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Tough Liberal

Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 552
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  • Book Info
    Tough Liberal
    Book Description:

    In Woody Allen's 1973 film, Sleeper, a character wakes up in the future to learn that civilization was destroyed when "a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead." Shanker was condemned by many when he shut down the New York City school system in the bitter strikes of 1967 and 1968, and he was denounced for stirring up animosity between black parents and Jewish teachers. Later, however, he built alliances with blacks, and at the time of his death in 1997, such figures as Bill Clinton celebrated Shanker for being an educational reformer, a champion of equality, and a promoter of democracy abroad.

    Shanker lived the lives of several men bound into one. In his early years, he was the "George Washington of the teaching profession," helping to found modern teacher unionism. During the 1980s, as head of the American Federation of Teachers, he became the nation's leading education reformer. Shanker supported initiatives for high education standards and accountability, teacher-led charter schools, and a system of "peer review" to weed out inadequate teachers. Throughout his life, Shanker also fought for "tough liberalism," an ideology favoring public education and trade unions but also colorblind policies and a robust anticommunism-all of which, Shanker believed, were vital to a commitment to democracy.

    Although he had a coherent worldview, Shanker was a complex individual. He began his career as a pacifist but evolved into a leading defense and foreign policy hawk. He was an intellectual and a populist; a gifted speaker who failed at small talk; a liberal whose biggest enemies were often on the left; a talented writer who had to pay to have his ideas published; and a gruff unionist who enjoyed shopping and detested sports. Richard D. Kahlenberg's biography is the first to offer a complete narrative of one of the most important voices in public education and American politics in the last half century. At a time when liberals are accused of not knowing what they stand for, Tough Liberal illuminates an engaging figure who suggested an alternative liberal path.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50909-1
    Subjects: History, Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-XII)
    (pp. 1-12)

    It is the peculiar fate of Albert Shanker that he is probably best remembered for something he never did. In Woody Allen’s 1973 science-fiction comedy Sleeper, Allen’s character wakes up two hundred years in the future to learn that civilization was destroyed when “a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.”¹ Shanker was considered by many New Yorkers, particularly liberals like Allen, to be a hothead and union thug for shutting down the entire New York City school system with bitter strikes in 1967 and 1968. As head of the United Federation of Teachers...


      (pp. 15-31)

      When Albert Shanker was born on September 14, 1928, he emerged from the womb with a large red birthmark on the right side of his neck running over the back of his head. His mother, Mamie Shanker, was beside herself. “What will ever become of him?” she asked.¹ In a childhood that would be marked by many struggles—deprivation and discrimination, the Great Depression and the rise of Adolf Hitler—it was not an auspicious beginning.

      Albert Shanker (he had no English middle name) was the first-born child of Morris Shanker, a newspaper deliveryman, and Mamie Burko Shanker, a garment...

    • 2 Creating the United Federation of Teachers (1952–1962)
      (pp. 32-51)

      Teaching in the New York City public schools was a step back for Shanker’s career, but it set him on a path that over the next ten years would help him change the teaching profession forever. The poor pay and humiliation that he and other teachers faced would lead them to risk their jobs and strike for the right to bargain collectively in New York City, and their example would have an extraordinary influence on teachers in other parts of the country. Of course, as he began, Shanker was mostly concerned about earning a living and knew nothing of what...

    • 3 Rising Within the UFT LABOR AND CIVIL RIGHTS TOGETHER (1962–1965)
      (pp. 52-66)

      Having helped to create the UFT and establish the right for teachers to bargain collectively, Albert Shanker now faced new questions: Could the UFT form a coalition with civil-rights groups to promote public schools and a broader agenda of social justice? And what might his own leadership role be in the movement?

      As the UFT was closing in on its first successful contract, a power struggle began emerging within the union, a struggle in which Shanker played a central role. In 1962, UFT president Charles Cogen was getting on in years and thought about handing over the reins to Roger...

    • 4 Black Power and the 1967 Teachers’ Strike (1966–1968)
      (pp. 67-92)

      As 1965 turned to 1966, American liberalism dominated the political landscape. The values that Shanker held dear—integration, nonviolence, and colorblindness—were staples of the civil-rights movement and had growing acceptance among the broader American public. Civil-rights groups and labor unions forged a powerful coalition nationally and in New York City. But almost immediately in 1966, the coalition began to splinter as core values like nondiscrimination and the importance of labor were discarded.

      While Al Shanker liked John Lindsay’s campaign stances on poverty, civil rights, and integration, he was immediately taken aback by Mayor Lindsay’s attitude toward organized labor. On...

