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 5

by Jack Schierenbeck

Nat Levine will never forget the time his principal made the mistake of tangling with a young union organizer.

It was in the late 1950s. The principal of PS 108 in Queens was giving the Teachers Guild a hard time — petty stuff like forbidding the use of the school’s bulletin board for union matters and calling a faculty conference to deliver a three-paged, single-spaced diatribe accusing the Guild of trying to “destroy the fabric of the school.” But the principal got his comeuppance the day he invited himself to a chapter meeting to sit in on a talk given by a Guild staffer. True to form, the principal made a comment about the union to which the guest speaker took strong exception.

“He let [the principal] have it good,” recalls Levine, still savoring the moment. “In no time he shot him full of holes and laid him out in clover. He was very sharp and a real firebrand.”

He was Albert Shanker.

To Dave Selden, the AFT’s veteran organizer assigned to help get the Guild up and running, young militants like Shanker were a Godsend. It came as no surprise, then, that when a full-time staff position opened up in the summer of 1959 he would tap one of them.

But Shanker wasn’t Selden’s first choice. Instead, he approached Eli Trachtenberg, considered the Guild’s brightest rising star. But because the union job meant resigning from the school system, Trachtenberg declined. Only then did Selden turn to Shanker.

Ironically, Trachtenberg died suddenly on Shanker’s first day on the job.

Robert Wagner

New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner

Meanwhile, a pro-labor mayor, Robert F. Wagner Jr., sat in City Hall. His father, the long-time senator from New York, had authored the landmark 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Hailed as labor’s Magna Carta, the Wagner Act, gave workers the “right to self organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” Immediately after its passage, workers and the labor movement took the Wagner Act to heart. In union halls, organizing rallies and picket lines, signs appeared saying: “The President [Roosevelt] wants you to join the union.”

More than two decades later, Mayor Wagner showed signs of wanting to finish his father’s work. The 1935 Wagner Act had not been the Magna Carta for all workers. It excluded public employees.

Coming into office in 1954, Wagner inherited a municipal government in which “city workers were way below the salaries of workers in private industry,” he told the UFT Oral History Project in 1986.

Times a changin’

Creating his own “Little Wagner Act,” the mayor issued executive orders in 1954 and 1958 which set up grievance machinery, granted city workers the right to bargain collectively and allowed a voluntary dues checkoff. By July of 1959, DC 37 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees began bargaining with the city.

The plight of teachers, however, remained unchanged. Neither an executive nor mayoral agency, the Board of Education was not bound by Wagner’s authority. Still, Wagner’s words and actions indicated the city’s political climate was changing and that the mayor might be an ally.

There were other developments, within the ranks of teachers themselves, which gave hope that change was in the air. For some in the Guild and the rival High School Teachers Association, the experience of marching side-by-side, picketing the evening high schools on those cold winter nights in early 1959 had been the ice breaker — warming to the point where there was talk of making the collaboration permanent.

Still, it wouldn’t be easy. Standing in the way of unity was the bitterly divisive dispute over the single salary question. More than a decade after losing their differential, high school teachers were still fuming because they no longer earned more than teachers of lower grades.

They had a point. High school teachers were required to earn master’s degrees, take very difficult qualifying exams and wait years for an appointment to what they’d been told were better-paying jobs, only to have the rules changed in 1947. But more than differences over the single salary separated the HSTA and the Guild.

Perhaps no one person embodied these differences more than Roger Parente, the HSTA’s secretary and one of the prime movers behind the evening high school strike An English teacher at Grace Dodge Vocational HS, Parente was straight out of John Osborn’s post-war play “Look Back in Anger,” the archetypical angry young man, impatient and itching for a fight. To Parente, the Guild’s old-timers represented the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz — all roar and no fight. Like many high school teachers, Parente had been reduced to taking odd jobs after school and on weekends to support his family. Believing power concedes nothing without struggle, he wouldn’t hesitate to use a strike, he said, “to club the public to get their attention. Then we’ll change the dialogue.”

Though his father had been a union plasterer, Parente wasn’t after the Holy Grail of collective bargaining. Nor was he driven by left-wing ideology, socialist or otherwise. While Teachers Guild people wore their working-class credentials with pride, Parente and many of his fellow HSTA colleagues thought of themselves as middle-class professionals, albeit with one big difference.

To many the word “professional” meant an above-it-all disinterest in the pursuit of money, the rejection of any form of public protest, union membership, and certainly strikes. But not for Parente. To him the word was a rallying cry.

