Labor History, and Understanding a Woody Allen Joke

The obligatory clip from Sleeper

I alway wondered how Albert Shanker ended up being the man who destroyed the 20th century world.

Well, this New York Times Op/Ed provides context for both that joke, as well as a for the war on teachers and unions that some among liberal “education reformers” have engaged in for years.

The short version is that in 1968, there was a majority black school district set up in Ocean Hill-Brownsville (Brooklyn), and one of their first actions wqas to fire some white teachers for being white, and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Shanker’s union, went on strike, arguing, IMNSHO correctly, that arbitrary hiring and firing makes unionization is meaningless or impossible.

Shanker won, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school board lost, and teachers’ unions became the bête noire of the liberal education reform community. (Conservatives and Republicans have always been opposed to labor unions generally, and teacher unions specifically)

On Nov. 17, 1968, Albert Shanker, a tough Queens-bred union president, stood next to New York City’s patrician mayor, John Lindsay, to announce a settlement to a crippling teacher strike that had thrown a million students out of New York City public schools for weeks on end. The divisive strike laid bare long simmering tensions within American liberalism over unions, education and race. Almost a half-century later, the evolution in liberal attitudes that the strike symbolized created vulnerabilities that a very different son of Queens, Donald Trump, exploited in his rise to the presidency.

By the late 1960s, after years of frustration with vicious white resistance to school integration, many African-American leaders supported the creation of a black-controlled local school district in the low-income Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn. The idea was that the district would hire more minority schoolteachers in order to provide role models for students and adopt a curriculum that was culturally affirming.

A firestorm erupted, however, when the local school board (then known as the governing board) sent a telegram to 19 unionized educators indicating that the board “voted to end your employment in the schools of this district.” The list included 18 white educators and one black teacher, mistakenly included, who was immediately reinstated once the error was discovered. A hearing by a retired African-American judge hired by the board, Francis Rivers, found that there were no credible charges against the teachers. But Rhody McCoy, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville local superintendent, told The New York Times, “Not one of these teachers will be allowed to teach anywhere in the city. The black community will see to that.” To protest the terminations, teachers throughout the city began a series of strikes shutting down the nation’s largest school system from early September through mid-November.


To begin with, Shanker believed he had no choice but to call a strike to protect his members from arbitrary dismissal. If an employer — of whatever race — had the right to dismiss unionized employees without due process, why have a union? Shanker understood that conservatives didn’t believe in collective bargaining rights and due process. But wasn’t it a bedrock liberal principle, he asked, for workers to have a right to organize and protect themselves from arbitrary actions by their employers?

Shanker and Rustin also thought it was important to fight for integrated schools and noted that “community control” was originally the slogan adopted by white parents in Queens who opposed desegregation. Shanker supported the creation of the nation’s first nonselective magnet schools to foster integration and cited the 1966 Coleman Report, which found that low-income students achieved at much higher levels in socioeconomically integrated schools than in those with concentrated poverty. Settling for community control of segregated schools was wrong, Rustin argued. The idea was, as he put it, “the spiritual descendant of states’ rights.”


Instead, to improve teacher diversity, Shanker worked hard to unionize teacher aides and to negotiate a stipend for them to go back to school, get their college degrees and become teachers themselves. Over time, more than 8,000 paraprofessionals became teachers, providing the largest single source of minority teachers in New York City.

When the third and final strike was settled, the community control effort was gutted. Shanker won among broader public opinion, but lost among liberals. Many progressives dismissed Shanker, a cerebral former graduate student in philosophy, as a madman, as a well-known joke from the era suggests. In Woody Allen’s 1973 science fiction comedy, “Sleeper,” Mr. Allen’s character wakes up two centuries in the future to find that that civilization was destroyed when “a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.”

More generally, over the subsequent 50 years, the Lindsay/Bundy/Carmichael worldview would largely prevail over the Shanker/Rustin/Harrington approach among progressives. In the years since Ocean Hill-Brownsville, many upper-middle class liberals have demonstrated a lukewarm attitude toward unions. When Democrats held majorities in Congress under presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the progressive coalition failed to prioritize labor law reforms to give unions a fair shot at surviving. Likewise, those same Democratic administrations largely avoided the fight to support school integration, favoring instead spending more money for high-poverty schools. And at the federal level, Democrats have largely adopted the view articulated by Bundy and others involved in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict that race could be an explicit factor in hiring decisions.

The shifts on unions, school integration and race-conscious decision-making that the 1968 teachers strikes symbolized are not unrelated to the disastrous election in 2016, a calamity from which progressives only partially recovered in 2018. A strong labor movement, an integrated public school system and a legal commitment to equal treatment of individuals by race all help make authoritarian white nationalism less appealing. But the reduced progressive commitment to these critical bulwarks helped clear the way for a demagogue.

This does provide at least a partial explanation of the moral vacuity of the modern education reform, as well as the disastrous abandonment of the labor movement by the modern Democratic Party.

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