Remembering Al Shanker

The third author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Herb Magidson, who, before serving as an AFT vice president for 28 years, was an assistant to Shanker when he was president of the UFT. You can find the other posts in this series here.

During these last few tumultuous months, I’ve thought many times about Al Shanker. How would he have reacted to the chaos now afflicting our nation? How would he respond to a new president who is so dismissive of the basic democratic principles on which the United States was founded more than two hundred years? And what counsel would he have given us as we seek to deal with this challenge to our very way of life?

At a time when authoritarians throughout the world appear to be gaining strength, I think of Al, above all others, because what was special about Al was his unwavering commitment to freedom; his dedication to the belief that support for a vigorous public school system, and a free trade union movement are integral to a robust, open society where workers from all walks of life can prosper.  This 20th anniversary of Shanker’s death comes, therefore, at a moment when it is helpful to be reminded of the contributions of this hero who celebrated freedom and dedicated his life to its promulgation.

Al did not view freedom and democracy as unique American traits. For him, they are universal values. To speak one’s mind; to worship (or not) as one wishes; to coalesce with others; to move freely in their country – these are the things Americans cherish. Al cherished them as the natural condition of humanity. No one chooses to be enslaved. No one elects candidates who run on a policy of subjugation of their people. Humans yearn to ‘breathe free’. The quest for freedom is a human condition, he believed, not a condition that is somehow unique to democracies. That’s one of the things that Al Shanker taught those of us who were fortunate enough to have lived in his shadow.

Al Shanker taught us that condemnation of authoritarianism was not the exclusive domain of right-wing or left-wing politics. In his years of leadership, many right wing organizations found it easy to criticize left-wing dictatorships (China, the Soviet Union, Cuba, etc.) And those on the left found it easy to criticize right-wing dictatorships (Pinochet’s Chile, apartheid South Africa, etc.)

For Al, authoritarianism from both the left and the right were equally despicable and he was willing to pay a price for condemning both. While some on the left winced when Al criticized left-wing totalitarians, many on the right criticized him for condemning authoritarians on the right. But Al didn’t see condemnation of authoritarians as a political matter. He was an equal-opportunity fighter for freedom.

Al reminded us every day of the importance and effectiveness of supporting those in dictatorial countries who fight for their freedom. “Dictators may not care how their own citizens feel about them, but they DO care about how other countries’ citizens view them. They want to be loved by the world, and this gives us an opportunity to make a difference.” And Al Shanker reminded us that it is in our self-interest to fight for the rights of others. Democracies do not make war against each other. Thus, world stability grows and human rights thrive only if more and more nations truly become free.

I miss Al as a dear friend. Alas, the nation also misses his articulate and persuasive voice in support of freedom.


Thank you to all for the very thoughtful commentary on the life of Al Shanker. The series captures his historical and tremendous contributions to the growth of democratic freedom throughout the world. His legacy Is a very powerful one. A friend always to those struggling in darkness and oppression.