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by Jack Schierenbeck | April 14, 1996 New York Teacher issue
The Big Bang theory may be right about the origin of the universe, but it isn’t much help when it comes to explaining the making of a union.
Like other unions, the UFT didn’t just explode onto the scene in 1960. In fact, it wasn’t even the first teacher union in New York City. In 1916, almost a half-century earlier, a small, but gutsy, group of public school teachers founded the Teachers Union, affiliating with the newly formed American Federation of Teachers.
With the nation on the brink of war and the Bolshevik Revolution in the offing, it was a case of perfect timing — if you were looking for trouble.
Indeed, it wasn’t long before the fledgling union was knee-deep in controversy. Three city teachers, all pacifists, had been fired for opposing the country’s involvement in World War I. A teacher, explained the city’s superintendent of schools, was expected to be a “patriotic example to his students.” And there was no such thing as “9-to-3 patriotism.”
Among those fired was a Brooklyn high school history teacher, Benjamin Glassberg, who also served as director of the New York Call, the Socialist weekly newspaper and a lecturer at the socialist Rand School for Social Science in Manhattan. To Glassberg the issue was simple: “Because I am a Jew, a Socialist and a member of the Teachers’ Union, I have been dismissed.”
Linville era begins
Led by its first president, Henry Linville, the TU fought to protect teachers’ rights of free speech and academic freedom. Though the teachers were never reinstated, Linville stood alone as the only officer of the many teacher organizations to protest. He also fought long and hard against forced loyalty oaths and the interrogation of teachers about the books they read and assigned to their classes, according to Phillip Taft in “United They Teach.” Linville was hardly your typical city teacher. He had come not from the city’s Lower East Side, but America’s midwest — St. Joseph, Mo.
He’d come east and earned a Ph.D. at Harvard before becoming a city high school science teacher. He’d also been the founder and editor of the American Teacher, the AFT publication that continues to this day. Born in 1866, he was a ripe old 50 in a movement known for its wild-eyed youth. Midwest upbringing and Ivy-League education aside, Linville must have felt right at home amid the intellectual and political ferment that was New York at the time. Linville — like much of the Teacher Union’s nucleus — was an unabashed socialist.
Molded in his image
The decade of 1910 to 1920 marked American socialism’s high tide. The Socialist Party, according to historian James Weinstein, had more than 300 daily, weekly and monthly publications — its weekly newspaper, the Appeal to Reason, alone had a circulation of over 750,000. In 1912, Socialists had been elected mayors of 79 cities from coast to coast. And its presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, had polled close to 900,000 votes.
That socialists made up but a tiny fraction of the teachers didn’t stop Linville from attempting to mold the Teachers Union in his own image.
Besides his passionate defense of teacher rights and personal opposition to the war, Linville, it seems, never met an underdog he didn’t like.
Using his positions as union president and editor of the American Teacher, Linville defended the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and backed the ill-fated New York mayoral campaign of socialist Morris Hillquit in 1917.
He’d supported the losing Seattle General Strike and the Great Steel Strike of 1919, at a time when most of the press labeled the uprisings as communist-inspired. He’d crossed swords with Samuel Gompers, the American Federation of Labor’s president, on numerous occasions, including Gompers’ support for the war and his opposition to the League of Nations. He even went so far as to support United Mine Workers John L. Lewis’ insurgent campaign to oust the aging AFL head in 1921.
Linville had refused to be cowed into submission by the Red Scare hysteria that swept post-war America. He vocally protested the roundup of 10,000 suspected radicals — hundreds of whom were later deported — in some 70 cities in January 1920 by the Justice Department under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and a young J. Edgar Hoover.
He was an early and strong supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union, formed in 1920 to defend radicals caught in the Red Scare dragnet. He opposed the New York state Legislature’s expulsion of legally elected Socialists in 1920.
These were principled — indeed, audacious — stands. But politically shrewd they weren’t.
Clearly, Linville was out of step with the times. And, says one scholar, out of step with the vast majority of teachers. In fact, Wayne Urban, in his book “Why Teachers Organized,” places the blame for the TU’s failure to thrive — it lost more than half its members in the first two years — squarely on Linville’s radical politics and rhetoric. Undeterred, Linville stuck to his beliefs. Writes Urban: “He preferred a union which maintained its militant reforming, labor, socialist stance to one which served the material interests of teachers, even at the expense of losing members.”
Urban writes of the “ideological gulf between Linville and the rank-and-file” not only in the union, but also among readers of the American Teacher — by then the official publication of the AFT. So bad was the rift that unhappy readers refused to subscribe or pay for issues mailed to them. For years Charles Stillman, the AFT’s president, carried on a running battle with his errant editor. But a headstrong Linville wasn’t about to be told what he could or couldn’t write.
