Albert Shanker could see common threads among professional workers of every stripe. That’s why reaching out to health care professionals and college faculty, state and local employees and paraprofessionals and school-related personnel (PSRP) to bring them into the union was a seamless effort.
Those common threads included not only a desire for better wages and working conditions and a say in workplace decisions but also a commitment to professionalism and service—whether to children, patients or the public. A savvy organizer, Shanker believed the AFT offered a unique combination of organizational expertise, political clout and high professional standards for all of its diverse constituencies.
Among the first to be organized outside the K-12 sector were college and university faculty. Shanker saw the higher education community "as inseparable partners in the work of educators," AFT vice president and higher education division leader Irwin Polishook says.
Shanker ardently believed that paraprofessionals and school-related employees should be aggressively organized. "Al never saw us as being a different classification [of workers] from teachers. He saw us all as union members and part of the education team," recalls AFT vice president and PSRP program and policy council chair Lorretta Johnson. Shanker once said, she recalls, that his proudest moment as a union leader was when he organized the paraprofessionals in New York City. As UFT president, Shanker once threatened to resign if his executive board voted against taking the paras in, says Johnson. "That was the only time he ever did this either in the UFT or AFT."
Later, Shanker broadened the union further to include nurses and health care professionals and state and local employees.
"Under his guidance, the AFT accomplished the difficult task of bringing all divisions to an equal status, so that today the AFT is a powerful organization that represents health care workers with the same force and ability as it represents the teaching constituency," says AFT vice president Candice Owley, who leads the union’s health care division.
Growth in the nonteacher divisions of the AFT flourished throughout the1980s and 1990s. In 1975, the AFT’s PSRP membership stood at just under 28,000. Today, the union represents close to 150,000 PSRPs. Thirty-five thousand state employees came under the AFT banner in 1975—the year after Shanker was elected president—when the New York state Public Employees Federation affiliated. Since then, the ranks of state and local employees represented by the Federation of Public Employees has grown to 100,000. The Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals and the AFT’s higher education division have seen similar growth during this period.
"When we had the opportunity to organize employees in state and local government or health care, Al didn’t hesitate," says AFT director of organization and field services Phil Kugler. "He saw the value of building the kind of union that could encompass the needs of a diverse group of professionals."
Retiree organizing also flourished under Shanker’s leadership; he recognized early on that the growing ranks of retired union members represented an untapped resource. "It was Al who thought that AFT members should stay AFT members for the rest of their lives," says Pat Daly, an AFT vice president from 1966 to 1990 and now chair of the union’s standing committee on retirees. The AFT convention changed the union’s constitution in 1990 and today there are more than 125,000 AFT retiree members.
Organizing a cross-section of public employees has both broadened and strengthened the AFT, making it an even more influential voice on issues related to public services and the needs of those who deliver them.
As these divisions have grown in size and influence, the AFT, at Shanker’s urging, has taken steps to ensure that their concerns receive the attention they deserve. Shanker strongly supported the establishment of program and policy councils for each of the union’s five divisions.
Each of the various groups within the AFT "needs a certain amount of autonomy, the ability to determine its own policies and destiny," Shanker told the 1991 PSRP national conference.
At the same time, Shanker stressed, all of the union’s various constituencies need to acknowledge the benefits of belonging to a single union. "We all know that we are stronger as a group than we would be if we were alone," he said.
The organizing powerhouse
Back in the late 1960s, recalls former AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer and president Thomas R. Donahue, he was in the stands at a Labor Day parade in New York City when he heard a woman behind him talking with a man. She and some of her nurse colleagues wanted a union at their hospital, he says, and she was asking what she should do. "The response lacked all the pizzazz that any stereotypical union organizer might have put into it," says Donahue. "Instead, it was a gentle discourse on her and her friends’ responsibility to organize themselves, where they might seek help when they had done their original work and why, philosophically, they should proceed."
"I was thrilled to listen to the discourse. I later turned to introduce myself to—of course—Al Shanker," says Donahue. "In the intervening 30 years, my respect for that gentle but powerful voice of reason and logic was continually enlarged."
One of the legacies of the Shanker era is his role in building the union’s organizing successes. Under his leadership, the AFT’s membership tripled between 1974 and 1996. While most other AFL-CIO unions were losing members, the AFT kept growing. Shanker believed that building the skills and experience of leaders from the ground up would ultimately make for a stronger union.
"Al was always an advocate for committing substantial resources to building the union," AFT director of organization and field services Phil Kugler recalls. Shanker was also not afraid to experiment with new approaches to organizing, Kugler points out. "We pioneered the associate membership program, which has had tremendous success for the union, and we were one of the first unions to use professional polling in our organizing efforts." Also established under Shanker was the union’s leadership development program, the Union Leadership Institute, to help AFT’s affiliate leaders develop skills—from handling grievances to running sophisticated public relations campaigns.
Shanker would often counsel leaders of fledgling locals and see to it that they got help from the union’s staff, its training programs and other, more experienced leaders. "Al believed strongly in the notion of the strong helping the weak," Kugler says. "He saw it as a fundamental value of the AFT."