Skip to main content
Full Menu

Our website is undergoing maintenance. Some services that require you to log in may be temporarily unavailable. Thank you for your patience.

Class struggles: The UFT story, part 4

by Jack Schierenbeck

Within months of the end of World War II the country was convulsed in the greatest wave of strikes in its history, before or since. With the memory of the Great Depression still fresh in their minds, many workers saw the huge post-war layoffs as a sign the country was headed for trouble. Besides, the wartime sacrifices of rationing, a wage freeze and no-strike pledge had left many workers frustrated and angry, especially as prices and profits continued to soar.

All told, some 8 million workers in the auto, steel, coal, electrical, maritime and rail trades walked off their jobs in 1945 and ’46. The Truman administration, using its wartime powers, seized struck oil refining plants, coal mines, packinghouses and railroads, thereby forcing workers to stay on the job. In the case of the railroads, Truman threatened to draft striking workers into the Army.

In a radical break with their staid tradition, teachers across the country joined this postwar upsurge of militancy. Only a decade before, in 1936, Chicago teachers had chosen a Saturday for a demonstration “walk,” rather than risk the penalties of a “walkout.” Now teachers from 12 states — from Rhode Island and Pennsylvania to Minnesota and even Tennessee — were taking matters into their own hands.

In September of 1946, several hundred striking teachers closed Norwalk, Conn. schools for nine days. The action won the National Education Association affiliate a sizeable pay raise, even though the NEA’s official position was that strikes were “ineffective.”

As for the American Federation of Teachers, it still had a no-strike pledge in its constitution that dated back to its formation in 1916. But after the voters in St. Paul, Minn., voted down a tax increase to raise teacher salaries, the AFT local went out on strike for five weeks. The public got the message. Six months and another referendum later, the teachers got their raise.

In New York’s westernmost outpost, Buffalo, 2,400 teachers defied threats of dismissal and closed down most of the school system. Picketing in brutal near-zero cold, they stayed out for a week until their demands were met. The same story in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Dayton, Jersey City and Chicago, where the mere threat of a strike had Windy City authorities crying uncle.

Disunity in New York

All this bottom-up militancy paid off handsomely, writes Marjorie Murphy in “Blackboard Unions.” In one year, from 1947 to 1948, teachers’ wages shot up an average of 13 percent across the country.

As for New York City, a “union town” with few peers and arguably the country’s foremost left-wing stronghold — hardly a ripple.


Beset by organizational rivalries, ethnic and religious animosities and ideological civil wars, the city’s tens of thousands of teachers were no more together in 1946 than they had been in 1916. In fact, far less.

Rebecca Simonson

Rebecca Simonson

As detailed earlier in this series, with “The Split” in 1935 there were two unions: The larger, Communist Party-dominated Teachers Union and the breakaway Teachers Guild, led by Henry Linville, Abraham Lefkowitz, Albert Smallheiser, Rebecca Simonson and George Counts.

What little strength the Guild did have was diluted when hundreds of its members left in a huff over the imposition of a single salary scale. Until 1947 regular high school teachers were paid an average of 25 percent more than their elementary school counterparts. This differential, as it was called, had long been justified on the grounds that only high school teachers were required to have a master’s degree and to pass special licensing exams.

Secretly, though, the differential had as much to do with the notion that teaching young children was easier work. Not surprisingly, what was a source of pride and distinction for secondary school teachers was a sore point to elementary school teachers.

Since the setup encouraged teachers to seek promotion to the high schools, many of the system’s best teachers were being drained away from the elementary schools. Looking to solve an acute elementary school teaching shortage that was only going to get worse as the baby boomers came along, the state Legislature put an end to the differential. Elementary school teachers were brought up to parity with a substantial wage hike while high school salaries remained relatively unchanged. The Guild was left in no-win position. As a longtime supporter of the principle of a single salary as a matter of basic equity, the Guild backed the move, knowing full well that its high school people might bolt.

And they did. Hundreds of incensed Guild teachers quit to join the High School Teachers Association (HSTA) — up till then little more than a letterhead organization.

Emboldened by their new strength and sensing that “quiet diplomacy” was getting them nowhere, the rank and file of the HSTA pushed the leadership to adopt more confrontational tactics. In the spring of 1950 a boycott of high school extra-curricular activities began that was to last more than a year. It was a dramatic success as teachers throughout the city system refused all after-school assignments. Sports, club activities, dances and even open school night were all shut down. As for the Guild, the fact that it played only a peripheral role in the boycott added to the general perception that it was not militant enough.