Time to split
Now fast forward to 1935.
The Teachers Union had become a battleground where socialists, “left” socialists, communists, Trotskyites, Lovestonites, Shachtmanites and Musteites all wanted control.
Charging that the Teachers Union had become hopelessly mired in sectarian leftist brawling and convinced that the Communist Party-led opposition was intent on “rule or ruin,” the 69-year-old Linville bolted the Teachers Union. With most of the officers and almost 500 members, they formed the New York City Teachers Guild.
What happened? That’s a long story and the answers depend on whom you ask. One thing is clear: By the early 1930s, Linville, who was fond of sprinkling his speeches with references to “the class struggle,” was having one helluva struggle.
Union meetings were a riot. Literally. Floor fights erupted all the time. These were warring factions. To call it a circus would be charitable. Circus Maximus, the site of ancient roman gladiatorial combat, was more like it.
More than a half-century later, Rebecca Simonson recalled: “The fights were wild, absolutely wild. It was worth your life to go through it. If you rose to vote against their position, [the communists] literally took you by the coat and pushed you down to your seat.”
When they weren’t warring, the wily foes were boring each other into a mind-numbing stupor. Meetings gaveled to order at 4 o’clock dragged on till after midnight as various factions used parliamentary tactics to frustrate one another’s planks.
Prepared to burn the midnight oil, the highly disciplined communist faction often passed resolutions in close-to-deserted meeting rooms.
Fittingly, if not poetically, the practice of out-waiting your opponents came to be known as “iron-assing.” Sorting out the various camps and “tendencies” is a story all its own. While they opposed “the capitalist system,” the running argument — indeed, battle — on the left was over how to change the system. As Lenin had put it in his famous 1905 pamphlet: “What is to be done?”
To be sure, these splits within the Teachers Union were neither new nor unique. The left — both in Europe and the U.S. — had a long history of tearing itself apart over the eternal questions of how to bring about a more just social order. Only now the issues, tactics, timetable, organization, the role of unions and the relationship between means and ends were no longer just theoretical. The what-if questions were now replaced by debates about the Soviet Union’s experience and its lessons. Was it a socialist showcase or a totalitarian horror show?
From Russia with passion
As a young man, Simon Beagle was a “red” of one shade or another. “I was swept up by the idea that Russia was the hope of humanity. I believed we needed a new political system, political democracy and the ownership of the major means of production,” said Beagle, who played a key role in founding the UFT.
Beagle, like many teachers in the late ’20s and early ’30s, had journeyed to Russia in 1932 and come back with glowing reports. Like George Bernard Shaw, John Dewey, Sidney Hook and countless others, he’d missed the grim privation, police-state terror and mass murder while carefully chaperoned by his Soviet hosts. “I went with rose-colored glasses. I wanted Russia to be successful, hoping they would lead us into a wonderful world, etc.”
Beagle was a Lovestonite, a follower of Jay Lovestone. Though a founding member of the American Communist Party, Lovestone argued that “exceptional” conditions made the United States a poor fit for a Marxist-Leninist or any other insurrectionary model for revolution.
Lovestone had the heretical idea that the party should work with the AFL and Socialist party. Called to Moscow in 1929 to rethink such “deviationism,” Lovestone faced down Stalin and lived to tell about it. As the story goes, the 29-year-old got into an argument with the Soviet strongman and called him a “murderer.” To which Stalin icily replied: “There is plenty of room in the cemeteries of the Soviet Union for people like you.”
Lovestone never blinked.
“Such remarks,” he shot back, “show that you are unfit to be the leader of the Russian working class, much less of the international working class.”
He didn’t press his luck any further. Lovestone quickly fled the country under a false identity and spent the balance of a long lifetime as a diehard anti-communist.
Beagle, too, had his own ideas. Party “discipline” just didn’t sit well with him. He said: “Communists were a pretty cocky group: You do what we tell you to do. They were so arrogant. They knew all the answers. You couldn’t argue with them.
“They felt the American revolution was around the corner. I thought it was insane.”
With visions of storming the American “Winter Palace” dancing in their heads, many young radicals found Henry Linville’s “parlor pink” socialism — gradual, peaceful, tolerant and democratic — wishy-washy at best.
Where his politics and fiery rhetoric had once scared the daylights out of the prim and proper Irish-Catholic matrons, Linville’s mild-mannered, professorial socialism now drew yawns and scorn.