Yet despite the differences, Parente favored unity with the Teachers Guild if that meant action. He saw no other way to grow and believed that over time he and the HSTA could change the Guild. In fact, he made no secret of his ambition of one day becoming president of a united organization.

Sensing that the old guard leadership of both organizations would represent a roadblock, George Altomare of the Guild and John Bailey of the HSTA hatched a plan for secret talks of merger.

As it turned out, the sticking point of a single salary vs. the former high school differential wasn’t so sticky after all. The ad-hoc group developed a compromise plan for a “promotional increment.” They agreed that high school teachers, and other teachers with a master’s or its equivalent, should be entitled to more money.

Time came to go public and sell it to their respective organizations. But the Secondary School Teachers Association’s executive board (the HSTA had in the meantime renamed itself in a vain bid to attract militant junior high people) spurned their plan.

When word of the secret talks came to light, Guild President Cogen was furious. Both Altomare and Selden were hauled onto the carpet. There was even talk of firing the wily AFT organizer. In the end, while Selden’s lone-ranger stunts were wearing thin on Cogen and some of the old guard, his undeniable organizing genius saved his hide.

But Selden, who reveled in court intrigue, wouldn’t give up. He and Altomare created a front group called the Committee for Action Through Unity (CATU), which met at Altomare’s house to iron out a merger plan. The plan got a boost when Bailey and Altomare took out an ad on the “School Page” of the old World, Telegram & Sun calling on high school teachers interested in merger to send in their membership applications along with $5.

More than 1,500 applications poured in.

A new constitution was drawn that shared power with the newcomers, and Hochberg even became “deputy president”. When the merger plan was complete, it was readied for a vote by the Guild’s Delegate Assembly.

Some in the Guild got cold feet at the last minute. Shanker recalls Rebecca Simonson, the Guild’s longtime president, asking, “Who are these people?”

Shanker recalls: “Some of the oldtimers got up and said, ‘We oppose this merger. We know who we are and we know where we stand on civil rights and on the trade union movement. Who are these 1,500 people? Will they change the fundamental nature of this organization.’”

The UFT is born

In reality, more than principles were at stake. Many in the Guild feared it was only a matter of time before the CATU would take over the union. As it turned out they weren’t all that wrong. At a Delegate Assembly meeting in the old Astor Hotel, the merger vote carried.

The Guild was no more. The United Federation of Teachers, Local 2 AFT, AFL-CIO, was born on March 16, 1960.

With unity came action. In short order, the new UFT presented six demands to the Board of Education. While collective bargaining topped the list, the remaining points were craftily designed to appeal to a cross section of members. The elementary teachers would be drawn to the call for duty-free lunches, the full-time substitutes to 10 days paid sick leave, the high school people to the $1,000 promotional increment and everyone would like the idea of a substantial raise. Last, but not least, the union treasury would get a much-needed infusion of funds from the guaranteed dues checkoff.

The board, however, ignored the demands. So the UFT set May 16, 1960, Teacher Recognition day, for a strike.

As he had the year before during the threatened one-day work stoppage, Harry Van Arsdale stepped in. The Central Labor Council president arranged a meeting with School’s Superintendent John J. Theobald just one day before the strike.

The UFT negotiating team included Cogen, Jules Kolodny and Selden, as well as newcomers Hochberg and Parente. The board made vaguely positive assurances about an election in which teachers could choose a collective bargaining agent, but it refused to be pinned down to a date. As for the other demands, the board agreed to a modest raise and sick leave for subs. However, it wouldn’t budge on duty-free lunch, dues checkoff and the all-important promotional increment. Worse still, it wouldn’t put its offers in writing.

Disheartened, the UFT group retreated to another room with Van Arsdale to discuss the board’s offer. “We discussed compromise formulas for advancing the negotiations,” Selden recounts in his book “Teacher Rebellion.”

The labor council president became increasingly impatient. Finally, Van Arsdale said, “Look! We aren’t getting anywhere. When I get to this point in my negotiations with employers I say, ‘Gentlemen! (slamming his palm down on the table for emphasis) ‘Your shops will not open tomorrow.’ [Van Arsdale] stopped and glared at the committee before continuing. ‘If you can say that and make it stick, all right. You have my support. But if you don’t have the troops, we might as well stop wasting time. You’ve got all you’re going to get.’”

Cogen called for a vote. It was 4 to 1 to accept the board’s offer. The one nay was Parente’s.

