Class struggles: The UFT story, part 7
Originally published in New York Teacher, October 14th, 1996
by Jack Schierenbeck
“Internal conflict between factions and parties,” Seymour Martin Lipset wrote in his 1962 book “Union Democracy,” “is almost as old as the unions themselves … . In the printing unions, as in the society at large, there have always been some men who favored an aggressive policy while others urged moderation and conciliation in relations with employers and governments. The fight between militants and moderates [is] a fight between men who are more liberal (or radical) and men who are more conservative on larger social issues. …”
Roger Parente still gets up early. Only these days it’s to get in a game of tennis before the stifling mid-day heat of the Southern California desert sets in. Approaching 70, Parente is surprised how well a decade of retirement has agreed with him. After 29 years in the city schools, he had pulled up stakes and gone to California to take up law as a second career. But a couple years of practice cured him of the lure of the law. Today, he’s content to savor the considerable accomplishments of his four grown daughters as well as the joys of being a new grandfather.
Still, for those who knew him when, a retiring Parente is a far cry from the heat-seeking missile of yesteryear. Parente was the firebrand leader of the High School Teachers Association who organized the pivotal evening high school strike in 1959. And it was Parente, along with Samuel Hochberg, who formed one-half of the shotgun wedding between renegade high school teachers and the Teachers Guild that produced the UFT.
As explained in Part 5 of this series, the merger was a stealth deal put together behind the backs of the old guard leadership in the Teachers Guild. The high school people who made up the Committee for Action Through Unity (CATU) regarded most of the old-line Guild leadership with disdain. To them the Guild was a “debating society” rather than a militant, action-oriented organization.
“They thought [Charles] Cogen and [Jules] Kolodney were fuddy-duddies,” recalled Albert Shanker, who first met many of the high school militants while walking a picket line in the freezing cold during that 1959 evening high school strike. “I was torn on a lot of this stuff: I liked a lot of these new people. They were new blood that [the Teachers Guild] needed and we couldn’t make it with just the oldtimers.”
But Shanker was under no illusions about the CATU militants’ agenda. “From the second the organization was formed there was an internal struggle,” he said. “They were involved in a straight power struggle to take over the union.” President Parente?
Parente agrees that the two factions were on a collision course. “The split was there from the beginning of the UFT,” Parente said. “My group always felt we should be more forceful and pushed for the strike as an effective weapon.”
To Parente the whole point of unity was action. Now, from inside the UFT, Parente — much to the consternation and trepidation of older, more cautious union comrades — stepped up the push for militancy. The strike, he would say, was the “club” teachers would have to wield to get the public’s attention.
Parente was a force to be reckoned with. “Roger was a terrific image,” remembered Shanker. “He was a very good-looking guy. A natural leader; he exuded strength and had charisma.”
So impressive was Parente that many saw him as the future president — a mantle which he eagerly courted. Too eagerly, as it turned out. No one knows more than Shanker how close Roger Parente actually came to being the union’s president. It was his for the waiting.
But that’s getting ahead of the story.
In January of 1962, Parente was a UFT vice president and chairman of the salary committee. He was the union’s chief money negotiator and a good one. No less than wily old-fox organizer Dave Selden, called Parente a “superb negotiator: pragmatic, intelligent and articulate without being verbose.”
That winter Parente was busy. The UFT had just won a stunningly decisive victory over its rivals and was now recognized as the sole collective bargaining agent for city teachers. Within days of that triumph, the UFT handed the Board of Education a list of no fewer than 82 demands. In addition to whopping salary hikes totaling an unheard of $68.8 million, the union sought a reduction in class size; the introduction of teacher aides; a reduction in the teaching load; sick pay for subs; and a guaranteed duty-free lunch for elementary school teachers.
New York City teachers had waited years for a contract and it was clear they were intent on making up for lost time. Their patience tried, teachers were “demand[ing] 10 years of retroactive justice” — as a sign from a rally at the time attested.
“Not all of these desirable improvements can be provided at once,” said Board of Education President Max Rubin. The senior partner of a prestigious Manhattan law firm, Rubin had been born on New York’s Lower East Side to poor Russian-immigrant parents. He’d gone to public school and City College before completing a law degree from NYU.
Rubin was new to the job, having been part of a reform board that had been installed the previous summer in the wake of a school construction scandal. After years of foot-dragging, the new board had pushed for collective bargaining and showed signs of wanting to cooperate with the union.
But even a sympathetic board has its limits. It countered the union demand for $68.8 million with an offer of $27.7 million. This was still a hefty across-the-board hike of $700 a year — no small sum when most teachers were earning less than $7,000.
Teachers took the offer as a slap. The union “lowered” its demands to $53 million.
