The author was a member of the United Federation of Teachers from September 1987 to March 1991.
Fifty years ago, three consecutive teachers’ strikes in NYC took place between September 9 and November 17, 1968. These were complex events in the context of a battle against racism, a struggle for more parental control over the school system, and the fight to defend the union rights of the teachers. The situation became polarized as the ruling class used “divide and rule” tactics to cut across class unity. The trade union leaders and many “community leaders,” lacking a Marxist perspective, accepted the limits of the capitalist political system. They simply chose sides and were pushed to fight against one another. This has always played into the hands of the ruling class. There are many lessons we can learn from this experience, to ensure the victory of the working class in the struggles ahead.
The capitalist class has built a powerful state apparatus to ensure their rule, which includes the federal, state, county, and municipal governments. The NYC bureaucracy was originally built under the Democratic Party clubs, including the infamous Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. The ruling class, with help from the Republicans in Albany, tried to insert a civil service bureaucracy that would be more accountable to them instead of to the Democratic political bosses. The city bureaucracy now includes more than 300,000 employees and is a hodgepodge of these conflicting systems. The NYC Board of Education, with more than 1,000 schools, one million students, and 100,000 teachers and support staff, is a huge bureaucracy all on its own.
The NYC teachers fought for decades for the right to unionize and negotiate over wages, benefits, and working conditions. This was finally won in the early 1960s with the establishment of AFT Local 2, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), as their union. Building on the foundation the Transport Workers Union had established under Mike Quill in the 1930s, the unionization of the teachers coincided with other NYC public workers organizing with AFSCME DC 37 and Teamsters Local 237.
In the midst of capitalism’s postwar boom, the teachers union made some important gains in their contracts. They not only won wage and benefit increases, but they could also be fired only with cause and due process. There was also seniority language in the contract to prevent a teacher from being transferred from their school for reasons that benefit management—for example, if a principal wants to get rid of a union activist. In a big city like New York, the right to be at a particular school is important. If a teacher lives in Brooklyn and is transferred to the Bronx, this could mean a significantly longer commute—and can be a way of forcing people to resign. It was protests and strikes that led to these gains, which were not merely given to the teachers without a struggle.
From 1964 to 1985, the leader of the UFT was Albert Shanker. Shanker had once been a “socialist,” influenced by Max Shachtman—who had broken with Trotsky in 1940 and accommodated himself to US capitalism and imperialism. However, Shanker’s “socialism” was actually “pragmatism,” in that he adapted to running a union in the context of the US capitalism and he accepted all of the system’s limitations. Like all the other labor leaders, he did not see that the struggle of workers needed to be linked to the broader working class and the socialist transformation of society.
Although Shanker had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and was a supporter of the civil rights movement, his pragmatism did not allow him to see that the teachers need the support of the parents and students in the school system. The NYC Board of Education bureaucracy included much racism and cronyism. It was a top-down institution, and it did not care about the concerns of the people in the neighborhoods, especially the black and Latino neighborhoods, in what was a segregated school system based on segregated neighborhoods. White teachers in NYC made up 90% of the staff, and the UFT leadership never saw this as a problem.
The ingrained racism of American capitalism led to the civil rights movement, which increased in militancy as it progressed. Organizations like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords arose, and many of the best young activists joined them, demanding community control of institutions in their neighborhoods. They did not want entities like the Board of Education controlling these schools. There were also other neighborhood-based groups like Brooklyn CORE, based around Sonny Carson. Unfortunately, there was no genuine Marxist organization in the US at that time, which could guide these comrades to a correct program and strategy to bring the movement forward. The Socialist Workers Party was adapting itself to black nationalism. The various New Left and Maoist groups also submerged themselves in “national liberation politics,” and many were hostile to the unionized working class, which they referred to as “bought off.”
These “community control” demands swept into the struggle. There was a battle to achieve community control over Independent School 201 and its feeder elementary schools in Harlem. The ruling class skillfully intervened through liberal Republican Mayor John Lindsay and McGeorge Bundy of the Ford Foundation to create so-called “pilot projects” in Harlem, the Lower East Side, and in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. The New York Urban Coalition, set up by corporate power players in the city, also played a role.
The projects were supposed to have school boards run these schools, and extra money was supposed to be given to these programs, but the Board of Education reneged on this. Unfortunately, many of the groups supporting community control did not fight for the extra resources, thinking that merely putting themselves in charge of the schools would make all the difference in the world—as if they could have an excellent education and eliminate racism within the bounds of the system.
The advocates of community control were tired of white bureaucrats, principals, and teachers controlling the schools. They felt there were no role models for their children, that many of these white principals and teachers looked down at the students and were outright racists, while parents had no way to hold the principals and staff accountable.
There is no doubt that the issues raised by those who advocated community control were real. However, their mistake was to see it as a problem of bad individuals, when it is, in fact, a systemic problem. They should have challenged the system as a whole, which could have been done in a way that won over the teachers and other employees. They should have exposed the Democrats and Republican Mayor Lindsay and the entire capitalist government. The struggle should have demanded the building of a mass working-class socialist party to take on capitalism and racism. The message should have been that only a workers’ government can attempt to solve this problem.
The battle did not have to take the form of one part of the working class versus another. Things could have turned out differently if Shanker, the broader NYC labor leadership, and the advocates of community control had offered a united front and called for the following:
Rhody McCoy was a former NYC principal who was the head of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district. In May 1968, McCoy informed 13 teachers, two UFT chapter chairs, one principal, and five assistant principals that their employment in the district was terminated and they should report to Central Board of Education for reassignment. There were no specific charges given nor were they allowed a hearing. This led to about 350 teachers in the district walking out in solidarity. When the school year began in the fall of 1968, McCoy had hired replacement teachers and would not let the 350 teachers back into the schools to work. He agreed to accept the teachers back, but they would be given other assignments in the district, not normal teaching duties. The first teachers’ strike began as a response to this, with almost 54,000 of 57,000 city teachers walking out. This was followed by a second strike and then a third, which was finally settled on November 17, 1968.
Although the teachers’ strike was justified to defend their employment rights, Shanker’s role in the struggle was reactionary. In the course of the strikes, Shanker distributed anonymous fliers attributed to community control supporters that had anti-Semitic overtones, greatly increasing the divisions in the working class, which led to resentment between many black and Latino workers and the UFT for years after. Unfortunately, there were also some on the community control side, who put forward black nationalism, which limited their ability to unite the working class and reinforced the divide.
The corporate chiefs wanted to knock the union down a few pegs. Only when they saw the strike as solid did they then reluctantly give some concessions. Since the NYC school system was shut down for more than two months, the ruling class was under pressure to end the strike. They cut a deal with the UFT, and the Board of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district was suspended until March 7, 1969, when they agreed to do as they were told from above—so much for community control. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller passed a bill which carved NYC into 32 school districts which soon become dens of patronage and lasted until Michael Bloomberg became mayor.
The American working class is a diverse body in every sense of the word. This is especially true in NYC. The only people that win when the working class is divided is the ruling class. Unionized public sector workers must reach out to the broader working class to build maximum unity, which must be based on an uncompromising fight against racism, anti-Semitism, and all forms of discrimination and prejudice. Fellow workers of different races and backgrounds have the same class interests—we cannot let the ruling class or middle-class activists divide us! Most importantly, the working class leadership cannot accept the limits of capitalism but must expose it and challenge its rule.