Looking to turn lemons into lemonade, the leaders immediately attempted to put an upbeat spin on the agreement, characterizing the board’s vague assurances to “strongly consider” collective bargaining as a promise. In fact, all six of the original demands became “promises” that became “broken promises.”

Selden came away from the May agreement predicting, quite rightly, the board would do nothing. The summer passed without headway. The board dragged its feet, referring the issue of collective bargaining to the city attorney for study. Even the sick leave provision looked stillborn as Theobald expressed second thoughts.

And there was still more evidence of bad faith. In June, the World Telegram & Sun reported on its “School Page” that the board was maneuvering behind-the-scenes to undermine the UFT. A high-ranking board official had arranged for members of rival teacher organizations, including the Elementary School Teachers Association, to be excused with pay to confer with the National Education Association in Washington.

That October the banner headline on the UFT’s newspaper, The United Teacher, warned: “We Will Not Be Double-Crossed.” It announced that the Executive Board and Delegate Assembly had voted to set a strike date of Nov. 7, 1960 — the day before election day.

The date, says Shanker, was no accident. “The mayor was a nationally prominent Democrat, and we felt he’d broken his word to us, and therefore we were going to do something which he would find quite uncomfortable.”

Besides, they figured that the Democratic political machine would be reluctant to come down hard on strikers just before a presidential vote many were predicting would go down to the wire.

Labor leaders frown

The city’s labor chiefs weren’t pleased. With few exceptions, the labor establishment, dominated by the politically conservative building trades unions of the old AFL, had settled into a comfortable give and take. Even the fiery Mike Quill boasted that his Transport Workers Union had not struck the city in over 30 years.

At election time these labor leaders wielded a lot of power, enough to make or break any would-be Democratic officeholder. They didn’t take kindly to a group of upstart teachers embarrassing a friendly mayor, or worse, costing John Kennedy the election.

By mid-October the AFL-CIO’s mahatma himself, George Meany, came to New York to talk some sense into the UFT. At the Commodore Hotel, Cogen, Hochberg, Parente and Selden, representing the UFT, joined Meany who had brought along Carl Megel, president of the AFT, and Harry Van Arsdale for the powwow. Selden captured the scene in his book:

“How many members you got?” Meany inquires.

“Five thousand,” I lie.

“How many teachers are there?”

“Forty thousand.” There were really forty-five thousand, but I shaded the number downward to improve our odds.

“How many will strike?”

“At least 10 thousand, maybe 20,” I say.

Meany grunts contemptuously. “They won’t pay dues to you but they’ll strike for you. Is that it?”

Hochberg and Parente watch me for any sign of wavering. I stick to my guns. “That’s about it.”

Selden went on to describe more awkward exchanges that left Meany unimpressed. Finally, after taking a long draw on his cigar, an exasperated Meany blurted out: “For heaven’s sake, Harry. Can’t somebody blow the whistle on these guys?”

It was the last official word from organized labor until the day before the strike. If the teachers were going to win, it looked as if they would have to do it on their own. George Altomare was ready. Working day and night since the beginning of the summer recess, the union’s strike chairman had set up an elaborate “network.” Leaving nothing to chance, Altomare walked around with his own custom-made Delaney cards that in seconds could reveal all about a school and its members. “It was the closest thing to a computer in those days,” he recalls.

With a flick of the wrist he knew everything from where the entrances and exits were to where the nearest candy store with a phone was located. Altomare could look up who were the friendlies, the fence-sitters and the likely strike-breakers.

Based on questionnaires and telephone polls, Altomare could tell who would volunteer to picket another school but not their own. Many feared reprisal by the principal or felt uneasy about their students seeing them picket.

Since Altomare knew where a single picketer could do the trick and where even a dozen couldn’t, he was able to create an “optimum picket plan,” thereby getting the most impact per pavement pounder.

Most teachers had never walked a picket line. A Bronx chapter leader came up with the novel way of breaking them in gradually. Three weeks before the November strike deadline, teachers from JHS 120 and 139, began reporting early for school and walking a line until the bell sounded. The practice soon spread as teachers from close to 300 schools took up what became known as “honor picketing.” Not only was it good practice, but it generated great publicity as the evening papers ran photos.

In the weeks leading up to the strike, the tiny UFT headquarters on East 23rd Street was jammed with volunteers manning phones, cranking mimeo machines and painting signs. “It was all thunder and lightning, do or die,” Jeannette DiLorenzo recalls of the exhilarating pre-strike atmosphere. “Even the old were young again.”

