Democracy's Champion

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.

He was never simply a socialist — he was a democratic socialist or, as he later called himself, a social democrat. In fact, “democrat” usually sufficed. For Shanker, democracy was not simply government rule by the majority through elections, but a political system based on extending and expanding human rights, political equality, and dignity. Democracy, by its nature, protected and nurtured the freedoms essential to economic progress and liberty:  the freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and inquiry.

As we mark the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker’s death, it is important to remember the foundational lessons that shaped his life, even as the United States and the world again confront true challenges to freedom and democracy.

In many respects, our current challenges are surprising. In the years before his death, Shanker rightly pointed with pride to the role played by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the AFL-CIO, and Education International (the world federation of free teachers unions he helped craft) in helping international trade unions and democratic movements to overthrow dictatorships, helping to win the Cold War on peaceful terms, and to build and strengthen democracy around the globe. He left a world in which freedom was thought to be still advancing.

Both as president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the AFT, Shanker had made sure he and the union were engaged in the central struggles of his time for human rights, worker rights, and freedom. An early action as UFT president was to answer the call of the Committee of Conscience, led by civil rights and trade union leader A. Philip Randolph, to withdraw union funds from Chase and First National Banks for their role in bankrolling apartheid in South Africa. (Al did more: He engaged in a fascinating, although unsuccessful, correspondence with Chase’s David Rockefeller trying to convince him to stop the bank’s practices of doing business with dictators.) As president of the AFT, Shanker expanded the union’s international affairs department and made sure leaders and members understood the importance of the union’s international work through exchanges, training and other programs. The AFT supported a range of projects and actions aimed at strengthening teacher unions, trade unions generally, and democracy movements: Poland’s revolutionary Solidarity movement; Chile’s Campaign for the No that ousted Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship; South Africa’s free teacher and broader trade union movements, which were essential to ending the apartheid regime; and many more.

Still, towards the end of his life, Shanker saw warning signs. Among other dangers, in his weekly New York Times columns he worried about growing adherence to free market dogma at the expense of worker rights; the growing impact of unbridled globalization at home and abroad; the challenge of China’s hybrid communist-capitalist system as a political model; the reversals of democratic transition in Russia and other post-Soviet states; and the rise of nationalism, as seen in former Yugoslavia and elsewhere. More to the point, he saw real threats to democratic institutions in the U.S., especially the two institutions that he considered “most important to achieving progress and social change”: public education and democratic trade unions.

Due to his staunch anti-communism, Shanker was often wrongly associated with neoconservatives, erstwhile liberals who supported Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 mostly due to his hardline anti-Soviet foreign policy. Shanker opposed Reagan in 1980, especially on domestic grounds, but he did not apologize for joining in coalition with others to oppose communism. He believed the Soviet Union posed the greatest danger to freedom during the Cold War. And, while he opposed American foreign policy when it allied itself with right-wing dictators, he strongly opposed any arguments of moral equivalency between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. There was a difference between mistakes in policy by a democracy (even egregious ones), he thought, and a totalitarian power that purposely sought world dominance.

Others have addressed the Shanker legacy and its meaning as America responds to the severe domestic challenges posed by Donald Trump’s assault on basic norms of American democracy. The dangers are abundant — Trump’s declaration that the free media is the “enemy of the people” is a sufficient clarion — and the AFT’s current leadership has endeavored to summon as much resistance as possible to the emerging threats to public education, trade unions, civil rights, and American democracy itself.  

Shanker’s legacy in international affairs can also instruct and inform. Shanker believed in the fundamental importance of the institutions that buttressed freedom and democracy: the international labor movement was central, of which Education International and its predecessor IFFTU were key; so, too, were NATO and the Transatlantic Alliance and Winston Churchill’s project of European unity (now called the European Union). Equally important were the institutions and principles of the international liberal world order built by the U.S. and its allies on all continents. For Al, those principles were embodied in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Labor Organization’s core conventions protecting freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining for all workers (including public employees). Al never tired of traveling to show support for these institutions and to demonstrate solidarity with those fighting for democracy and free trade unions, wherever in the world they might be.

Shanker also understood the centrality of the United States and its role in defending, protecting and promoting these international institutions and the “free world” generally. That the U.S. did not always live up to its billing was something Shanker spoke up against in many instances. But this did not diminish the U.S.’s overall role or importance in defending freedom. One cannot say how Shanker would have positioned himself in the more recent “maximalist policy” of the Iraq war; but it is safe to venture a view that he would not have considered Iraq an excuse for inaction in the face of subsequent crimes against humanity. The mistakes of international overreach (such as Vietnam in his time) were never a reason to accommodate dictators or abandon the principled defense of freedom, the prevention of humanitarian disasters, or the promotion of democracy. There was never an excuse for inaction: It was always time to speak up and act for Indochinese refugees, for dissidents in the Soviet Union, and for free trade unionism everywhere.

Shanker would be the first to heed the perspective of history and remind people of the true threats to freedom that existed during the Cold War — as well as how the West won the Cold War through a combination of military strength, principled defense of human rights through the Helsinki process, and supporting non-violent movements for freedom such as Solidarity. In some ways, the current situation seems more challenging. Donald Trump doesn’t just propose U.S. retrenchment (such as détente) but the total upending of the international liberal world order, established in the wake of World War II – instead, Trump asserts American power outside of any constraints, lends support to far-right nationalist anti-NATO and anti-EU parties in Europe, and promotes entente with Vladimir Putin’s Russian dictatorship.

Shanker’s legacy points to what should be done: oppose such policies, demand accountability and truth about the threats posed by Putin’s and Russia’s international aggressions, and build alliances and coalitions (even unlikely ones) in order to restore a policy of support for democracy, democratic alliances, and human rights in the world.

Shanker, ever the public intellectual, challenged people to look realistically and logically at the country’s and the world’s problems; simplicity was not an option. But it is worth reminding ourselves also of Shanker’s idealism in challenging times. At perhaps the bleakest moment in the Cold War, 1973, when the power of the Soviet Union promised permanent confrontation and ongoing totalitarian dictatorship, Shanker wrote of the dream of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov:

At some point, hopefully, freedom will become general. It will then be accepted for what it is: not a feared and subversive doctrine but an essential condition for the flourishing of the human spirit.

Shanker would remind us to keep hold of such hopes.