In her book “Blackboard Unions,” Marjorie Murphy recounts an incident in 1933 that best dramatizes the widening personal, political and generational chasm:
“The young radicals were fond of reminding the old guard that they were over the hill. In one tense moment, the 28-year-old Isidore Begin told the union that Henry Linville’s radical days were long behind him. ‘I will grant you that in 1917 and 1918 Dr. Lefkowitz [The TU’s legislative representative] was a dangerous agitator and Dr. Linville was a red Bolshevik. … [B]ut that was 20 years ago. It is not impolite to suggest that life goes right on and sometimes leaves people behind.’ ”
Begin’s brickbats aside, the issue was tactics, not geriatrics. And it was Moscow, not the union youngbloods, who had decreed Linville “over the hill” — in one of its many and almost comic about-faces. In its early days, the renegade Soviet regime had sought out liberals and socialists in the West in the hope they could create a favorable climate of opinion. Isolated, Russia desperately needed to attract investment, secure foreign credits and obtain diplomatic recognition.
A well-meaning Linville, along with countless other Western intellectuals, writers and artists, had been a good friend to Russia and its revolution. In fact, Linville — at least through the end of the 1920s — appeared to fit the classic description of a “fellow-traveler,” someone who basically sympathized with the Soviet “experiment,” and was willing to overlook or justify its “excesses.”
By 1928, Moscow — more precisely the Communist International or Comintern — suddenly turned on its friends. Liberals and democratic socialists were being denounced as enemies of the people, no less than “social fascists.” Ironically, by the time Linville and company had seceded from the Teachers Union, the Comintern had reverted to cultivating, rather than burying, would-be sympathizers during its Popular Front period.
The rift, though, wasn’t just over revolutionary ideology but how to deal with the deepening Depression, writes Murphy.
Linville and the union’s old guard would lobby Albany for pensions improvements, tenure laws and professional standards and crow about “legislative victories and bargaining gains.”
Meanwhile, the younger militant teachers, including the noncommunist left, wanted to use “mass demonstrations, mass rallies...” to put pressure on the authorities for more jobs and improved salaries.
“There was a generational gap. Most of the dissidents were young,” recalled Beagle for the UFT Oral History Project in 1985. “The leaders were timid. They were not ready yet psychologically to take action against the bosses. I wanted them to do something whether it was publically defending teachers who were in trouble or calling a small demonstration – [but] that was foreign [to them].”
Linville couldn’t win: once too radical for the conservatives, he was now too conservative for the radicals. “He’d been chased out of the AFL as a left-winger and now he was being called an old craft-union fuddy-duddy,” said Jerry Morris, noting the cruel irony.
The AFT’s current director of legislation, Morris studied the New York local’s troubles for his Harvard sociology dissertation. “Linville was outflanked by a highly disciplined group under the control of the Communist Party that wanted to take over the union and turn it into a mouthpiece for Moscow,” he said.
Not everyone, though, shares this view. Georgia State University scholar Wayne Urban, among others, says both Linville and Lefkowitz came to see the Teachers Union as their store. “They had a proprietary sense that this was their union. They felt that they’d started and built it, so who were these people coming in and telling them how to run their business.”
Urban acknowledges the opposition’s use of “unsavory tactics and tricky parliamentary maneuvers,” but maintains “the other side just out-organized” the Linville group. “That’s the name of the game,” he says. “If you can turn out more of your people than the other side, you win. As I read the record, the other side had the votes and beat [Linville] fair and square.”
Fair and square? “Preposterous,” says an incredulous Charles Cogen. The 93-year-old former president of the Teachers Guild and the UFT’s first president agrees that the opposition did a good job of turning out its supporters. But it did an even better job of turning away and turning off “our base of support.” He points to the Marxist loony tunes atmosphere — equal parts Karl and Groucho — for driving away “the average teacher” who wanted a union without all the constant ideological bickering and chaos.
“This was calculated disruption, designed to paralyze the union and make the leadership appear ineffectual,” says Cogen. The communists, he argues, had used this strategy before in other unions. But where the Mine Workers’ John L. Lewis or the Garment Worker’s David Dubinsky literally beat back the communist opposition in their unions, Linville wasn’t the strong-arm type. “He was just too decent a guy,” says Cogen in what might as well be Linville’s epitaph. Was Linville’s “armchair radicalism” militant enough for the Depression-era problems. “Maybe he was too timid,” says Cogen, who joined the Teachers Union in 1924. On the other hand, “What could he have done, led the union out on strike? “That would have been suicide,” says Cogen, recalling how Calvin Coolidge, then governor of Massachusetts, became a national hero for his handling of the Boston Police Strike of 1919. “He fired them all.”
Adds a sage Cogen: “I know some people take the view that the best time to organize workers is when they’re in dire straits. But I don’t. From my experience, bad times are more likely to bring out the worst in people who are scared about losing what little they have.”