But the excitement was mixed with foreboding. Many teachers were rightfully nervous that taking part could cost them jobs and pensions — after all, that’s what state law demanded at the time. So, to bolster morale and ease fears, scores of volunteers made phone calls to members’ homes. They had answers at the ready. “Do you really think Mayor Wagner, whose own father was responsible for the Wagner Act, is going to crush a strike by teachers?” And, “There’s a teacher shortage. Do you think the board could replace every striking teacher?”

“Of course, we didn’t know for sure,” Altomare says. “But that’s what we said,” hastening to ask with a laugh if the statute of limitations has run out.

Those weren’t the only fast ones that Altomare, a graduate of Selden’s whatever-it-takes school, pulled. When the Guild oldtimers challenged him to produce 3,000 members at the October strike authorization meeting, Altomare went to St. Nicholas Arena and slipped the janitor $50 to remove 500 folding chairs and spread out the remaining 2,500. “That was a week’s pay back then, but it was the best $50 I ever spent.”

The union was not the lone player in mind games. Just days before the strike, teachers were forced to sit through a radio address by Schools Superintendent Theobald, who again said he would not “negotiate with members of my own family” and vowed he would fire any teacher who violated the Condon-Wadlin Law by going on strike. The board even forbade teachers to discuss the proposed strike at school meetings. Undeterred, they met on street corners, churches and synagogues — in one case even a funeral parlor.

Though some principals privately assured teachers they’d provide cover by marking them present if the strike went kaput, the great majority left no doubt as to their opposition.

As the days dwindled, not only were the rank-and-file worried, but some in the leadership had their doubts, too. Shanker remembers a meeting at which sentiment was running in favor of calling off the strike. With the city’s labor movement showing no signs of coming around, Theobald vowing to fire strikers and uncertainty over how many teachers would walk, many of the oldtimers thought it looked like a suicide mission.

Shanker held his tongue. Being on the AFT payroll, his job was not in jeopardy. “I looked around the room and saw Charlie Cogen and Si Beagle with 30 years in the system and others with so much time in. But there was just too much at stake to stay quiet.

“Look, we have no choice but to go out,” he recalls saying. “With Condon-Wadlin, a strike is going to be illegal next year and every year. If we’re going to allow that to stop us, then forget about the union. We’re finished.

“You’ve been urging people to join the labor movement and now you’re going to be telling them the labor movement isn’t going to support us and that’s why we’re not going out.

“There’s no argument that anybody can come up with to call this strike off that allows us to continue to have a union or any chance of building one. I admit this is risky. Maybe there will be a miracle and something will happen. But the other way is a certain death warrant.”

With that, old firebrands Beagle and Dave Wittes spoke up in support and not another word was heard about calling off the strike.

There was no turning back. As an editorial in the last edition of The United Teacher before the strike proclaimed, “This is a strike for our dignity, for our self respect. We will smash once and for all the concept that teachers are educated fools.”

On the morning of Nov. 7, Mel Aaronson was up early to open UFT headquarters. He was no sooner in the door than the phone rang. It was the Chicago Tribune calling to find out about the state of New York City schools. Without missing a beat, Aaronson told the reporter that he was “proud to report that at this moment every one of New York’s public schools is shut down.”

It was 6 a.m.

At schools across the city, picketers were gathering in the cold, early morning dark. They’d been told to get there before other teachers tried to sneak in. Rival teacher organizations, such as the Secondary School Teachers Association, had come out against the strike and were instructing members to cross the picket lines. One, the Elementary School Teachers Association, went as far as calling for the punishment of striking teachers.

The UFT strikers had hoped to shame teachers belonging to the remnants of the original Teachers Union, but to no avail. Still tightly disciplined, its members crossed grim-faced past the picketers.

At JHS 142 in Red Hook, the scene was anything but grim. It was more like a block party as parents handed out refreshments and longshoremen from the nearby piers and merchant seamen from the Seafarers Union joined the 80 teachers on the picket line — a tribute to a year’s worth of organizing by the the husband-and-wife duo of Jeannette and John DiLorenzo.

There was no rousing start for Nat Levine’s day, though. He arrived at his school that morning expecting to walk a picket line. But by a vote of 14 to 12 the UFT’s chapter at PS 100 in Queens decided to report for work. Levine wasn’t happy, but went along with the majority — for a while. By lunchtime, however, the thought of working while others were striking was eating at him.

“I just I couldn’t live with it,” he said. After leaving a note on his blackboard saying “to thine own self be true,” Levine told the principal he was leaving. “He asked me if I was sick and I told him I’m staying out because I’m staying out.”

