist organization. Clara Zitron cites AFT efforts to forge links with the minority community in New York City going back to 1935. Of interest to curriculum specialists, in 1950 the union published a pamphlet, "Bias and Prejudice in Textbooks in use in the New York City Schools". Throughout its early history, AFT encouraged "Intercultural" Studies, that is, the study of black history and culture as well as anti-semitism. During World War II, AFT pressed these works into the formal curriculum. But Shanker turned this proud heritage for social justice inside out. 

As noted above, Shanker rode to power on the back of the racist Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike in 1968. The upshot of the strike was to halt the city's attempt to decentralize the school system, an effort designed to give minority communities a greater voice in the school system. Clearly, Shanker witnessed the developing white backlash of the period, as especially represented by the George Wallace Presidential campaign, and saw a way to make personal gains. The AFT, on Shanker's watch, abandoned any pretense of interest in social equality, except perhaps for its top leaders. Here are four additional examples: 

1. At the 1975 AFT convention, Shanker gave up the gavel to speak from the floor to oppose a motion from the union's black caucus "to endorse and support busing" as a means of urban desegregation. Shanker "won". 

2. In 1977 AFT submitted an amicus curiae brief to the United States Supreme Court in support of Alan Bakke's challenge against the University of California's affirmative action plan. The brief argued against the use of quotas in employment. 

3. In 1978 Shanker sought to have the AFT submit another amicus brief, this time on the Brian Weber case, which would have opposed a union negotiated affirmative action plan. Black leaders who prevailed against Shanker now consider the result of their effort, the union's "no position" on Weber, a major victory. 

4. In 1985, again behind Shanker, AFT did submit an amicus brief in the Wygant case. Here AFT argued that a NEA negotiated affirmative action plan in Jackson, Mississippi, should be abolished. NEA had bargained an affirmative action agenda for the employment of minority teachers. The plan included an affirmative action retention policy. The Supreme Court upheld the right of a union to negotiate an affirmative action plan, but voided the retention policy. 

In this instance, Shanker used the old craft union argument, seniority above affirmative action. But, as many critics point out, Shanker's own locals take peculiar stands on seniority. In New York City, teacher seniority is counted on an "at site" basis, that is a teacher with 20 years in the system but three years in one assignment has three years of effective seniority. (See "AFT--An Historical Outline" by Don Keck and Dan Mckillip, 1990 NEA publication) 

AFT is notoriously undemocratic, stifling any possibility of serious dissent through a tight caucus system controlled mostly by the New York City local. While there is some erosion in the pattern, dissident types captured a few seats in New York in 1991, typical AFT officials stay in their jobs a long, long time. 

Pat Tornillo, Miami AFT boss with an island home in Dade County, Florida, still clings to his spot after twenty years out of the classroom. Al Shanker worked at one top post or another since 1968. In contrast to the AFT, NEA presidents are limited to two three year terms and NEA Executive Directors (now Don Cameron) are notoriously low-profile. (See especially "Teacher Rebellion" by Dave Selden. For an earlier history, see Celia Zitron, "The New York City Teachers Union--1916 to 1964") 

Indeed, Albert Shanker is a key in differentiating NEA and AFT. Flatly, he is an active fascist, the living embodiment of the Dutt thesis that liberalism is a sheep's skin over a fascist wolf. Shanker, a native New Yorker and University of Illinois philosophy graduate, was once a junior high school teacher. In 1959 Shanker left the classroom to become a full-time organizer for the AFT. He was mentored into the AFT leadership by its former president, David Selden, who bitterly remembers his protege turning on him in a power struggle culminating in Selden's defeat and Shanker's accession in 1974. 

Subsequently Shanker developed gourmet tastes, today he favors the La Strada East Restaurant near the AFT offices on Park Avenue, and sips George Dickel Bourbon. (Interview with David Selden, 1-9-89) 

A leader of "Social Democrats, U.S.A.", Shanker, and his apparent successor Sandra Feldman, are deeply involved in the intelligence community, sitting on the boards of the National Endowment for Democracy which, among other things, funded the Nicaraguan Contras, the extreme right wing in El Salvador, the deadly forces that overthrew the democratically elected Allende government in Chile in 1973, and similar fascist movements around Latin America. 

Shanker also serves with the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), the CIA's paw inside the AFL-CIO. (AFL-CIO, incidentally, spends more than half of its money on overseas projects, a fact remote from most of its members). Inside the AFL-CIO, Shanker usually votes in coalition with the most reactionary of the craft union bosses. He was, for example, a key supporter for George Meany in gaining backing for votes favoring the Vietnam War. 


Without the knowledge of the members, the top leaders of the two unions made a plan to merge as early as 1988. They recognize that the unions are more alike than different. They both divert on-the-job struggle into the electoral arena, both are heavily involved in encouraging corporations to take over school systems, both have leaders closely linked to the ruling class and its intelligence community, both abandoned battles over the curriculum in favor of phony "teacher control" programs. Both use craft union tactics to keep working class people out of "the profession" and, internally, both use divide and conquer tactics (from racism to multi-tier salary schedules) to keep education workers in line. Both are, on their worst days, rackets. Yet both house terrific potential for struggle; issues, meeting places, forums, thousands of honest people in search of rational answers, and respect for commitment. 

