Teacher, Democrat, Union Chief

The seventh author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Eugenia Kemble, president of the Foundation for Democratic Education and founding executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute. You can find the other posts in this series here.

We are now at a time when basic freedoms are threatened, public education is systematically attacked and unions are crumbling. More than at any time since Al Shanker's death 20 years ago, this remarkable teacher’s most important legacy needs our attention.

At the core of this legacy was Shanker's fixation on the idea and practice of democracy. It bubbled up to the top of his agenda early and raw from a mix of personal experiences, including anti-Semitic bigotry, the tough working life of his parents, and the voiceless experience of teaching in schools run by autocrats. And it was refined by exhaustive reading of such pragmatist philosophers as John Dewey and Charles Saunders Pierce, religious theorist, Reinhold Neihbur, the anti-communist, Sidney Hook, sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset and many, many, many more.

Al believed that union leadership was democracy leadership — in the running of the union, and in its role as a defender of public education, free trade unionism and political democracy here and around the world.

Some of his own lessons in democracy started when he became active in the union, the New York City Teachers Guild, where he was surrounded by mentors who had fought against the communist-domination of its predecessor, the Teachers Union (TU).  Among them were Charlie Cogan, Dave Wittes, Mae Naftal, Rebecca Simonson, Ray Barnett and Si Beagle, who fought for democracy inside the TU before it was expelled from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in 1941. And, he befriended staunch anti-communist democratic socialists like Max Shactman and Bayard Rustin, who had started their own political careers with the communist movement, only to turn radically against it when they perceived it to be a betrayal of workers interests, civil rights and democracy.

Having been hired in 1967, I was around to watch Al’s development from these roots into the foremost teacher union leader of his time, a role he played starting with his election as president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), successor to the Guild, in 1964. I witnessed first-hand the trials and tribulations of Shanker leadership through the strike over More Effective Schools in 1967, the harrowing Ocean Hill Brownsville strike to defend due process rights for teachers in 1968, the remarkable UFT election victory to represent paraprofessionals in 1969, and the masterful bailout of a faltering New York City government through the loan of teacher pension funds in 1975.

While still retaining his UFT hat for a time, Al was elected president of the AFT in 1974, where fights to preserve public education (against tuition tax credits) and to compete with the larger, not-yet-union, less militant National Education Association (NEA) were the most immediate challenges. Soon to be added to this agenda were decades of never-ending education “reform,” stimulated by the 1983 publication of A Nation At Risk, a devastating critique of the quality of American public education. Until his death in 1997, Al Shanker worked to transform the AFT into an effective “professional” union, which came to represent both the professional and economic interests of members, who were not only K-12 teachers and paraprofessionals, but also, nurses, preschool teachers, professors and adjuncts and public employees. At the same time, as others have so insightfully written, Al took his promotion of strong unions to the international level because he understood that free trade unionism, as essential to political democracy, could bludgeon totalitarians and dictators of every stripe.

This is a long way to say that what has interested me most about Al Shanker is how his commitment to democracy defined the way he headed the union day to day and, by extension, everything else he did.

For union leaders and members, I think it was this democracy-driven Al Shanker — the one who cultivated secondary leaders, staff and members by teaching them — by suggesting readings, by bringing in outside speakers, by turning meetings into-mini seminars, by taking leaders abroad to study the political contexts of foreign unions, by making help to struggling unions abroad a lesson for AFT activists at home. Among the more interesting of these teaching methods was his writing of a weekly New York Times column. The column was, of course, a way to convey union positions and interests. But, Shanker also used it to test the waters on some new idea. Serious blow back sometimes meant that he would either have to knuckle down to educate and persuade a lot more members and the public, or that this one was a “no go.”

When Al spoke to meetings of the AFT Executive Council, AFT convention delegates, the union's staff, local leaders, and at rallies and membership strikes, it was as if every occasion was his lively classroom. He was a provocateur. He encouraged dissent and loved argument. A meeting without a debate was boring to him. It lacked the opportunity to teach and to learn. As a result, AFT leaders were not afraid to speak their minds. He was open to pushback from colleagues, opponents, and staff, and could sometimes be convinced to change his mind or, at least, his strategy. This is not to say everything was always a discussion love fest or Socratic seminar. Debates were tough, but everyone took the heat, including Al, making for better leadership all around.

Shortly after Al's death, I tried to think about what Al had meant to me as a teacher, mentor and friend, and tried to encapsulate it into a list of essential lessons -- lessons he taught, but I did not always succeed in learning. Here, for the sake of sharing, is what I came up with:

  • Read
  • There is a time to lead and a time to follow the members.
  • Seize the moment but don't ever rush.
  • Establish an authority that will enable you to take the right stands, even though they may be unpopular. Take them.
  • Hire the smartest, most competent people you can find; then turn them loose and get out of their way.
  • Shape your thinking by arguing with sharp advocates for another view.
  • When in doubt, go with common sense.
  • Don't try to be somebody or dwell on defining your role. Just do what needs to be done.
  • Loyalty is the first test of whom you want around you.
  • Take time for the other things you love (shop, cook, eat, listen to music). Lighten up.
  • Take on positions, not personalities.
  • Have a perspective -- a framework tying individual ideas into a direction -- but avoid the rigidities of ideology or you will stop thinking.
  • Know the issues. Use data.
  • Read.