‘You gotta do what you gotta do’

When Levine got home he took a tranquilizer for the first and last time in his life. “I knew that my job was on the line. If the union failed I wouldn’t have a job there or anywhere in teaching. But for the first time in my life I realized you gotta do what you gotta do.”

To Ray Frankel there was never a question. As the daughter of lifelong ILGWU activists, the strike was a constant in her life. “In my milieu you were either planning a strike, on strike or reminiscing about one.”

Not everyone was so ardent. At Frankel’s school, PS 165 on the upper West Side, some teachers were actually driven to tears as they looked out the window and saw their colleagues picketing on the street below. “I told them to stop crying and come out,” remembers Frankel, one of only five teachers on the line that day.

It was even lonelier for Lou Carrubba, the only teacher at Stuyvesant HS to walk a picket line — even the school’s chapter leader crossed. Carrubba can still recall his colleagues’ words. “Some shouted encouragement and said they were sorry for going in, but they were just too afraid to lose their jobs. Others called me a “disgrace to the profession and worse.” Ironically, Carruba’s only visible support came from an unlikely source, the school’s football team which talked many students into staying out of school that day.

Not surprisingly, reports coming in from the “network” showed that the strike was taking its greatest toll in the junior highs, the Guild’s old stronghold, and in the high schools where the CATU rebels dominated. Also no surprise was the news that the strike was a virtual bust in the elementary schools, a fact Jeannette DiLorenzo learned all too well when dispatched to check out some 30 schools in south Brooklyn.

“It was a terrible feeling,” recalls DiLorenzo. “It was pitiful passing by all the elementary schools and not a soul coming out.”

DiLorenzo would get more bad news when she returned to her own junior high in Red Hook. The morning’s festive atmosphere had turned funereal as word of the superintendent’s firing of all strikers sent half her pickets scurrying back to their classrooms.

More bad news came when it was learned that the powerful Central Labor Council head Van Arsdale came out in the press calling the strike “extremely regrettable.”

Van Arsdale, who the night before had tried to broker a last-minute deal to avert the strike, called Selden a few hours into the strike. He’d been driving around and hadn’t seen any pickets. “Well, how many do you have out?” he asked Selden. True to form, Selden declared the strike a success. To which Van Arsdale replied, “Looks pretty thin to me,” and hung up.

Later that afternoon, Selden got another call, this time from the legendary president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, David Dubinsky.

“Listen,” he said, “vill you take mediation? I vant to meet with you.”

Later that night at Dubinsky’s apartment, the aging labor statesman spelled out the deal. Call off the strike and the mayor will appoint a “fact-finding” committee consisting of Dubinsky, Van Arsdale and Jacob Potofsky, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union.

Of course, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that, given the committee’s makeup, the deal was a rigged jury. Collective bargaining was all but assured.

“I thought it was the best deal we could get given the weak hand we were dealt,” Shanker recalls thinking. A lot of members of the executive board felt it wasn’t enough. The former HSTA people, notably Parente, were miffed that no action had been taken on the high school differential — their reason for merging in the first place. Still, after a couple of hours of emotional debate, the plan was approved. Getting it by the Delegate Assembly proved a tougher sell. There’s an adage in labor circles that the second toughest thing a labor leader has to do is convince the membership to go out on strike. The hardest is getting strikers to go back.

Cries of “sellout” filled the room as Cogen and the leadership were pummeled for caving in to the mayor, the board and the “traitors” in the labor movement. But in the end, they too went along. The city and the Board of Ed had gotten got themselves a deal. The strike was over.

All told, some 5,600 teachers, secretaries, guidance counselors and social workers struck that day, with another 2,000 calling in sick. The Great Strike of Nov. 7, 1960, was neither a mass uprising nor a total victory. The fact is the city’s labor movement saved the UFT’s hide. But it was by no means total surrender. The UFT would live to fight another day. And next time it would be stronger.

Looking back on those days the older but wiser veterans shake their heads in disbelief wondering how a tiny group could have pulled off so daring a caper. “It didn’t seem as outrageous then as it now seems,” says Shanker, laughing. “We had more chutzpah than brains,” offers Altomare. “But we had no choice. The strategy of the oldtimers in the Guild of waiting to grow before acting wasn’t working. We knew that we had to act in order to grow.”

Stephen Cole’s book “The Unionization of Teachers” quotes another veteran of the struggle, “It was a kind of kamikaze thing which worked.”

Originally published in New York Teacher, June 24th, 1996