Albert Shanker (1928-1997), the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side on Sept. 14, 1928. His father delivered newspapers from a pushcart. His mother, who worked in a sweatshop as a sewing machine operator, taught Al a deep appreciation of trade unionism and a love of spirited debate. Although he didn’t speak a word of English when he entered first grade, Al flourished in New York City’s public school system. He headed the Stuyvesant High School debating team, graduated with honors from the University of Illinois, and ran out of funds in the early 1950s, just short of completing a Ph.D. in philosophy at Columbia University. He found a “lousy job” as a per-diem substitute teacher at PS 179 in East Harlem and launched a career as an educator and trade union leader. As president of the American Federation of Teachers, he became known as a strong and courageous advocate for labor—as well as an “iconoclastic thinker,” “champion of children,” and “educational statesman.”
“Tough Liberal” by Richard Kahlenberg
On Labor Day 2007, ten years after his death, the first major biography of Albert Shanker was formally released, stirring considerable praise and debate. The author, Richard Kahlenberg, spent seven years researching Al’s life and the events and people that shaped it. He interviewed more than 200 people who knew, worked with, agreed, and disagreed with Shanker on the central issues of his time. He poured over union and public records. The result is Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press).
The book traces Shanker’s commitment to public education and trade unionism back to his experience as the son of first-generation immigrants living in a poor New York City neighborhood. There he encountered vicious anti-Semitism, but also learned the value of public education to civic identity, expanding intellectual horizons, and increasing economic opportunity. Shanker began teaching in New York City’s public schools as a young man, as a way to support himself while pursuing a PhD in philosophy at Columbia University, where he studied with his intellectual hero, John Dewey. He soon found himself outraged at working conditions. What struck him most was the basic unfairness to teachers—the low pay, lack of dignity, and lack of voice. Shanker’s dogged efforts at unionizing teachers, his ability to lead his members—who, by the end of the 1960s, included paraprofessionals—and his skills at negotiating with city officials, gave rise to the country’s and the world’s largest local union, the United Federation of Teachers. Nationally, his efforts brought about the rapid transformation of education into the most organized sector in the country.
As Kahlenberg points out, most leaders are satisfied with such achievements, but Al clearly saw the increasing dangers to both public education and the labor movement as a conservative political movement swept America. He advocated transformational reforms and challenged his union’s members. He urged a restructuring of the AFT into a broader union of professionals and argued for expanded organizing efforts into the fields of nursing, public service, higher education, and preschool. He asked all these constituencies to re-shape their union’s priorities to make it crystal clear that serving members meant serving students, patients, clients, and the public too. He encouraged experiments in practices previously dismissed out of hand (such as differential pay, charter schools, and peer review), often urging new policy treatments within a collective bargaining framework, but also at the state and federal levels. As such, he became the “most influential figure” in public education “in the last half of the 20th century” and a labor leader to contend with in virtually every area of public policy.
Kahlenberg also describes Al Shanker’s efforts to promote democracy, both at home and abroad, as central to his professional mission and personal worldview. In foreign policy, he supported and defended labor’s democratic internationalism—including its single-standard opposition to both communism on the left and authoritarianism on the right—based on the principles of freedom of association and workers’ right to organize. Indeed, Kahlenberg argues that Al Shanker embodied a political tradition of “tough liberalism”—one might call it union liberalism—with roots in George Meany’s AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party of the World War II period and its aftermath. In Kahlenberg’s view, this type of liberalism may still represent the best hope of American political democracy.
This report chronicles Al Shanker’s contributions in the international arena. It documents Shanker's many international endeavors to support democracy and workers’ rights and records the living memories of those who worked with him.
Read it here.
American Teacher Tribute
The following essays, drawn from a special April 1997 issue of the AFT’sAmerican Teacher newspaper, offer insight into Al’s long career as a crusader for worker rights, civil rights, civic society, quality public schools, and the life of the mind.
Always Setting the Standard
Collective Bargaining: Laying the Foundation
Fighting for Freedom Around the World
Bridging the Worlds of Labor and Civil Rights
Building a Broader Union
Adding Rooms to the House of Labor
Where We Stand: 800 Words of Weekly Wisdom
On the Hill: The Great Persuader
A Passion for Life
Keeping Public Education Together
The Power of Ideas: Al in His Own Words
Al Shanker was a man of many ideas. And we were the beneficiaries of those ideas. From New York City to Corpus Christi, Texas; from South Beach, Florida, to South Central, Los Angeles; from San Francisco and Chicago to Santiago and Prague; to small groups in out-of-the-way hotels and to large audiences in the corridors of power, Al was always there, talking to teachers and other school staff, to administrators, to parents, to businessmen, to academics, to legislators, to governors, to presidents. Brilliant, provocative, persuasive, funny, and never, ever afraid to tell the truth as he saw it, he stirred countless audiences, rallied the troops, won over many foes, and left a trail of debate opponents wishing they had accepted a different engagement for the evening.
This special 1997 edition of the AFT’s American Educator magazine attempts to capture some of Al’s most important ideas—the ones that inspired his public life, the ones he lived by, the ones that left the most enduring mark.
Read it here.
Also on the Internet
A number of other Web sites contain materials on Albert Shanker.
‘Where We Stand’ Archives Online
The New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has posted a free electronic archive of more than 1,300 “Where We Stand” columns by the late AFT president Albert Shanker. For 27 years Shanker’s column in theNew York Times offered 800 words of common sense, keen analysis and no-nonsense ideas about how to improve schools. The archive, produced with support from the Albert Shanker Institute, is comprehensive and completely searchable.
Remembering Al Shanker
Five years after his death, this moving tribute, written by Century Foundation scholar and Shanker biographer Richard Kahlenberg, bemoans the loss of Al’s “democratic vision” and “tough liberalism” in the shaping of public policy.
The AFT Web site also contains several articles, speeches, and other documents by and about Shanker. Links to several articles and editorials by Al are also being maintained on other sites, including “Why Schools Need Standards and Innovation,” “A Call for Professionalism,” “An American Revolution: A Common Curriculum,” “A Landmark Revisited,” "Critical Thinking and Education Reform," “Public Schools and Preschool Programs: A Natural Connection,” “Reflections on Forty Years in the Profession,” and “Quality Assurance: What Must Be Done to Strengthen the Teaching Profession.”
Articles about Shanker include several from his biographer, including “Ocean Hill-Brownsville: Unleashing American Liberalism" and "Restoring Shanker's Vision for Charter Schools;” a 1996 Teacher Magazine profile, “The Education of Al Shanker“; President Clinton’s remarks at Shanker’s memorial service; a brief biography and chronology on the Web site of the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City local Shanker helped to found; several articles in Education Week that appeared shortly after Al’s death, including “The End of an Era,” “A Speech that Shook the Field,” and “Al Shanker Remembered“: and an article in that newspaper’s retrospective of the 20th century, titled “The Paradoxical Teacher.”