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.
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.
A Father And A Fighter
The fifth author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is his daughter Jennie Shanker, adjunct professor at Temple University, and a member of the Temple adjunct organizing committee. Eadie, Adam, and Michael Shanker also contributed to the piece. You can find the other posts in this series here.
It’s been 20 years since my father passed away at the age of 68, and he’s still not far from the thoughts of family and friends. The many incredible events of the past year have made his presence palpable for us at times, as the repercussions of the election unfold in the news.
His life’s trajectory was formed by the personal struggles of his family, the lens through which he saw the world. His parents were immigrants who moved to this country to escape the pogroms in their home territory between Poland and Russia. His mother came over on a boat at the age of 16 with her mother, arriving after weeks at sea with pink eye. She was denied entry into the country and was forced to turn back. She returned by herself a year or so later and settled in NYC. She worked behind sewing machines, rotating between different sweatshops that hired her for short periods of time. Her long hours of hard work, lack of decent working conditions, low pay and lack of job security led her to the unions of her day.
My father attended public schools in NYC, speaking only Yiddish in the first grade. He was unusually tall as a kid, had a large port-wine stain birthmark on his neck, and he was a Jew. Hitler’s Germany would have an ongoing presence in his family life.
Where Are My Shanker Knights?
The fourth author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Dr. Lorretta Johnson, secretary treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. You can find the other posts in this series here.
Those of us who had the privilege to work with labor leader and progressive giant Al Shanker can attest to his deeply held sense of justice, his urgency in the fight for fairness, and his composure in the face of both personal and professional battles that would have left many of us undone.
For me, Al Shanker was a friend, a leader and a mentor. Shanker believed every worker deserved dignity, respect and a shot at the American dream. And when it came to paraprofessionals, he used his influence as AFT president to organize us into the union, thus giving us a voice in the classroom, dignity in the school building and the wages necessary to take care of our families. Back then, many paraprofessionals, like those of us in Baltimore, were seen as just the help and weren’t given a voice or chance to work in an equitable environment. Many of us were black and brown mothers, heads of households.
But, thanks to Al Shanker and the AFT’s organizing efforts, paraprofessionals saw better times, stronger collective bargaining agreements, higher wages, more dignity in our workplaces and greater love from the community we served.
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.
In Search Of Tough Liberals In The Age Of Trump: Remembering Al Shanker
The next author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2007). You can find the other posts in this series here.
I met Albert Shanker in September 1995, just a year and a half before his untimely death. I made an appointment to interview him for a book I was writing on affirmative action policies in college admissions. My father, who taught high school, used to clip Shanker’s columns in the Sunday New York Times and share them with me. So I was excited to meet the man whose writing on education, labor, civil rights and democracy spoke to me so profoundly.
Shanker cut an imposing figure. He was 6’4” with a deep voice and his office at the American Federation of Teachers had an impressive view of the Capitol. He wasn’t one for small talk so we got right down to business. On the issue of affirmative action, I strongly identified with Shanker’s position – wanting to find a way to remedy our nation’s egregious history of racial discrimination but simultaneously wanting to avoid a backlash from working-class whites, who also had a rightful claim to special consideration that racial preferences failed to acknowledge.
Public Intellectual: The Legacy Of Al Shanker
Twenty years ago today, the legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers, Al Shanker, died. To mark the occasion, we have asked a number of individuals – some who knew and worked with Al and some who have studied his life’s work – to reflect on the continuing relevance of his ideas and his principles. We did so out of a conviction that Shanker’s ideas and principles are not simply matters of historical interest, but of real contemporary value at a time when public education, unionism and American democracy itself are in a state of profound crisis, under attack in unprecedented ways. Beginning today with this post, we will be publishing these reflections (you can find the full series here).
For a half-century, Al Shanker labored as a teacher and educator, as a unionist and as a democrat. In each of these fields, he was a political force to be reckoned with, shaping public policy and thinking in significant ways. Yet unlike most important political actors on the American scene, Shanker was a public intellectual who relished vigorous debate and reveled in the world of ideas. He brought an open mind and a penchant for critical analysis, a fierce commitment to rational discourse and logical argumentation that relied on evidence, to all that he did. His political engagement had a deeply intellectual cast.
As the executive director of the institute established by the AFT to honor Shanker by carrying on his life’s work as an engaged public intellectual, I have often thought about Al’s example. What strikes me most about Shanker the thinker was his refusal to become entrenched in his views or to allow his beliefs to harden into inflexible dogmas. One story in particular comes to mind.
Not Our President
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
Last Friday, Donald Trump took the oath to become the forty-fifth president of the United States.
Civil rights icon and U.S. Congressman John Lewis spoke for many when he declared that the Trump presidency was not “legitimate.” He was right.
The democratic tradition captured in the words of the Declaration of Independence is unequivocal: It is the consent of the governed that provides a government with legitimacy, with its just powers. That consent is expressed through free and fair elections in which every citizen has the right to vote.
The Trump presidency fails this test of legitimacy on four substantive grounds.
Trump And The Authoritarian Temptation
Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE). He is also principal author of Democracy Web, a civics education curricular resource project of the Albert Shanker Institute. This article is adapted from a longer version that appears on IDEE’s new website.
In 1976, the French political theorist Jean François Revel critiqued what he called the “totalitarian temptation” among intellectuals who attacked Western political democracy at a time of severe threat. Forty years later democracy is again under threat.
Revel wrote when the Soviet Union was at the height of its military strength and international influence. In the West, Eurocommunist parties were rising in popularity and non-communist political parties on the Left were developing a strong anti-American sentiment, with some political leaders and intellectuals equivocating in their defense of NATO against the Soviet bloc. Revel, himself a socialist and humanist, argued that one had to be “inoculated to the virus of reality” not to see that communism brought only mass political repression and economic misery. He had a dark theory for his colleagues’ blindness: “Does there lurk in us a wish for totalitarian rule?” he wrote. “If so, it would explain a great deal about how people behave, about the speeches they make, and the times they remain silent.”
Putting The International Refugee Crisis In Context
Tomorrow, the Shanker Institute and Jewish Labor Committee will hold an event on the International Refugee Crisis. In the popular discourse, the difference between the terms “asylum seeker”, “forced migrant,” and “refugee” is often blurred, causing confusion. It is therefore hard to pinpoint whether the recent upswell in negative attitudes towards refugees reflects anti-immigrant sentiments generally, dissatisfaction with the international protection system, or animus against specific ethnic or religious groups of refugees.
Moreover, as the global refugee situation is rarely discussed, the general public is largely unaware of the issues related to where refugees are, relocation and resettlement needs, and refugee integration.
The objective of this post is to clarify the main differences between refugees and other groups of migrants, and to describe the law as it applies to them. I will also summarize recent refugee movements to Europe, and then, in a subsequent post, discuss attitudes towards refugees and different migrant groups.