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Adding Rooms to the 'House of Labor '
The AFL-CIO is often called the House of Labor. As with all houses, it was built by the skilled handiwork of plasterers, carpenters, bricklayers, cement masons—and one very great teacher. At the time of Shanker’s death, he was the ranking vice president on the AFL-CIO’s executive council, having served 23 years, one of the longest tenures of any council member or general president.
But, as with so much else in Albert Shanker’s life, acceptance of a teachers union in any true leadership role by an organization that was historically dominated by industrial and trade unions was not automatic. Shanker’s searing intellect combined with social shyness might have relegated a lesser man to accepting token committee assignments or other behind-the-scenes work for the Federation. But not Albert Shanker.
Shanker believed that professionals within the labor movement needed a home of their own. To that end, he sought and won the approval of the council to constitutionally mandate the creation of a Department for Professional Employees.
"Al more than anyone had a vision of a labor movement where white-collar professionals would play a big role," says DPE president Jack Golodner. "He saw professionals as an important, growing group within the AFL-CIO, and he believed that they needed a special department to address their needs."
Shanker served as the first president of the DPE in 1979 and was the chair of its general board at the time of his death.
Albert Shanker was also the executive vice president of the AFL-CIO Public Employee Department, composed of 33 AFL-CIO unions representing 4.5 million public employees at the federal, state and local levels.
AFL-CIO presidents from George Meany to John Sweeney sought Shanker’s counsel. Meany recognized Shanker’s talents early on; Shanker’s appointment to the executive council by Meany marked Shanker as one of the youngest, smartest emerging leaders of the labor movement. Later, Shanker would serve on many key committees of the AFL-CIO, including the education committee, the finance committee, the international affairs committee, the political education committee and the Evolution of Work Committee. The latter issued a groundbreaking report for the Federation on the changing nature of the American workforce in the shadow of a burgeoning global economy, issues that would punctuate President Shanker’s weekly columns and speeches.
AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said of Albert Shanker: "The labor movement had no greater or more effective champion."
Former AFL-CIO president Thomas R. Donahue recalled that Al’s voice was the listened-to voice in the AFL-CIO on many issues. "Of all the matters of import to working people and their ability to secure and defend the blessings of liberty, Al Shanker was their eloquent spokesman. And he was an excellent listener, too," says Donahue. "He would listen to a discussion about whatever was the latest depredation upon workers or democracy, and when everyone else had spoken, when most of the obvious had been said, Al would weigh in with a considered and authoritative opinion, summing up the debate with a clarity and an intensity that brooked no challenge. The same was true in every debate about the future of trade unionism at home or abroad. He was a pillar of the House of Labor."
At press time, condolences from plumbers, service workers, health care employees, teamsters and unionists of every walk of life were pouring in to the national office, testimony to one very great teacher having found a home and devoted family in the bigger House of Labor.