Nor did the Guild help itself with a “door policy” that made it seem as restrictive as a fancy private club. In those days getting into the Guild meant finding a sponsor and getting past a membership committee every bit as picky as a swanky Fifth Avenue coop board. Prospects were routinely grilled on everything from their position on the separation of church and state to how they felt about the United Nations.

Ebb tide for the Guild

Not that teachers were breaking down the doors to get in. Ben Kaplan joined the Teachers Union in 1936. It didn’t take long for him to figure out that the TU had more of a “political than a union orientation.” Still, when Kaplan drifted away he never thought of joining the Guild. “They were too dormant,” Kaplan told the UFT Oral History Project in 1986.

Its ranks thinning, the Guild had little clout, either with the Board of Education or with elected officials. “We were treated with a certain degree of derision and contempt by political leaders,” Rubin Maloff told the UFT Oral History Project.

The Guild’s assistant legislative rep, Maloff recalled a meeting with Mayor William O’Dwyer in 1950. “He was filing his nails and had his feet up on the desk. He hardly said hello. He said, ‘What can I do for you? Tell me in a minute or two.’”

No doubt the Guild’s cause wasn’t helped by the climate of the late 1940s and early 1950s, one of the most illiberal periods in modern American history. The Cold War was red hot. China had fallen to the communists in 1949. The following June North Korea invaded South Korea. A month later the Rosenbergs were arrested for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets.

At home, no matter where you turned, there was talk of “communist infiltration” and “domestic subversion.” From kitchen tables to congressional hearings to church pulpits, Hollywood and the State Department, unions and schools were all “on trial.” Even Americans for Democratic Action, explicitly founded to fight communism, was being called “an international conspiracy to socialize America.”

It didn’t matter that the Guild had left the Teachers Union in the mid ’30s over the threat of communist control. Nor did it matter that the Guild’s own Delegate Assembly had passed a resolution favoring the barring of communists from the classroom in 1950. All teachers were being smeared with the same red brush.

“The biggest problem facing the union was shaking its image as a red organization … members were still pinned with the image of the red schoolteacher,” Marjorie Murphy wrote of the AFT in “Blackboard Unions.” The same can be said for New York City teachers and the Teachers Guild — only in spades. Is it any wonder then that when a young Albert Shanker was approached to join the Teachers Guild he was assured that the Guild Bulletin, the monthly newspaper, would be mailed to his home “in an unmarked envelope.”

Not that Shanker needed coaxing. He’d come from a union family, his mother a member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. Even so, down deep he didn’t think the Guild would amount to much. “I never thought it would be a large mass organization,” he recalls. “I thought that if I stuck with it, probably in 20 or 30 years it would still have 2,400 members.”

Certainly nothing that happened at those early Guild meetings, held in the basement of a local church, foretold otherwise. “You’d go to a Guild meeting and listen to some very brilliant people expound on the state of the world,” says Shanker. “After three hours you’d leave edified with nothing done.”

George Altomare

George Altomare

“We were in awe,” George Altomare says, remembering his and Shanker’s impressions. “When you heard someone like Abe Lefkowitz debating, you had to respect them for their knowledge, their logic, their ability to speak. They exuded character.”

Coming over from the Teachers Union, Rubin Maloff remembers being struck by the “aristocratic” bearing of the veteran Guilders — a stark contrast from his days in the more “working class” Teachers Union. “I never heard a bit of profanity,” he says. “Well dressed and formal, you could sense the patrician in the Guild leadership.” To Roger Parente, of the rival High School Teachers Association, the Guild was all talk and little action. “We pictured them as a debating society rather than a group ready to take action,” Parente recalled in 1986.

Making haste slowly

“Now was never the time, it was always later. At that time we equated their feelings with fear.” But he hastened to add: “I think we can say in retrospect it wasn’t fear but caution: a willingness to move more slowly than some of us who were more hot-headed.”

Rose Schuyler, a Guild member since 1946, believes the Guild did what it could, given the tenor of the times. “The bulk of the teachers back then weren’t ready for anything. Remember, it was illegal for public employees to strike. Do you think those Irish Catholic teachers who were married to policemen were going to break the law? Really, it’s very easy to criticize the leadership as too timid, but it’s unfair.”