Back and forth the board and the union dickered. The backdrop to all these negotiations was the fact that the UFT’s first-ever contested election was then only months away. Both sides — the Hochberg-Parente “militants” and the Cogen faction — were jockeying for position. At stake then was more than just a contract but who and what vision would lead. Even the board was aware of the internal squabbling, said Parente. “You could tell by the way they talked to Sam [Hochberg] and me. They knew that if there was to be a peaceful settlement to the contract we would have to be satisfied.”
Unbeknownst to Parente, Cogen had dropped a bombshell. In early March he’d disclosed to a small circle of confidants that he was “tired” and wanted to step down as president. Shanker recalls a late-night meeting he attended with Selden and Kolodney at which Cogen disclosed that he thought Parente would make a good successor.
“Charlie asked what we thought and we all said it was OK to us. When we left him that night, Charlie said he would tell Roger that we would support him for president.”
Added Shanker: “Charlie liked Roger. Parente didn’t know it, but he was within a week or two of having what he wanted.” But, in short order, Cogen’s grand design for presidential succession came undone. As Shanker tells the story the falling out could be traced to a negotiating meeting when the Board of Education made a proposal that was to Cogen’s liking.
When Cogen sounded out Parente for his reaction, Parente, in Shanker’s words “played it cute.” “Roger sort of shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Well Charlie, if that’s the best they can do.’”
That’s all Cogen needed. The board and the union came to a “memorandum of understanding” on March 13, 1962, calling for a promised $33 million in salary hikes — which came to almost a $1,000 a year raise. “Promised” is the key word. Negotiating for the board, Chancellor John J. Theobald’s dollar figure was only a proposal and he did not have the authority to guarantee anything. To the UFT it was deja vu. Once before, in May of 1960, the union had come away from negotiations with Theobald only to have the “promises” broken.
According to Shanker, Cogen, perhaps seeing what he wanted to see, took Parente’s enigmatic response as approval and reported as much at the next Delegate Assembly. “Charlie made a report and Roger got up and said, ‘I never agreed to this’ and started saying it was a ‘sellout.’ It was a horrible meeting which ended up with all this bitterness and hard feeling. That’s when Charlie decided to run again.” From Shanker’s perspective Parente’s hedging answer to Cogen had been calculated to portray “Parente [as] the militant vs. Cogen the sellout. They [the militants] were trying to trap him.”
For more on the Parente-Cogen presidential race see accompanying story.
As it turned out the board did ignore Theobald’s negotiations and reverted to its original $27.7 million offer, with the quicksand proviso that it must first hammer out the details of state aid before finally committing itself to any agreement.
The UFT was caught, for all intents and purposes, in a book-keeping disagreement between the city and the state. The city claimed the state owed it money — and without that aid it couldn’t sweeten the wage offer.
Negotiations with the board were hamstrung by the fact that no one — including the board’s negotiators — knew how much money was in the kitty. The board had to wait until it got its budgetary allowance from the city.
Further complicating the picture was the fact that the state-aid formula was being reworked and the city and state were arguing over exactly how much money the city had coming. The Albany-City Hall tiff turned nasty as Mayor Wagner charged that the city was being shortchanged some $48 million. Governor Rockefeller charged the mayor with the “rankest political fakery” and said the money was there.
Finding it impossible to get a straight answer, the UFT broke off negotiations and set a strike date for April 10. To punctuate their dissatisfaction, 3,000 teachers demonstrated outside City hall in a drenching downpour, exhorting Cogen to “Give ’em hell, Charlie. We want a contract or we’ll strike.”
If there were any doubts about how teachers felt, they were dispelled in a late March strike vote. Chanting “$53 million or strike” and stamping their feet, union members came in with a lopsided 7,255-240 tally.
Asked if organized labor had offered its support for a strike, Cogen feigned indifference: “We don’t care who supports or who doesn’t.”
All of this blustery belligerence didn’t escape the notice of the city papers, which were uniformly hostile. The Herald Tribune referred to the UFT as the “United Federation of Teamsters,” while a Daily News editorial writer opined: “Quite an example, we’d call it, for teachers to set for students — an example of greed plus a public-be-damned attitude… .”
Striking a somewhat less strident pose was The New York Times, which commented: “We are warmly sympathetic to the teachers’ cause, but not to their method of trying to blackjack the city.”
Most observers agree that the union’s leaders, especially Cogen, were using the threat of a strike both to get the city to move and to convince the union’s militant wing that he was not Charles the Chicken-hearted.
Privately, Cogen was dead set against a strike. “Charlie thought a strike was dangerous,” said Shanker, explaining that it would alienate the city’s labor movement and the board, both of which had been friendly and cooperative. More importantly, the union, while growing, was still a minority union, representing only 30 percent of teachers.
