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This award-winning series of articles by Jack Schierenbeck originally appeared in the New York Teacher in 1996 and 1997.
“Censored. Browbeaten. Overworked. Underpaid. Why, then, weren’t teachers lining up to join a union?” This segment takes a look at the low salaries, tyrannical supervisors and woeful working conditions which was the lot for most teachers before the formation of the UFT.
“Between the organizational, legal, cultural and perceptual hurdles, it’s no wonder teachers had trouble getting their act together.” This segment focuses on the issues which divided teachers and frustrated organizing a mass union.
“The schism in the union over radical politics [is] a major reason for stalling the growth of a teacher union for decades.” Revolutionary politics and ideology take center stage, as the original Teachers Union becomes a battlefield, pitting leftist against leftist and splitting the union.
“We pictured [the Guild] as a debating society rather than a group ready to take action.” By the early 1950s generational rather than ideological bickering divides teachers. Younger teachers are growing impatient with their union elders who want to avoid butting heads with the board until the Guild becomes stronger. The younger militants’ case gets a boost when evening high school teachers go out on strike and win.
In what one striker called a “kamikaze thing that worked,” some 5,600 teachers, secretaries, guidance counselors and social workers struck the city school system for the first time on November 7, 1960 — with another 2,000 calling in sick. The strikers had defied state law which called for their automatic dismissal and persuaded the city to let a panel of outside labor leaders decide whether collective bargaining for teachers was the right course of action.
In Dec. 1961 the UFT won the right to represent all the city’s teachers the old-fashioned way: They earned it. The fight for recognition took 13 months, a referendum, a bargaining election, a battle royal with the powerful NEA, the strong backing of the AFT and organized labor, the maniacal organizing genius of Dave Selden and countless hours of organizing by hundreds of union volunteers.
Hardliners and internal union politics push a reluctant leadership into a strike in April 1962 over the terms of the first collective bargaining agreement. A stunning 20,000 teachers take to the streets as the Board of Ed resorts to a labor injunction to force teachers back to work. Dejection soon turns to elation, though, as the state comes up with enough money to fund the greatest single pay boost in city history.
Strong leader or strongman — or both? Love him or loathe him, fans and haters alike acknowledged that Al Shanker was not someone you wanted to pick a fight with. By now, the longtime leader of the UFT and the AFT has achieved iconic status. But in the early days opinions about him were sharply divided depending on how you felt about labor unions. This segment tells the Al Shanker story.
Teachers, the UFT and the civil rights movement were strong allies. Although tensions would mount in the city to excruciating levels later in the decade, New York teachers were joining the struggle throughout the South.