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Shanker, Albert ("Al")

SHANKER, Albert ("Al")

(b. 14 September 1928 in New York City; d. 22 February 1997 in New York City), educator, labor union organizer, labor leader, and civil rights activist, whose leadership of New York City's public school teachers in the 1960s gained collective bargaining rights for them and national recognition for himself.

Shanker was born to Russian immigrant parents on Manhattan's Lower East Side. His father, Morris, studied to be a rabbi and worked as a union newspaper deliveryman, and his mother, Mamie (Burko) Shanker, was a garment worker. Both parents, Orthodox Jews who spoke only Yiddish, were staunch Roosevelt Democrats and ardent trade unionists.

When Shanker was a toddler, the family moved to Ravenswood, Queens. Shanker, the only Jewish boy in this Irish and Italian neighborhood, was constantly beaten up by local bullies. A prisoner in his own house, he listened to the radio and collected stamps.

The gangly, six feet, three inches tall youngster was in constant competition with his younger sister, Pearl, a star student. In 1944 he passed the entrance exam for Stuyvesant High School, an intensely competitive school in Manhattan, where he flourished, heading the school's debating team. He graduated in the top fifth of his class.

Shanker enrolled in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, where he encountered rampant anti-Semitism. He was not allowed to live on campus and was forced to live on a farm miles outside of town. In college, he joined the recently formed Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and participated in local civil rights demonstrations. Surprised by the racism and anti-Semitism he encountered at Urbana, Shanker found some acceptance in left-wing circles. He joined the Young People's Socialist League and became chair of the campus democratic Socialist Study Group.

In 1949 Shanker graduated cum laude with a B.A. degree in philosophy. He returned to New York to attend Columbia University's graduate school of philosophy. There he earned an M.A. and enrolled in the doctoral program, intending to become a college professor. While at Columbia, Shanker married his college sweetheart, Pearl Sabath, in 1949. The couple had one son, Carl Eugene, whom they named after the socialists Karl Marx and Eugene V. Debs.

To earn money to complete his doctoral dissertation, Shanker became a per diem substitute, teaching sixth-grade mathematics at Public School (PS) 179 in East Harlem in 1952. He detested this job, which left no time for even a lunch break. Equally annoying was the near-absolute power of the principal. The following year, Shanker moved into a regular substitute-teaching job at Junior High School (JHS) 126 in Long Island City, Queens. He joined Local 2 of the New York Teachers Guild, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

In 1959, at age thirty-one, Shanker quit his job as mathematics teacher at Manhattan's JHS 88 in East Harlem to become a full-time organizer for the Teacher's Guild, which in March 1960 merged with the High School Teachers Association to become the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Shanker visited more than 700 schools, preaching the gospel of teacher unity, but he was greeted with apathy and anti-union sentiments from teachers and politicians alike. He later related a conversation he had in 1960 with Robert F. Wagner, New York's mayor at the time: "I asked … why it was that … [there was no money for teacher salaries] yet when a hurricane came, he found millions of dollars. He said that was a disaster.… From that day we decided to become a disaster."

On 7 November 1960, 5,600 members of the UFT conducted a one-day strike, the nation's first teachers' strike, to demand collective bargaining rights. They won even though the strike violated current law. Moreover, only one in ten teachers participated, and striking teachers could have been fired for their illegal action.

After the strike, the UFT began to grow. Shanker had divorced his first wife, and on 18 March 1960, when New York City teachers chose the UFT as their collective bargaining agent, Shanker married Edith (Eadie) Gerber, a teacher he met while organizing the UFT. They had four children. In 1962 Shanker was elected UFT secretary, and in 1964 he succeeded Charles Cogen to become the union's second president. He served in this capacity until 1986.

In 1967 Shanker was jailed for fifteen days for organizing a three-week strike over smaller classes and the demand for more money for education. Shanker gained national prominence in 1968 when he was jailed for fifteen days after a conflict erupted in a Brooklyn district called Ocean Hill–Brownsville. A month-long strike, the longest teachers' strike in U.S. history, centered on a local school board's attempt to dismiss teachers without due process. A series of three violent strikes, the third of which affected the district's one million students for two months and cost the city more than $7.8 billion, divided the city along racial lines.

Shanker himself was routinely branded a racist in the conflict, to the amazement of those who knew his background. Influenced by his college activism, Shanker had made union involvement in civil rights a priority for the UFT during his presidency. In the early 1960s he had formed alliances with A. Philip Randolph, head of the predominantly black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Bayard Rustin, director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), which was founded to foster alliances between blacks and labor. Shanker was treasurer of the APRI, and he served on the Board of Directors of APRI from 1965 to 1997.

Shanker had marched for civil rights in the South in the 1960s, sent hundreds of union members south to register black voters, and lobbied for passage of major civil rights legislation. In 1963 he saw to it that the union endorsed and sent representatives to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Under his leadership the executive board of the UFT voted in 1965 to place funds in a bank free from dealings with South Africa's apartheid government. He publicly favored a civilian complaint board to investigate charges of police brutality in black communities.

In the end, the union won the struggle in Ocean Hill–Brownsville, resulting in victories for the teachers, who emerged with an even stronger contract. Shanker had forever changed the image of the docile, compliant teacher. Shanker's reputation as a militant union leader was immortalized by Woody Allen in the movie Sleeper (1973), in which Allen's character, awakening in the year 2173 after being frozen, explains the cause of the destruction of civilization: "A man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead."

In 1969 Shanker organized thousands of classroom paraprofessionals, many of them minority group members from Ocean-Hill Brownsville, and began a career ladder program so that they could receive a college education and eventually become teachers.

A national figure because of his role in the strikes, Shanker attempted to balance the public image of a union fanatic by launching a weekly paid advertisement column, "Where We Stand," in the Sunday New York Times in 1970. In 1972 he helped create the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), which became the largest statewide union in the country. In 1974 he was elected president of the AFT, which had over 700,000 members. During New York City's fiscal crisis in 1975, Shanker asked the Teachers' Retirement System to save the city from bankruptcy by buying $150 million of untested Municipal Assistance Corporation bonds.

In the 1980s Shanker turned to educational reform. He proposed school restructuring, a voluntary national certification board for teachers, and high national standards for student assessment. From 1987 to 1990 he served as visiting professor at Harvard University.

In 1994 Shanker was diagnosed with cancer. For most of his life he smoked heavily, and he had had a lung removed in 1951. He died at the age of sixty-eight at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City; he had a private interment.

An analysis of Shanker's contributions to national labor unionism is in "The Education of Al Shanker," Teacher Magazine (19 Feb. 1996). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the New Leader (both 24 Feb. 1997), Time (10 Mar. 1997), and The New Republic (17 Mar. 1997).

John J. Byrne

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