Fair or foul, as many saw it, the “old guard” leaders of the Guild carried caution to a fault and let opportunities for mass organizing and militant action slip through their hands. Instead of being “action-oriented” the Guild, in the words of Queens College scholar Arthur Salz, “relied heavily on quiet, behind-the-scenes, lobbying, a method based on close relationships with city and state officials.” In his 1967 Columbia Teachers College dissertation, Salz writes that decades of insider maneuvering as a legislative rep had made Abraham Lefkowitz a confirmed believer in the art of “quiet diplomacy.”

So much so that when thousands of teachers stormed the Albany legislature in the winter of 1947, Lefkowitz told them to go home. “Instead of waving clubs,” he said, “the teachers should rely upon the judgment of their experienced leaders.” In retrospect, who’s to say he was wrong. Hadn’t the Teachers Union shown that militant rhetoric and raising hell didn’t raise salaries a penny.

Besides, unless you were prepared to back your talk with a strike it was just empty saber rattling. If you were Rebecca Simonson, the president of the Teachers Guild in the 1940s, a strike would be suicidal. “We were a minority organization,” Simonson told the UFT Oral History Project. “Nobody in his right senses would call a strike without having a good majority of the membership.” Of course, as events would develop, the UFT had nowhere near even a sizeable minority when it won its first strike in 1960. As old school socialists, Simonson, Lefkowitz and many of the old guard had studied Marx’s theory of historical materialism and come away with the understanding that social transformation was not an act of will alone. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please,” wrote Marx after the failed revolution of 1848. “[T]hey do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”

To many of the young activists, all “the-time-isn’t-ripe” talk was anylysis-paralysis. “Our strategy was not based on any ideology,” Altomare says. “It was based on militant action for immediate concerns. Yes, there were many of us who wanted justice for the world. But that wasn’t our raison d’etre. We were ready for the revolution of teachers.”

“The [old guard] were not action-oriented people,” says Altomare. “They excelled at writing a beautiful criticism of the present pension plan or how the supervisory system rated teachers. They believed that someone is going to read your tract and they’re going to join. One by one they will join. “[They] were the elite, the intelligentsia of the teaching profession. They were fighters for justice, for salaries, for academic freedom. They believed in the labor movement. But they did not have a vision of a militant union of professionals that would use the techniques of strike, collective bargaining, mass demonstrations and so on. They never had that vision.”

But Dave Selden did.

An AFT organizer, Selden recalls walking into the Guild’s cramped and dingy fourth floor office on East 23rd Street one hot July morning in 1953. It was a lean operation: An executive secretary, a bookkeeper and a secretary were the entire paid staff.

Selden was a pro. He spent years on the road as the AFT’s “Eastern organizer” — everything east of Lincoln, Neb. — often living out of his car. Raised in Michigan, both of his parents had been teachers and he’d been a teacher himself. He’d put himself through school working on the automobile assembly lines.

From his years as the AFT’s traveling salesman, Selden was used to a fair amount of independence. For his new assignment, the daring, free-spirited 39-year-old would have to learn how to answer to authority, as well as acquire some “get-along, go-along” skills. One of the people whom Selden had to answer to as well as get along with was the Guild’s newly elected president, Charles Cogen. They made “an unlikely pair,” as Selden would later write in his book “The Teacher Rebellion.”

“Charlie was usually cautious to the point of timidity but courageous and stubborn on occasion,” writes Selden. “I often urged him to do things he did not want to do, and he frequently moderated my often abrasive proposals. Whether because of our differences or in spite of them, we made an effective combination.”

But not overnight. It took a couple of years of singlehandedly trying to sign up the city’s far-flung 45,000 teachers before Selden realized that organizing could only be done on a school-by-school basis. The plan was that the members in each chapter would function as their own little union: Electing a chair, holding weekly meetings and working to improve conditions at their school. And, in a novel twist, meetings and even voting would be open to nonmembers, too.

Selden credits the idea for the open-door policy to a young junior high school teacher named Ely Trachtenberg. Like Selden, Trachtenberg had worked on an automobile assembly plant and had been a member of the United Auto Workers. Only in his early 30s at the time, Trachtenberg was your classic “red-diaper baby.” Growing up in a culture of ultra left-wing politics — his father had been a mainstay of the militantly fierce Furriers Union — he combined a theoretical sophistication with a savvy understanding of practical union organizing.

That Trachtenberg came out of a junior high was no oddity. Selden had discovered that the junior highs were a breeding ground for militant “young turks.” As he liked to say: “Show me a junior high school teacher and I’ll show you a union member.”