Remarkably, the merger of the international wings of the two teacher unions, the International Federation of Free Teacher Unions chaired by AFT's Shanker, and the World Council of Teaching Professionals led by former NEA President Mary Hatwood Futrell, was completed in 1992. Once bitter rivals, the two leaders of the teacher federations set aside their secondary differences to form one organization. This extraordinary convergence brings together two organizations that once reflected the often bizarre battles created by the shadows of the Cold War. IFFTU was formed by the CIA to serve as an international alternative to what American intelligence saw as professional organizations that were, if not dominated by Soviet-led communists, too left anyway. 

Let us examine some other ways the two educator unions are more alike than different. Both NEA and AFT bosses see dues income (multiply $340 yearly per capita average dues x 2 1/2 million members and you get an inkling of the money involved, this is bigger than many corporate mergers), as the bottom line, which, in the union business, it is. 

NEA and the AFT fear serious battles against racism, either because the unions' leaders are themselves racist or because they fear they will offend the racists in their own ranks, especially in states where membership is voluntary. Rather than create an integrated educators' movement to fight all aspects of racism in the schools, from discipline to the curriculum, NEA and AFT pander to seperatists, multi-culturalists who stress the differences between natural allies rather than Zitron's "Interculturalists" who stressed the commonalities. Both toady to the rich, essentially preferring capitalism and huge staff salaries. Both believe the source of their unions' strength is their ability to influence bosses by shmooozing, not their ability to organize fights on the job. Neither union places items like the curriculum above teacher pay or hours of work in collective bargaining. 

School worker unions have historically been either company unions, dependant on the good will of the superintendent to survive (this especially pertains now to right-to-work states where dues check-off is entirely voluntary, where there is a cultural reluctance to confront and struggle, and where a bad word from an administrator can cost plenty from the union's treasury), or borrowing Selig Perleman's model, job conscious unions like their craft counterparts in the AFL-CIO, attending to bread and butter issues like wages, seniority, and fringe benefits. 

What no school workers' union has done is to determine to control their work place, to recognize the necessarily adversarial relationship before school workers and elites, and to set out to fully address the essentially professional issues of why and how kids learn, what the social situation is at hand, who rules and who obeys, who will be the most reliable allies, why indeed some children do not learn, what the functions of race and class are in the classroom, and what will happen if educators put their understanding into practice and seek real change. Answers to those questions are only found in the broader turmoils in the communities, and in the engaged practice of making a difference in conjunction with the neediest parents and students. 

An AFT/NEA merger, mimicking the corporations of the '80s which survived through amalgamation when they could no longer produce value, and the union mergers (the Teamsters return to the AFL-CIO), which continued their extravagant staff salaries by merging rather than fighting employers, will end turf battles over members that drain both NEA and AFT coffers. For rank and file school workers, the NEA-AFT raids, from San Francisco to Florida, forced forward issues which both unions would prefer unseen, and gave teachers an occasional measuring stick for their quality of unionism. Dissatisfied teacher activists now have an alternative, fundamentally false though it may be. 

Although neither union has seen a serious internal dissident challenge in a decade, wiping out the option of leaving for another union, in a profound sense, gives the ruling class more control over the schools; the key in understanding the main developments in the school systems. If nothing else, the AFT cadre, in a merged union, would be expected to discipline the remaining mavericks in NEA. The drive for teacher unity, in this case, would mean a tightened unity with the ruling class, not a vehicle for sharpened school worker resistance. 

Should the unions merge, or if the NEA simply enters the AFL-CIO on its own, new teacher organizations will rise up. In right-to-work states, teachers will quickly leave the merged union by the tens of thousands, frequently because they don't like rubbing elbows with blue collar workers and because they see the AFL-CIO as absolutely corrupt. One top NEA publicist estimates 200,000 educators will, at first, quit. 

The direction these workers take will largely depend on their leadership. They may, absent the introduction of a new organization, follow the direction of the growing National Association of Professional Educators, a mostly white Christian organization proclaiming the unity of administrators and teachers. Membership in NAPE, not AFT, runs second to NEA in some right-to-work states like Mississippi. On the other hand, the time would be propitious to create a new teacher movement, based on democratic principles of professionalism and unionism. 

There is some evidence that there is increasing struggle against trends of educator passivity. Teachers have been active. Even Utah teachers went on strike in 1990. Mississippi teachers struck in '84. Oklahoma, New Jersey, Michigan. Pensylvania, Los Angeles, West Virginia, Louisiana and Washington state school job actions boiled over in '90. Only the unions' truly tenuous misleadership of the teachers prevents major job actions in big cities. In the spring of 1992, teachers in Marion County, Florida, were only dissuaded from a strike against a board which reneged on contractual wage promises by an influx of NEA staff, some of whom privately admit shame in their actions. Teachers were particularly active in anti-war work related to the invasion of the Gulf. Entire school systems now refuse to release the names of their kids to military recruiters. All of this took place within the bounds of NEA/AFT unionism. 

