This section of the Shanker Institute website is focused on the history of American teacher unionism. It has grown out of the mission of the Institute, with its focus on the themes of public education, unionism and democracy, and the life’s work of our namesake, the late American Federation of Teachers President Al Shanker. Since the Institute is affiliated with the AFT, this section tells the story of our own history.
Our goal here is not to present a comprehensive account of teacher union history, but to make a contribution to a better understanding of it by providing documents – primarily, interpretive essays, lesson plans and oral histories – which provide insights not otherwise found in published accounts. Readers will find that themes inadequately covered in the current literature, such as the engagement of teacher unionism with the civil rights movement, are discussed in considerable detail here.
With a mind to making this material accessible not just to historians, but also to the ranks of teachers and unionists, we have fashioned this section so that an educated person with limited background knowledge could read and understand the material being discussed.
New York City’s Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation (GVSHP) has published an appeal to grant protected landmark status to the “12-story Beaux Arts style office building” at 70 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The building was built in 1912 for George Arthur Plimpton, a publisher of education textbooks, a collector of rare books, a philanthropist and a peace activist. For many years, the GVSHP tells us, the building was “a haven for radicals and liberals.” I immediately recognized the address as that of the offices of the New York City Teachers Union (TU) for two decades. There is an intriguing story behind that address and the Teachers Union, and it provides a revealing window into the political history of early teacher unionism.
In the same year as 70 Fifth Avenue was built, Henry Linville and a small number of New York City teacher comrades launched a publication, The American Teacher, to report on the economic and professional status of the educator workforce and the politics of American public education. Linville was a biology teacher of some note with a Ph.D. from Harvard; one can still find copies of influential science textbooks he authored. He was a democratic socialist and pacifist who had a particularly close relationship with Norman Thomas, the longtime leader of the Socialist Party. The two worked together in an unsuccessful effort to oppose American involvement in World War I.
In the early twentieth century, there was a great deal of trans-Atlantic cross-fertilization between British and American leftists, with London and New York as the two intellectual centers in this exchange of ideas. From the Women’s Trade Union League and the settlement house movement to Fabian Society proposals for reform and the idea of labor party, from anti-imperialist support of Irish and Indian independence to militant suffragist tactics and campaigns for birth control, sex education and the decriminalization of gay sex, New Yorkers often drew inspiration from their British counterparts. The American Teacher followed the development of the National Union of Teachers in the United Kingdom, and New York teachers on the left increasingly looked to it as a model of what could be done in the United States.
The sixth author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and a consultant for the Albert Shanker Institute’s Democracy Web project. He is the author of Democracy’s Champion: Albert Shanker and the International Impact of the American Federation of Teachers, available from the Institute. Chenoweth also worked in the AFT's International Affairs department from 1987-1991. You can find the other posts in this series here.
Albert Shanker knew from an early age the power of prejudice. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he grew up in a poor Queens neighborhood where anti-Semitism was rife. Among the few Jews at his school, he was subject to constant taunts and a near fatal attack by fellow students. The lessons of his childhood and upbringing gave him a profound sympathy for other marginalized groups in society and helped lead to his activism in the civil rights movement (he was an early member of the Congress on Racial Equality). His upbringing also taught him other powerful lessons. His mother’s membership in textile workers unions had helped his family out of poverty (“trade unions were second to God in our household”), while the public schools he attended (and other institutions such as public libraries) were essential to his gaining greater opportunities for higher education that ultimately led him into teaching. All of it was intertwined.
Perhaps most profoundly, the rise of fascism, World War II, and the post-war challenges of Soviet communism informed his early world view. He became a committed believer in democracy and opponent of dictatorship. His early leanings towards socialism were rooted in the study of anti-fascist and anti-communist intellectuals of his era, including John Dewey, Sidney Hook, George Orwell, Iganzio Silone, Arthur Koestler, and Victor Serge — Left intellectuals who opposed all forms of government that would oppress freedom.