Democracy’s Champion: Albert Shanker

Our guest author today is Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 20007). 

Freedom House recently released the significant – and sobering -- results of its report, “Freedom in the World 2014."  The survey is the latest in an annual assessment of political and civil liberties around the globe.  For the eighth year in a row, the overall level of freedom declined, as 54 nations saw erosion of political and civil rights, including Egypt, Turkey and Russia.  (A smaller number, 40, saw gains.)  Despite the early hopes of the Arab Spring, democracy promotion has proven a long and difficult fight.

None of this would surprise Albert Shanker, who devoted his life to championing democracy, yet always recognized the considerable difficulty of doing so.  Around 1989, when the world was celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, Shanker took the long view:  “What we’ve seen are the beginnings of democracy.  We haven’t really seen democracy yet.  We’ve seen the overthrow of dictatorship.  Democracy is going to take generations to build and we have to be a part of that building because they won’t be able to do it alone."

As I wrote in my 2007 biography, Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy, Shanker rarely gave a speech in which he did not mention democratic values.  A devotion to democracy was Shanker’s lodestar, the principle that guided his support for public schools, and free trade unions.  His call for charter schools, for example, was centered around a belief that by giving teachers greater democratic voice in the workplace, schools could better tap into the expertise of educators to improve student learning.  (In practice, most charters moved away from that vision, but a subset continue to abide by it.)

There was, however, an additional, less widely recognized aspect to Shanker’s devotion to democracy.  On top of his role as a founding father of modern teacher unionism and the nation’s leading education reformer, Shanker devoted considerable time to international questions.  In Tough Liberal, I wrote about this dimension of Shanker’s work in chapter 13, where I describe his practice of siding with liberals to fight against right-wing authoritarian governments in South Africa, Chile and the Philippines and with conservatives to oppose Communist dictatorships in the Soviet Union, Poland, and Nicaragua.

One chapter, however, could never do full justice to Shanker’s involvement in international affairs, so I was delighted when I learned that Eric Chenoweth, a tireless fighter for democracy in his own right, had undertaken the task of writing a report on the AFT’s international efforts led by Shanker.  The product, just released, is Democracy’s Champion: Albert Shanker and the International Impact of the American Federation of Teachers.

Democracy’s Champion is a brilliant treatment of Shanker’s fight for democracy abroad.  Beautifully written, and wonderfully crafted, it charts the numerous ways in which Shanker sought to promote democratic values throughout the world.  More than 100 pages in length, Democracy’s Champion sketches Shanker’s work organizing protests, sending funds to fledgling human rights efforts, setting up programs to train teacher union activists abroad, testifying before Congress, bringing international human rights activists to speak at AFT conventions, and writing about international concerns in his weekly “Where We Stand” column in the Sunday New York Times.  In 1981, Shanker created a separate international affairs department within the AFT to support these efforts, an unusual move for an individual union, and he served on several important boards, including that of the National Endowment for Democracy. At Shanker’s memorial service in 1997, Fred Van Leeuwen, the president of Education International, remarked, “You think you have lost a great American, but we have lost a great world citizen and international leader."

For me, two key insights stand out in Democracy’s Champion.

First, Chenoweth ably explains how the anti-Communism of the Left (espoused by some of Shanker’s heroes, like George Orwell, John Dewey, Ignazio Silone and Bayard Rustin) differed from the more familiar anti-Communism of conservatives.  Both versions abhorred the basic denial of freedom and democracy, but the liberal anti-Communism espoused by Shanker had a different twist, with a focus on what Communists did to organized labor.  They crushed free trade unions as a source of independent power, giving lie to the idea that Communists were pursuing a wonderful egalitarian agenda.  To Shanker, this helped illustrate clearly the importance of unions throughout the world.  In Poland, Lech Walesa showed that “a union is not just a vehicle for allowing a worker to win one benefit or another but, rather, a permanent instrument enabling him to fight for his rights without fear of punishment or reprisal," Shanker said.

On occasion, it must be acknowledged, Shanker’s fervid anti-Communism took him places that are hard to justify.  In his support for the Vietnam War, Chenoweth says, Shanker was “wrong” but he was nevertheless right to predict the consequences of the Communist victory: “arbitrary executions, mass imprisonment, and a desperate and dangerous exodus of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children."

Importantly, Chenoweth puts Shanker’s anti-Communism in a context that makes it far more relevant today than a mere historic “artifact of the Cold War.”  Chenoweth quotes Shanker’s 1991 speech to the AFL-CIO Convention, in which he declared:

[the] cause of the trade union movement was never simply a fight against communism – not withstanding all of our critics – but a fight for freedom, democracy and human rights.  That fight was in the former Soviet Union, that fight was in the Philippines, that fight was in Chile, that fight is still in China and Cuba and it is today in Thailand and Haiti: that fight is anywhere trade unions and human rights are repressed…
Second, Chenoweth convincingly answers the question raised by some within the union:  “why are you spending so much time on” international affairs?   Shanker had both a pragmatic and principled answer.  Learning about, and confronting, negative educational trends abroad, such as the embrace of private school vouchers, could help in the effort to fight wrong-headed ideas at home.  But, on another level, helping unionists and human rights activists abroad went to the very core of what a union is for.

“The Soviet dissidents must know that they are not alone," Shanker told a Freedom House annual dinner in 1973.  As he noted on another occasion, “The very idea of unionism is solidarity.  It means, ‘I am not strong enough to do things alone.  I’ve got to band together with brothers and sisters.’  And you can’t just do that with teachers.  You are not strong enough.  And so you are in a general labor movement with other workers.  And pretty soon you realize the same thing is true on a worldwide basis."

The wonderful aspect about capturing history is that there is always something more to know -- new insights to be gained.  Albert Shanker contained a multitude – and with Democracy’s Champion, we know much more about this fascinating, brilliant figure who had such an enormous impact on international as well as domestic affairs.

Given the latest report from Freedom House, we know there is much work to be done in the struggle for human rights and democracy.  I’m grateful that we now have Democracy’s Champion, wonderfully told by Eric Chenoweth, to inspire us all to fight on.

- Rick Kahlenberg