But, paradoxically, some of the most apparently progressive struggles only provide a veneer for a backward agenda. Maryland teachers in 1991 took a series of militant actions, work-ins during which they did nothing but paperwork, refusal to do any extra duties like writing college recommendations, mass protests in conjunction with other public worker unions at the state capitol, and even sporadic work stoppages, all of this the culmination of years of hard organizing efforts. But the purpose of the sum of this activity, made clear to the public, was to win a regressive tax increase, a direct assault on working people, including school workers, in the community. It would be naive to believe these people were not set up by their union leadership, a few school administrators, astute politicians, and the business community. 

Florida teachers are more direct. in 1992, they went after a similar backward tax goal absent the messy aspects of public displays. Since a 1968 Florida state-wide strike was bungled (although the "defeat" caused the adoption of a state bargaining law progressive for the south), the state's educators are told by old hands and their union leadership that straight-forward encounters are hopeless. (See "The Great Florida Teachers Strike", unpub. master's thesis, James Sullivan, University of Florida, 1990) 

For many years, the massive influx of people to Florida (1,000 people a day at its peak) kept the state coffers full. Florida hired around 10,000 teachers each year. But as the present economic collapse touches even the Magic Kingdom, many Florida counties choose to gut their education funding. The solution, proposed without any veneer of militancy, comes from a joint commission of teacher unions, the governor's office (keeping as low a profile as possible) and Allied Industries, Florida's powerful consortium of business. With one voice, they want a state income tax, aimed directly at workers, no pretense of a progressive tax here. Sadly, the Florida working class will remember what the teachers tried to do to them. But, interestingly, it appears that Florida governor Chiles has scotched the whole deal. Seeing a tax revolt looming, he's shrugged, said, "Who me?", ducked and opted for the most regressive of tax increases, a sales tax hike, while the teachers take the heat. (Education Week, 1-29-92 p.19) 

Florida also serves as an example of a scam carried out by teacher unions in dozens of states; state lotteries. The teacher union leadership, in exchange for promises from business and politicians of later favors and a bountiful treasure chest, carries the ball for a state lottery, assuring the public the money will go toward education. But the leadership of the teachers' union (including the former president of the Michigan Education Association who lived through an earlier model), knows from practical experience all over the country, that the money will not go to education. It will go into the general budget and be doled out at the politicians' whim. Lottery monies are used to supplant general revenue dollars, now spent elsewhere, that would have gone to education in the first place. (See "Florida's Lottery: an Education Shell Game", Florida Trend Magazine, February, 1992). 

Several things happen: the public, convinced they can fund schools this way, passes the lottery bill. But the numbers racket will not support the school system. Now the public believes they've paid for schools with a lottery and won't pass subsequent school tax hikes. Moreover, kids are provided with the clearest example of how adults view the motive forces of society. Take your pick: hard work or--win the lottery. When the newly appointed Lotto boss starts to collect a six-figure salary, the union leadership bellows, "We wuz robbed!" All the players knew the scenario well before-hand. It's been reenacted from state to state. But the union leadership manages to buy a little more time, to hold out one more carrot of hope to their dues-payers, and to escape a little longer from the battle to come. 

The pivotal issue which school workers and their unions must address, and mostly do not, is racism. It is the Achilles heel of the educator movement. In a narrow sense, educators recognize their most narrow class interests as a craft. Too often, they bargain for themselves, not for their kids. School worker leaders have not broadened their vision sufficiently to build a defense against the attacks they now confront. Teacher organizations have offered nothing but talk in the face of the demise of inner-city schools. In every instance, the union leaders, like their poor white southern counterparts 150 years ago, choose alliances with the wealthy and politically connected over the ultimately more tightly bound alliance of interest with people of color. Ahead of the demand for "Jobs for Youth", or "Free Breakfasts for All", the teacher unions demand metal detectors. This is precisely what Sandy Feldman, president of the New York City teachers' union, did in late February of 1992 when she visited a city school tarnished by its second violent incident in two weeks, this one a murder on February 27, the day of a scheduled visit from Mayor David Dinkins. Feldman addressed the teachers, calling for a walkout for more security, nothing about a job action against the day to day violence which destroys the lives of thousands of New York's youth, but a battle for security, essentially cops to be used by the teachers and administrators against the kids. But this treachery, rooted in racism, only rebounds like lowering the minimum wage or creating more unemployment. Eventually the largely white teacher force suffers as well. In New York, the largely demoralized teacher force suffered enough already. What is prescribed by any reasonable analysis is resistance, not entrenchment. 

The essence of the merger of the AFT and the NEA is the further intrusion of a fascist agenda, the corporate state injected into every level of education from curricula development to teacher placement. Nothing could illustrate this more graphically than a recount of a presentation made to the prestigious NEA Executive Board on Saturday, February 8, 199
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