But others viewed Cogen’s ploy to “out-militant the militants” as boxing himself into a corner. A post-strike analysis in the May 19, 1962, Saturday Review said as much when it suggested that “the more militant members of the leadership group actually made Mr. Cogen fall into a trap of asking so much that a settlement which would normally have made him appear as a hero would turn him into the loser in the eyes of the members.”
At any rate, as the day of the threatened walkout drew near, negotiations heated up. On April 9, one day before the deadline, there was a breakthrough. Gov. Rockefeller agreed to lend the city some $14 million for salary hikes while Mayor Wagner, as he had done in the 1960 strike, put forward a plan to appoint a three-person, fact-finding panel. In a narrow 6-4 vote with one abstention, the union’s negotiating committee OK’d the Rockefeller/ Wagner offers.
Next it went to the union’s executive board. It was well past midnight on April 10 before the deeply divided group voted to accept the negotiating committee’s recommendation to delay the strike for one week while the fact-finding panel did its homework.
Throughout these long deliberations, the Delegate Assembly had been kept waiting, and waiting — and waiting. Convened at 4 p.m. on April 9 at St. Nicholas Arena in Manhattan, the more than 1,000 delegates sat around hour after hour, hungry for any bit of news or gossip. The first word they heard, though, was at 10:30 that night from School Board President Max Rubin, via radio and television. “We have been informed the negotiating committee of the UFT will recommend that there be no strike. There will be no interruption in the education of the city’s children.”
Not surprisingly, Rubin’s statement infuriated many of the delegates and played into the hands of the militants who were saying the leadership was trying to pull a fast one. It wasn’t until 1:30 in the morning that President Cogen finally made it to St. Nick’s Arena. Usually the home to prize fights and wrestling matches, the seedy West Side haunt proved an apt setting for what was to follow.
After waiting some nine hours, many of the delegates were in no mood for peace overtures. Cogen was greeted with catcalls, jeers and cries of “sellout” when he announced the executive board’s recommendation for postponing the strike pending the fact-finders’ report.
“No, no, Charlie,” the delegates chanted. “We want a contract, not more promises.” Newspaper accounts told of “frenzied foot-stomping and shouts of ‘strike, strike.’” To great cheers, militant leader and UFT deputy president Sam Hochberg called the city’s offer of $28 million “nothing” and predicted a “tremendous strike.”
Near 3 a.m., Shanker made an impassioned plea for restraint, warning of what was in store if the city got an injunction under the harsh Condon-Wadlin Law. “This is what you will have to face,” he said. “Your leaders will be arrested and will lose their jobs. As the first set of leaders is taken off to jail, another set of leaders will be arrested and jailed. Are there enough teachers who then will be willing to support a strike?”
Hochberg countered that if the union caved in to the threatened injunction, the board would have found its weapon. “I’d say you have given up the right to strike for all time,” Hochberg said.
Lou Frazer, a junior high school teacher, got up. “We are here for every teacher and not for money reasons, but for the preservation and dignity of the profession. Let us go. Our issues are clear, simple and valid. You owe it to yourselves.” The delegates were on their feet howling with approval.
By a resounding 9-1 margin, the delegates rejected the executive board’s plea for more time. It was decided, instead, that the issue would be put before the general membership later that day.
Round 2 at St. Nick’s that afternoon proved to be more of the same. There on the stage was the lone figure of Charlie Cogen standing before an angry crowd of 5,000 members stamping their feet, booing, jeering, yelling “sell-out” and “strike now” and waving signs reading “Money yes, promises no” and “Action now.” It took Cogen some 40 minutes just to bring the raucous group to order.
Boos and cat-calls greeted Cogen’s plea to avoid being labeled “strike-happy” and to vote for a temporary truce. Newspaper reports told of “prolonged applause and loud cheers” for Hochberg and Parente, “leaders of the militant wing.”
A Daily News reporter described the scene this way: “Some 5,000 public school teachers, split between red-hots anxious to strike today and more cautious souls … The union … is torn by internal dissension and power fights among its officers.” On the question of whether to postpone or strike now, the vote was 2,544–2,231 to rebuke the leadership and strike immediately. The hardliners had won by just 313 votes. The strike was on.
You’re all fired
Narrowly defeated or not, after the vote Cogen said, “We’re completely united.” Asked about the threat of being jailed if they defied an injunction, Cogen is reported to have smiled and said: “Life has risks. Everything has risks.” The next morning, April 11, brought out the pickets. One newspaper account told of one protester: “Charles Hoffman, 24, a 9th-grade teacher picketing outside JHS 65 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, said: ‘We’re getting a raw deal from the city and it’s up to the teachers to do something. It’s about time we stood firm. We’ve been fair. Now we have to be firm.’”
Another picketer mentioned in the press was Don Morey, who carried a hand-lettered sign that read: “More Money for Morey.” Identifying himself as part of “a younger generation of teachers with more gumption and guts — people who are not afraid to strike,” The Seward Park HS social studies teacher told the World-Telegram & The Sun that after seven years he was earning only $6,810 a year.