    • 5 The Ocean Hill–Brownsville Strike and the Liberal Assault on Labor (1968)
      (pp. 93-111)

      At least since Franklin Roosevelt’s time, one of the core values of American liberalism has been that workers have the right to organize to fight for better wages and to protect themselves from arbitrary dismissal. Many conservatives, particularly in the South, never accepted that view. But it was a bedrock liberal principle. It was stunning, therefore, that in the topsy-turvy environment of 1968, the right to protect unionized workers from arbitrary termination would come under assault not from Southern conservatives but from New York City liberals.

      On May 8, 1968, the Ocean Hill–Brownsville District Governing Board sent telegrams to...

    • 6 Ocean Hill–Brownsville THE FALLOUT (1969)
      (pp. 112-124)

      With the picket signs put away, the community-control dispute would move to the New York State legislature in Albany. In the coming months, Shanker would argue that the fight was not between liberals and conservatives, but between two versions of liberalism—his tough liberalism, which embraced full funding of integrated schools, nonviolence, nondiscrimination, and the rights of organized labor; and Lindsay’s limousine liberalism, which favored community control, tolerated violence, explained away anti-Semitism, and held labor unions in low regard. In the short term, Shanker would ally with conservatives in Albany to defend his union, but it was clear he believed...

      (pp. 125-144)

      During Ocean Hill–Brownsville, Albert Shanker believed he was fighting for the survival of the UFT. With the mayor, the business community, many liberal intellectuals, the elite press, and most in the black community against him, he took on a bunker mentality and could be pugnacious and appear narrow minded. Around the time of the controversy, Shanker spoke at Oberlin College and someone asked him, “Mr. Shanker, what about the children?” Weren’t they hurt by teacher strikes? Shanker responded: “Listen, I don’t represent children. I represent the teachers.”¹

      He noted on another occasion: “My view of the leader of the...

    • 8 Becoming President of the American Federation of Teachers and Battling the New Politics Movement (1972–1974)
      (pp. 145-165)

      By 1972, Albert Shanker and Dave Selden had long since ended their student-mentor relationship, and a rift had developed between the former close friends. The two men, who together had helped build the first powerful teachers’ union local in the country, divided on a number of issues that were also splitting liberals and the New Politics movement (a more moderate version of the New Left) across the country. The four biggest divisions between Selden and Shanker involved the Vietnam War, the uses of political power, George McGovern’s presidential campaign, and the importance of the AFL-CIO. In the early to mid-1970s,...

    • 9 “A Man by the Name of Albert Shanker” SLEEPER AND THE CONTROVERSY OF POWER (1973–1975)
      (pp. 166-179)

      Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, American liberalism had sought to check private-sector corporate power with the countervailing power of two institutions: government and organized labor. Standing firmly within that tradition, Albert Shanker, as the new leader of the AFT, sought to broaden and expand the union’s power on behalf of teachers. But instead of receiving support, in the mid-1970s he would be attacked by liberals—from Woody Allen to Bill Moyers—as American liberalism took another surprising turn from Shanker’s tough liberalism.

      When Shanker arrived in Washington, the AFT he inherited from Cogen and Selden was a small operation...

      (pp. 180-202)

      If Al Shanker was one of a declining breed of liberals who was quite comfortable exercising power, there was a terrible irony, because the next period of his life in the mid-1970s was marked by losses and threats to his power, along with other setbacks. In New York City, Shanker and the UFT would take an awful hit as the city’s finances deteriorated, a teachers’ strike failed, and thousands of UFT members were laid off. In New York State, NYSUT would face an assault from the NEA, which sought to splinter the newly merged organization. At home, Shanker would face...


    • 11 Jimmy Carter and the Rise of the Reagan Democrats (1976–1980)
      (pp. 205-232)

      If Jimmy Carter was something of an enigma to Shanker, he was bound to be better than Gerald Ford, who had presided clumsily over an economic recession and been of little help to New York City in its time of need. In August 1976, the AFT convention, meeting in Bal Harbour, Florida, overwhelmingly endorsed Carter over Ford. The NEA followed suit at its convention, for the first time endorsing a presidential candidate. The AFT delegates were particularly enthusiastic about Carter’s choice of Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale as vice presidential nominee. At the convention, Mondale returned the praise, calling Shanker the...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • 12 Being a Social Democrat Under Ronald Reagan DOMESTIC POLICY (1980–1988)
      (pp. 233-249)

      With Ronald Reagan’s election, Shanker geared up to fight the administration on what he viewed as two central bulwarks of American democracy: public education and organized labor. At the same time, Shanker would find himself partially allied with Reagan on several other issues, including quotas, bilingual education, values in education, and anti-Communism, positions Shanker also believed were linked to the promotion of democracy. Many saw these alliances as contradictory in the face of the threat Reagan posed, but Shanker argued his unique version of tough liberalism was perfectly consistent and animated by a vision of social democracy—and that it...

