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Review of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the battles over schools, unions and democracy

"Shanker argued that the appeal to workers, especially professionals, had to go beyond self-interested model (we'll improve your wages) to include an appeal to quality (we'll help you have a greater voice to do a better job.)"  Richard Kahlenberg, Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the battles over schools, unions and democracy.

In the turbulent 1960's, Albert Shanker emerged as a militant leader of the United Federation of Teachers, then a small local of the American Federation of Teachers, which led New York City teachers in illegal strikes that won one of the first collective bargaining agreements for teachers. The UFT's success in New York City became a model for teachers in northeastern cities where the politics was amenable to collective bargaining.

During the conservative era following Ronald Reagan's 1980 election, Shanker joined business leaders and Governors to advance an education reform agenda, which included promotion of national standards, more testing, stricter classroom discipline and charter schools. Buying space in the New York Times, Shanker wrote a regular column, "Where We stand," and earned a national reputation as a public intellectual with common sense solutions to educational problems.

Wily and willing to change tactics as politics and times changed, Shanker showed courage in fighting controversial battles which often alienated groups among fellow liberals. He called three city-wide strikes to defend white teachers fired by black power advocates in the experimental Ocean Hill-Brownsville community-controlled district.

As an activist and then president of the UFT, and then as president of the American Federation of Teachers, Shanker and the AFT out-maneuvered their much-larger competitor, the National Education Association: first by getting ahead of the NEA on collective bargaining, a strategy the NEA initially rejected but later adopted; and then by building allies in the education reform movement and taking the lead on professional issues, once considered NEA's domain.

In his role as education reformer, Shanker was not afraid to acknowledge the shortcomings of public schools serving low and moderate income youth, and was bold in offering solutions so long as they were within the public school system. His notion of a charter school was a teacher-run school within the public system.

In the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strikes, Shanker was alarmed by the coalition of separatist minority leaders and affluent social liberals against middle-class teachers, and came to reject the divisive identity politics emerging in the 1960's. He wanted to preserve the class-based, race-neutral coalition of the New Deal era and supported the cold-war stance of AFL-CIO leaders.

Albert Shanker was an intellectual as well as a labor leader, and he was very much a creature of New York City's intellectually vibrant Jewish community. Initially a backer of the Socialist Party of the United States, he supported a more conservative splinter group, Social Democrats USA, which advocated economic redistribution at home but an aggressive, tough-minded foreign policy abroad. As AFT president, Shanker surrounded himself with Social Democrats USA members.

In this great book, with an unfortunate title, Richard Kahlenberg clearly viewed Shanker's story and politics as relevant to today, and implied the post-sixties Balkanized Democratic Party energized by numerous single-issue interest groups cannot tackle one of the greatest problems facing our nation--our ever growing level of inequality.

"Shanker had been arguing for years that the New Politics embrace of racial quotas, weak national defense and tepid economic policies were not only wrong but deeply unpopular."

"Today, Shanker's Social Democratic vision--the Scoop Jackson/Bayard Rustin strain of economic populist, socially moderate, and internationally engaged Democrats--is virtually absent from liberal discourse." 

One implication of this book seems accurate. If you want to address the issue of inequality, you need a coalition based on economics and not on a variety of minority interests. How to balance the genuine advocacy needs of minority groups, gays and women and the necessity of addressing class issues is a challenging and relevant question. Without a doubt, the Democratic Party has served the American working-class timidly over the past thirty years.

But adopting an uncritical approach to foreign policy, such as supporting the Vietnam War as Shanker and AFL-CIO leaders did, may not have been in the national interest. Certainly, the Labor Party in Great Britain, up until recently, was able to defend working-class interests and win elections while remaining skeptical about British imperialism.

The collateral damage we caused in small countries such as Vietnam and Nicaragua was not in this country's long-term interests and labor received nothing in return, at least not after the mid-seventies, for its enthusiastic support of cold-war policies.


 

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