“People seem to think that teachers live in a special world — they expect teachers to act like angels,” he said. “But when the Board of Education acts like a factory owner, we have to respond accordingly.”
Young and old, more than 20,000 teachers refused to report for work — stunning the board and the city. The turnout, though, was no surprise to George Altomare. In a replay of November 1960, Altomare and his strike “network” were ready for the call to battle stations. In all-day Saturday skull sessions, he and his lieutenants had prepared for every eventuality. Nothing was left to chance. To communicate with striking schools, for example, a striker was designated to stand by the nearest phone at all times — most often at the local candy store, but sometimes at the corner saloon.
The success of the strike infuriated Board President Rubin.“Those teachers who have abandoned their posts have betrayed their duties,” he said. “They have been guilty of irresponsible behavior. The leadership of a union which encouraged and incited this strike has been guilty of reckless and irresponsible leadership.” He announced that under the state’s Condon-Wadlin Act, which prohibited strikes by public workers, the strikers were dismissed. Said Rubin: “They are out of jobs. They have themselves terminated their employment.”
In another action, the board went to court and got an injunction to forbid teachers from picketing. It was a sweeping display of judicial power. The injunction called on the UFT to refrain from “causing, instigating, promoting, encouraging, sanctioning, authorizing, carrying on, continuing, or lending support or assistance of any nature to any strike or work stoppage.”
By mid-afternoon police were notifying pickets that they would be arrested if they continued to picket.
Injunction or not, nothing could dampen the sheer elation of the moment. In the largest teacher rally up to that time, 10,000 teachers demonstrated their solidarity and militancy outside City Hall. Cogen stood atop a sound truck, holding a stack of telegrams of support from teacher locals from around the country. One from Roseville, Mich., read simply: “Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah.” Overwhelmed by the emotion, Cogen proclaimed: “This is the greatest day in the history of education in the City of New York.”
Later, the UFT’s executive board met through the night at the old George Washington Hotel at Lexington and 23rd Street, debating whether to obey the injunction. Though Cogen called the court order “a slave-labor injunction,” he argued that there was no choice: The very survival of the union was at stake. At 3:30 a.m. on April 12, after seven hours of often bitter debate, the executive board voted 32-12 to call off the strike.
Parente was one of the dozen dissenters. “I was against obeying the injunction,” Parente recalled recently. “Maybe I was swept up in the euphoria of the strike. But to my way of thinking there was no way they were going to fire 20,000 people. Anyway, so what if some of us went to jail? We would have become martyrs for the cause.”
As for Cogen, he tried gamely to put the best face on the outcome. “The UFT has just conducted the most inspiring strike in our nation’s history,” Cogen told reporters. “We hail the courage of the striking teachers.” When pressed, though, he admitted: “We feel temporarily defeated.”
Were teachers deflated at having to go back at judicial gunpoint? No, says Larry Robbins, a Bronx junior high school teacher at the time. “The very act of going out was liberatory. With 20,000 teachers out, we now knew we had something worth preserving. So why risk destroying it? We had a union we had to protect. Believe me, [the strike] created an esprit de corps and a unity that was the foundation of the union for years to come.”
Later that day, at a meeting in Rockefeller’s New York City office that lasted 31¼2 hours, the governor announced that he had put an additional $13 million at the disposal of the city, bringing the total package available to pay for salary hikes to $41.7 million. Teachers would get an across-the-board raise of $995 — the greatest single pay boost in school history.
At the same meeting it was also decided that no reprisals would be taken against striking teachers. Instead, Rockefeller promised to look into ways to improve the state’s Condon-Wadlin Law, whose provision for automatic dismissal had proved once again to be far too much punishment for too small a crime.
So what is the legacy of the 1962 strike? Looking back after all these years, Sol Jaffe thinks it should never have happened. “It was an “accident,” said Jaffe, the union’s secretary and a member of the Parente opposition. “It was all manipulation that backfired. It was all political. The leadership knew that Parente was going to run for president [and] they wanted to steal the militant’s thunder, to out-militant the militants.”
An accident of history or not, writing within days of its conclusion, one New York Times reporter called it no less than a “revolt by teachers — a revolt against the status accorded them, a revolt against the conditions under which they worked.”
A few weeks, later The New Republic magazine of April 30 said: “The one way to prevent millions of children from remaining half-educated is for teachers to force the pace. If teachers are to do this, they must make the public take them seriously, and there is probably no better way to do this than to stop acting like mice.”
Only days after the strike, one New York Post reader, Monroe Lockman, offered a note of wry encouragement to teachers in the “Letters to the Editor” section:
“As a union truck driver, I support the teachers’ strike. Perhaps someday, if they fight hard enough, they may earn almost as much as I do.”