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Finding common cause: The early years

A Depression-era protest by members of the Teachers Union, an early UFT precursor.

A Depression-era protest by members of the Teachers Union, an early UFT precursor.

Cogen addresses a rally

Teachers Guild President and later first UFT President Charles Cogen addresses a rally in lower Manhattan in 1952.

by Susan Amlung

The irony is stunning. As the UFT prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the Department of Education has announced its plans to close the school where the first stirrings of teacher unionism began here almost a century ago.

Henry Linville was a biology teacher at Jamaica HS in Queens. In 1912, believing that teachers needed a voice in their profession, he began publishing a journal, The American Teacher. He and his colleagues hoped they could help lift the heavy yoke of dictatorial principals and a stultifying bureaucracy from the necks of students and teachers alike. Before long, however, they realized that a magazine alone could not effect the social and educational changes they believed were needed.

“Teachers will never get the right to ‘a voice and a vote’ in the work for which they are especially trained until a considerable number of them demand it themselves,” they wrote.

Organizing was the answer, and so a new organization aimed at raising the “independence and dignity” of teachers was born. There were more than 60 teacher groups in New York City at the time, but the Teachers League soon distinguished itself, helping to found the AFT and joining the AFL.

Sandra Feldman and mayor David Dinkins announce the October 1993 contract agreement

UFT President Sandra Feldman and mayor David Dinkins announce the October 1993 contract agreement that finally achieved "prep period parity" for elementary school teachers.

Still, it would be more than 40 years until city teachers coalesced into a unified force capable of furthering not only their own interests but also the interests of the children they struggled to help raise from poverty. (Among the League’s first demands: nutritious, low-cost school lunches.)

Why so long? Through the following decades of labor unrest, of unemployment and Depression, social awakening and a burgeoning union movement, what kept New York’s teachers so oppressed and underpaid? (As late as 1955, The New York Times asked why anyone would take a teaching job at $66 a week when washing cars paid $72.35.) Through the 1950s, the city union never managed to attract more than 10 percent of the teaching staff.

The answer is multi-faceted. Elected officials saw public sector unions as threatening governmental authority; educators saw unions as “unprofessional”; and the public was appalled by the notion that teachers — regarded as next only to missionaries in their devotion — would be concerned about money. (John Dewey, the noted philosopher and education reformer— and Teachers League founder — responded to this criticism, “I never had that contempt for the economic aspect of teaching…I find that teachers have to pay their grocery bills and house rent just the same as everybody else.”)

Even teachers themselves were often uncomfortable with the union label, and many were afraid of reprisals. These attitudes, especially among the women who dominated the elementary school staffs, greatly inhibited the growth of the union for many years.

But even more important were the divisions and dissension among the members themselves. City teachers were separated by tradition and bias into myriad, often competitive, associations according to gender and geography, religion and ethnicity, school level and subject. They fought, often publicly, over the distribution of funds for salaries and other scarce resources. Though all suffered under the same deplorable conditions, they could not agree on a common agenda, making it easy for the city to ignore them.

Finally, a deep ideological and generational split brought growth to a halt between the World Wars. Rancorous political and tactical debates between the “old guard” progressives and a younger group of communist sympathizers dominated the business of the renamed Teachers Union. In 1935, convinced that the radicals were directly linked to Moscow, a group aligned with the original founders walked out to form a new organization, the Teachers Guild.

But the harm had been done and teacher unionism suffered from a “red” taint through the height of the communist scare and loyalty oath requirements for government workers. Besides, teachers wanted attention to practical problems, not political infighting, from their union.

It would take yet another split — this one along divisional lines — and a new generation of unionists to unify the city’s teachers.

Rivalry between elementary and high school teachers had been longstanding. High school teachers, with more men in their ranks than K-6 teachers, had more advanced academic credentials, earned more, had built-in preparation and lunch time, and generally enjoyed a higher social status.

Then, in 1947, the state Legislature ended the 25 percent high school pay differential. When the Guild, in the interest of equity, did not object, hundreds of high school teachers defected to the High School Teachers Association (HSTA) — until then a small rival organization.

Reconciliation would not be achieved for more than ten years. Meanwhile, the Guild, suffering from an image of timidity and inaction, had to court new blood. School by school, with the help of a brilliant AFT organizer, Dave Selden, and the support of a new president, Charles Cogen, the Guild built an effective, democratic union infrastructure and recruited more activist leaders like Al Shanker, Ely Trachtenburg and George Altomare.

And when, in 1959, the Guild put its new organizational structure behind a wildcat strike by evening high school teachers, it gained new respect. That’s when some HSTA and Guild leaders began to talk seriously about a merger.

In secret talks, Altomare, joined by Selden and Shanker and a few HSTA leaders, forged a compromise position on the single salary schedule that had separated them 12 years before. Instead of differentiating on the basis of school level, they proposed equal pay for equal credentials. A “promotional differential” would be given to those with master’s degrees or the equivalent, which at the time was mostly high school teachers but others were not excluded.

(Differentials based on academic credits continue to be part of the UFT/DOE salary schedule to this day, and duty-free lunch periods for all teachers were secured in the UFT’s first contract in 1962. But it was not until 1993 that the UFT won daily preparation time for all elementary school teachers.)

Having repaired this old wound, the group proposed a merger plan and constitution, which were adopted by the Guild’s Delegate Assembly. On March 16, 1960, with Cogen as president, the UFT was born.

Originally published in New York Teacher, January 11th, 2010