In their day, Charlie Cogen and Sam Wallach wouldn’t have agreed on lunch — or much else. Wallach was a member of the opposition — and the Teachers Union’s president in the late 1940s. Recalling the days of the “hot-head young radicals demanding the floor,” he now agrees with his old nemesis Cogen that a less partisan and ideological brand of unionism would have found more takers.
“I’m so smart now,” says Wallach, with a wry chuckle. “The ultra-political crap frightened large chunks of teachers, especially the obvious red positions.
“We should have steered clear of controversial issues and concentrated on the practical, day-to-day concerns that all teachers have. Teachers respond if you don’t upset them with the scary issues,” Wallach says, pointing to the popularity of a pension primer the Teachers Union once put together. “They were leaving me notes in my box with their buck. It was a big seller.”
From ‘dream’ to nightmare
The Wallachs were from Brooklyn’s rough-and-tumble Red Hook waterfront, the only Jews in an Italian neighborhood. He and his brother — Eli Wallach, the actor — helping run the family candy store. Like a lot of young people at the time, Wallach became a radical at City College, from which he graduated in 1929. “How’s that for timing,” he says with a laugh.
He became a substitute teacher in 1932 when one of the hot-button issues was whether to allow subs into the union. “The Administration,” as the Linville group was called, said no. “It was a craft mentality,” Wallach says. “To their way of thinking, subs were akin to apprentices and, just as the printing, plumbing, carpentry and other trades didn’t allow apprentices, why should they? Of course, since the city was not appointing teachers, a lot of very qualified people were stuck as substitutes.
“I can’t get into their heads, but it seems to me that Linville thought the younger people were going to vote themselves into power,” says Wallach.
At any rate, when Linville walked out, Wallach and some 800 substitutes walked in — full-fledged union members.
Did things quiet down after Linville and the others left? “Are you kidding?” Wallach says. “When the rank and file [the hard-line Stalinists] got control, nobody else could get the floor.”
What about the Soviet Union? “I thought it was a noble experiment and wished them well,” Wallach says. “It was wonderful to see people get off their backs and fight back. [But] Stalin and his gang betrayed my dream, a wonderful dream.”
When did he realize he and so many others had been betrayed? “I didn’t know of Stalin’s monstrosities, at least not in the 1930s. When I heard stories, I discounted the accusations as propaganda and slander. In fact, it was not really until the Krushchev speech before the Party Congress in 1956 did I learn what had gone on.”
Schisms and purges
“It was tragic,” says Andy Weiss, a Cornell University historian whose doctoral dissertation deals with communism and anti-communism in New York City schools.
Weiss points to the “schism” in the union over radical politics as a major reason for stalling the growth of a teacher union for decades to come. “The sectarianism and dogmatism among the warring camps split the militants and drove away teachers who might otherwise have been attracted to a progressive, albeit not radical, union.”
But if Weiss and others find the split “tragic,” still others see the break not only as inevitable but, in the long run, a watershed moment in the growth of teacher unionism. Si Beagle said: “The vast majority of teachers were non-political, some of them reactionary. They were all interested in basic teacher problems. The appeal was limited to the leftists.”
Besides, argue others, where could they have found common cause with communists? George Meany, the secretary-treasurer of the AFL in 1945, undoubtedly spoke at the time for many when he mocked the idea. “What common ground?” he asked, “What could we talk about? The latest innovations being used by the secret police to ensnare those who think in opposition to the group in power? Or, perhaps, bigger and better concentration camps for political prisoners?”
AFT President Albert Shanker bristles when he hears people reducing the differences to sectarian hair-splitting. “These were important issues. We were opposing the Stalinists who thought they could murder anyone who disagreed with them.”
As for the Teachers Union, it enjoyed a brief boomlet in the late 1930s — climbing to almost 7,000 members. But its popularity would be shortlived. Stalin’s sudden embrace of Hitler in the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact put an end to the Communist Party and the Teachers Union’s golden era. Try as they did, even the Party’s fast-talking spin doctors had a hard time explaining that to its own members, many of whom were Jews.
Though the TU would affiliate with the CIO’s Union of Public Workers, that marriage didn’t last long, either. The UPW was itself expelled for alleged “communist domination.”
At the height of post-war anti-communism in 1950, the TU was no longer even recognized as an organization in good standing by the Board of Education. Dozens of teachers were fired — including Sam Wallach — and hundreds more resigned or retired for refusing to comply with the state’s Feinberg Law. In addition to a loyalty oath, the law not only required that teachers confess and renounce their past Communist affiliation but also inform on other teachers.
Although in 1967 the Supreme Court would find their ouster to be unconstitutional, many careers and lives were ruined forever. Sam Wallach, for example, never taught again.
The TU limped along until 1964 when it was disbanded — its leaders recommending that its few remaining diehard members join the UFT.