Soon after President Ronald Reagan crushed the air traffic controllers union, PATCO, in the early 1980s, a group of visiting Asian teachers met with Al Shanker. They didn’t want to talk about education, recalls AFT international affairs director David Dorn. All they wanted to talk about with the AFT president was the PATCO disaster. "They believed if it could happen in the biggest democracy in the world, governments in other countries would use this example as a justification for crushing their own trade unions," says Dorn.
Unions abroad looked to the U.S. labor movement—and frequently to Al Shanker—as a model for union democracy and human rights. Shanker headed the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Committee for many years and helped dissidents in Eastern Europe, many of whom were teachers, to bring down communism. He was also a member of the board of directors of the International Rescue Committee and visited refugee camps in Cambodia in the late 1970s under the auspices of the IRC.
"Al understood that what happens overseas has an effect on what happens here—and vice versa," says Dorn. "It seems obvious now, but Al knew this 20 years ago, long before it was apparent to others—or even fashionable."
Shanker felt a deep responsibility to help unions resist oppression, regardless of politics. A staunch anti-Communist, Shanker refused to participate in exchange visits with unions in other countries that essentially were controlled by their governments, and he championed the causes of numerous Soviet dissidents, including Vladimir Bukovsky, freed by the Soviet Union in 1976 after intense pressure from U.S. labor.
"Many who consider themselves ‘liberals’ will organize against oppression in Chile, South Africa and Argentina—but are silent about oppression in Russia, Poland, Cuba and China," Shanker wrote after Bukovsky was freed. "When men and women are imprisoned, tortured and killed because they dare to speak, write or organize, it makes no difference whether they were silenced by a leftist or a rightist dictator. The action must be condemned."
During the 1980s, when Poland’s Solidarity movement went underground, it was AFT support that enabled the Polish unionists to keep their newspapers and internal communications up and running, says Dorn. "The only way we knew Solidarnosc received the funds we sent them was that they would print ‘Thanks, Al’ in the middle of one of their newspaper stories," he recalls.
Throughout his 23-year presidency, Shanker brought to the union’s executive council and conventions human rights advocates or trade union leaders—from freedom fighters in Kurdistan to Bukovsky to Chilean teacher union president Osvaldo Verdugo.
These visits "helped the executive council understand the effects of world activity and what happens in this country—we had a terrific advantage," says AFT vice president Thomas Y. Hobart Jr., who is also president of the New York State United Teachers. "We were introduced to people that even the New York Times didn’t write about. Al was able to weave their message into our own situation here in the United States."
In his role as chair of the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Committee, Shanker revived the AFL-CIO’s Free Trade Union Institute, which fostered free trade unionism around the world. He also served on the first board of the National Endowment for Democracy, created in 1983 and funded by Congress to help both political parties, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and labor work with their counterparts overseas in developing democratic institutions.
"Al foresaw the emergence of free and democratic teachers’ unions throughout the world as part of the driving force for freedom and democracy," says AFT vice president Herb Magidson, who accompanied Shanker on several international trips. Shanker also was a chief architect of the merger in 1993 of the International Federation of Free Teachers’ Unions (IFFTU), to which the AFT belonged, and the World Confederation of Organizations in the Teaching Profession, to which the NEA belonged, to form Education International, which now represents more than 23 million education employees in 146 countries.
Under Shanker’s leadership, the AFT played an important role in supporting the Charter 77 group in then-Czechoslovakia and, after the fall of communism, providing training and technical support to fledging teacher unions in Eastern Europe. The AFT established the Education for Democracy project, which sent AFT teachers and staff to Eastern Europe, Nicaragua and other countries to foster both the teaching of democracy through civic education as well as to promote democratic trade unionism.
For many teachers who volunteered to run training workshops, these trips abroad were "a rude awakening," about both human and trade union rights, recalls AFT national representative Pat Jones, who helped train fledgling teacher unionists in Hungary in the early 1990s. She and others were shocked by how few rights the teachers in Hungary had—rights that "we took for granted," she says. And yet, these unionists were determined to press forward. "Al’s vision was to educate people all over the world about what a union should look like," says Jones. "He did that very well."
Twenty years ago, notes Herb Magidson, Shanker also was ensuring that the union sent help to a struggling black trade union movement in South Africa, including training, office supplies, equipment and legal aid. The union also provided support and resources for the Chilean teachers union, which played a major role in ridding Chile of the Pinochet dictatorship.
"We were among the staunchest supporters of [Chilean teacher union president] Osvaldo Verdugo," recalls NYSUT’s Hobart, who served on an international team of observers during the 1988 "no vote" that toppled the Pinochet regime. "I could not imagine what it must have been like for Verdugo. He would have to sleep in a different house every night and see his family only occasionally because it was so dangerous for him. They were so grateful for the support we gave him ... he hung in there because he had supporters like Al."