    • 13 Being a Social Democrat Under Ronald Reagan FOREIGN POLICY (1980–1988)
      (pp. 250-271)

      To many observers who saw Albert Shanker and Ronald Reagan fight tooth and nail on issues including school vouchers and organized labor, it was striking—even bizarre—that Shanker often saw eye to eye with President Reagan on international affairs. Indeed, it was questionable to some that the head of a teachers’ union would even take positions on foreign policy. But to Shanker, the seeming contradictions and the involvement in international issues were all explained by a coherent and cogent social democratic vision that placed a premium on the value of democracy.

      Shanker had long been interested in international affairs,...

    • 14 Education Reform A NATION AT RISK, MERIT PAY, AND PEER REVIEW (1983–1984)
      (pp. 272-290)

      As a Social Democratic thinker, Albert Shanker took a number of positions that made his fellow liberals uneasy. As an education reformer, he would ruffle many feathers among his fellow advocates of public education. Beginning in the early 1980s, he began taking risks on education reform—building alliances with business, acknowledging shortcomings in public education, and proposing innovative ideas on teacher pay and the firing of bad teachers—all of which shocked the education establishment. The difference between Al Shanker the Social Democrat and Al Shanker the education reformer was this: if in politics he and his colleagues largely lost...

    • 15 Beyond Special Interest MAKING TEACHING A PROFESSION (1985–1987)
      (pp. 291-307)

      In November 1984, Ronald Reagan was reelected in a crushing forty-nine-state landslide over Walter Mondale, a drubbing on the scale of Nixon’s defeat of McGovern in 1972 and Johnson’s defeat of Goldwater in 1964. For Shanker, even though he agreed with Reagan on a few issues, the president’s reelection was far worse than Nixon’s, for Reagan came from the far right—essentially reversing the 1964 election, in which Reagan’s candidate, Barry Goldwater, had been buried. Shanker saw how organized labor was branded as a “special interest” during the campaign. While he mostly disagreed with the charge, he saw the allegation...

    • 16 Charter Schools and School Restructuring (1988–1997)
      (pp. 308-318)

      In the mid-to-late 1980s, Shanker helped launch another important education reform—teacher-run “charter schools.” In Shanker’s original vision, these publicly financed schools would give teachers greater freedom to experiment with innovative teaching techniques, student groupings, and other education reforms. The experiments would be time-limited and subject to rigorous evaluation. Having propelled the idea forward, however, he would watch with increasing alarm as the movement transformed into something quite different than he originally intended, with many—though not all—charter schools actually undercutting his initial vision.

      Shanker’s concept of charter schools grew out of his belief that schooling needed to be...

    • 17 The Early Education-Standards Movement (1989–1994)
      (pp. 319-340)

      Today, the education-standards movement—the call for educators to outline content standards of what students should know, to test them to see how well they know it, and to make students and adults accountable for failure—is the leading and most notable feature of the American education-policy landscape. Differing versions of the approach have been at the center of education policy in the last three presidential administrations, including the controversial federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Virtually all discussions in education ultimately tie back to standards, testing, and accountability.

      This was not always the case. For years, the...

    • 18 The Rise of the Angry White Males and the Gingrich Revolution (1992–1995)
      (pp. 341-360)

      The Gingrich revolution of 1994—the loss of about fifty Democratic seats and the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives led by Congressman Newt Gingrich—was not supposed to happen to Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party. Clinton had run as a different kind of Democrat, one who appealed to the very group responsible for the Gingrich ascendancy—the “angry white males.” Much of the reason Shanker was so taken by Clinton—apart from their affinity on education issues—was his rejection of the “soft” liberalism that was so anathema to Reagan Democrats. But on matters of race, even Clinton took...

    • 19 Reviving the Education-Standards Movement and the Final Days (1995–1997)
      (pp. 361-380)

      In the twilight years of his life, Shanker continued to battle for the education-standards movement that he believed was so important to improving public education and that was now under attack from the right. He also made a spirited defense of teachers’ unions, which would be singled out by 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole as bad for education. In death, he would receive tributes from across the political spectrum, and liberals and conservatives would fight over his legacy.

      While Shanker was engaging in a bruising battle with the isolationist left over control of the AFL-CIO, he was simultaneously doing...


    • 20 The Legacy of Albert Shanker
      (pp. 383-404)

      Today, roughly a decade after his death, it is possible to begin assessing Shanker’s contributions and his legacy. In education circles, Shanker’s name is frequently invoked in discussions and arguments, and his ultimate legacy will continue to evolve over time. But it is certainly possible to ask the question: how would our world be different if Al Shanker had gone on, as he planned, to become a professor of philosophy rather than a leader of teachers, an education reformer, a union activist, and a public writer?

      Shanker’s impact can be considered in three areas: his influence on education (which was...

    (pp. 405-408)
  8. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 409-410)
  9. NOTES
    (pp. 411-492)
    (pp. 493-506)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 507-524)