It was at a junior high school in Astoria, Queens, that another group of Selden’s proteges were putting their own creative spin on their mentor’s ideas.

“Every Friday afternoon, practically without fail, we had an informal party at Al Shanker’s apartment, which was about 10 blocks away from JHS 126,” recalls Altomare. “I even remember the cocktails Al made: whiskey sours.”

“We were creating a chapter life,” says Altomare. “We realized that people could only take so much intellectual argument. After you got your nucleus — the people who joined because this was the ideologically correct or practical thing to do — you said, ‘Hey, join, everyone is there. It’s fun.’

“Sure, we wanted people to join for the right reason. But we wouldn’t refuse them if they felt left out of the whiskey sour parties. After a while people said, ‘Can I come?’ And I said, ‘Sure, but you have to join. Give me your $9.’” Astoria’s loyal “party” cadre didn’t stop with Friday mixers. They took over the school’s social committee that organized Christmas and end-of-term parties and just about every other school function.

Meanwhile, the Guild was making a name for itself. Slowly, its philosophy was changing. Actually there was less philosophy and more action devoted to the “immediate concerns of teachers.”

By the mid-1950s the Guild was proving itself adept at bread-and-butter services like pension counseling, grievance assistance and prep courses for license exams. The Guild produced handbooks dealing with pensions and grievances. Whenever there was an opportunity to increase its visibility and credibility, the Guild grabbed it. When a faculty meeting was scheduled to discuss pensions, Reuben Mitchell and Dave Wittes were called. They were there as teacher members of the pension board but they seldom missed a chance to put in a subtle, or not so subtle, plug for the Guild. Rubin Maloff found time to plug the union while on building assignment. “I had the largest chapter in the city at Morris HS,” he says. “I loved hall patrol. I walked [around] and spoke union to everybody.”

Balancing old timers and young Turks

Selden and his youngbloods were breathing new life into the Guild. But as Altomare argues, the old guard deserves some credit too. “You’ve got to give the oldtimers their due,” he says. “The young Turks were not in the majority. But they saw — to their credit — that we were not just baloney artists. We were there all the time and we were getting members.”

A member of the Guild’s executive board at 24, Altomare says “old radicals” Si Beagle and Dave Wittes welcomed the new militants with open arms — “They were bomb throwers at heart” — but it was Guild President Charles Cogen’s support that made the difference.

“Charlie was the bridge that spanned the generation gap,” Altomare says. “Charlie had a unique talent for finding common ground among seemingly irreconcilable positions. He had the respect of the old guard but wasn’t set in his ways. He was a democrat, small ‘d.’ He’d allow for any discussion, and if the majority voted, that was fine with him. He was a true believer in the democratic process.”

He was also an important symbol for the growing union. Shanker maintains: “We never could have achieved success unless we had both the old timers and the young Turks on board. The old timers represented the traditions. When you have a guy like Charlie who is a department chairman and an author of textbooks and a scholar, it represents to the older teachers that this is not a bunch of crazies. They are not going to burn the place down.”

The Guild was awakening, and so was much of American society. In many ways, the Guild’s young militants were the other side of the 50s split personality. By mid-decade the country’s gray-flanneled conformity was beginning to come apart at the seams.

In his book, “The Dark Ages: Life in the United States 1945-1960,” Marty Jezer argues that one scene in the 1954 film “The Wild One” encapsulates these stirrings. When a sharp-tongued waitress asks motorcycle jacket-clad Marlon Brando, “What are you rebelling against?” the gum-chewing rebel answers “Whattaya got?”

From Lenny Bruce’s and Mort Sahl’s comic riffs to Jack Kerouac’s hipster wanderlust to Bill Haley’s “rock” anthem, change was in the wind.

Is it pure coincidence that while Shanker and company were refusing to go along with the program, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus that December day in 1955, touching off a successful year-long boycott?

Is it far-fetched to think that Guild militants may have felt a charge of electricity when Bayard Rustin was organizing marches and strikes to integrate our capital city’s school system in 1958 and ’59? Or when young black men and women sat in at an all-white Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., in February 1960?

It wasn’t happenstance, says George Altomare, who along with scores of other Guild members, young and old, carried picket signs outside a Harlem Woolworth to dramatize their support for sit-ins all over the South.

“The civil rights movement helped plow our earth,” says Altomare. “For many of us it was a training ground. After all, a picket is a picket. The experience of picketing and having cops wade into you with their horses was for many their first taste of action. As far as I’m concerned, our own organizing efforts gained maybe five, even 10 years because of the civil rights movement.”

It’s not surprising, then, that with resistance and rebellion swirling throughout the country, New York teachers stayed out from work for the first time in the city’s history. Fed up with years of rotten conditions and even worse pay — $12.50 a night for four hours — close to 1,000 evening high school teachers all handed in their resignations in January 1959. In resigning they’d hoped to avoid the stiff penalties for striking in defiance of New York’s Condon-Wadlin Act. Enacted in 1947, the law permitted the automatic firing of striking public employees. Even for workers not let go there would be no salary increases for three years and a four-year probationary period.

Resigned or striking, the net effect was the same — night schools were shut down. The job action was a classic wildcat strike, unauthorized by any union. But since most of the teachers also taught in the day high schools, the action won the backing of the High School Teachers Association, especially two of its officers, Samuel Hochberg and Roger Parente — himself an evening school teacher.

Fearing that a successful strike would strengthen the rival HSTA, many in the Guild wanted to do nothing. Ely Trachtenberg showed them where they were wrong. He convinced the Guild’s executive board “that it did not matter which organization sponsored a particular militant action,” Selden recalled in his book. “What mattered was that the workers, in this case the teachers, advance. It was the struggle that was important, not the organization.”

The Guild threw its whole support to the strikers, Guild members walking side by side on the picket line with high school militants. Among the nightly picketers were Selden, Shanker, Trachtenberg and Altomare. In fact, both Shanker and Selden made stops at the various schools in their station wagons, christened “Guild Coffeemobiles,” passing out coffee and donuts. When a rally was called at City Hall, it was the Guild’s telephone network, mimeo machine and tight-knit organizational structure which turned out the crowd.

After a couple of weeks the Board of Education threw in the towel. Wages were raised to $24 a night.

To say that the rest of the system’s 45,000-plus teachers took notice is putting it mildly. “You could feel a charge of electricity in the schools for weeks afterward,” says Altomare. “And it wasn’t just among the militants. From reports we were getting, the strike and the raise were the talk of teachers’ rooms around the city.”

Hoping to capture lightning in a bottle, Selden came up with the idea for a one-day work stoppage a month later in April. It was timed to coincide with the Board of Estimate’s deliberations on the education budget, but many of the Guild’s old guard leaders were worried about Condon-Wadlin repercussions. Some even fretted that the union might be getting in over its head, especially if the walkout escalated into a longer strike.

Selden’s blustery persistence, coupled with the board’s last-minute reneging on a promise of a raise, carried the day. But the old guard’s caution was not alarmist. Selden hadn’t let on but, as he later wrote in his memoirs, he too was concerned that a small turnout would tarnish the Guild’s organizing efforts.

To make matters worse, instead of returning the Guild’s favor and backing the walkout, the High School Teachers Association urged its members to cross picket lines. The HSTA turnabout angered Hochberg and Parente, who had gotten to know and like Selden, Shanker and Altomare while walking the picket line together. Parente, especially, had been impressed with their militance and expressions of solidarity. He’d come away hoping the two organizations could work out their differences.

On the night before the scheduled “demonstration work stoppage” Cogen appeared on the evening news urging teachers “to stick to their guns.”

What Cogen didn’t know was that Selden was sitting in the office of the Superintendent of Schools, John J. Theobald, watching him with a very perturbed Harry Van Arsdale, president of New York’s Central Labor Council. Van Arsdale, who was wired to the Democratic leadership and Mayor Robert Wagner, had been trying to get hold of Cogen for hours to strike a last-minute deal. He hadn’t been able to get through because both of the phones at Guild headquarters were busy with last-minute preparations. “Two phones for 40,000 workers,” Selden recalls Van Arsdale muttering.

Watching Cogen spur on his troops, an exasperated Van Arsdale picked up the phone and called the TV station, asking to speak with the Guild president. “I know he’s there because I can see him. This is an emergency. Tell him to come to Superintendent Theobald’s office right away.”

Cogen, still on camera, was handed a message. The reporter asked if he would be willing to share the message. Cogen did. “Dr. Theobald would like to see you in his office as soon as possible. Take a taxi.” Cogen excused himself and walked off camera.

A half hour later Cogen joined the expectant trio. The money was found for the raise. The walkout was called off. And Cogen, writes Selden, was “on his way to becoming a folk hero.”

Originally published in New York Teacher, May 13th, 1996