Classy Delusions: Steve Fraser’s Missing Historical Points

A specter is haunting America-the specter of Albert Shanker!

For the past three years, I’ve been working in the urban core of Providence public schools. Prior to that, I did a year of after school programming with City Year Rhode Island, an AmeriCorps program. My maternal grandmother and her siblings, as well as one of her daughters, were all public school teachers. The aforementioned second generation teacher-aunt was in fact a member of the bargaining unit for her local. In the past twenty years, my parents have been caring for that aging matriarch and we owe a sincere debt of gratitude to the New York state teacher union movement that earned her a defined-benefit pension plan for retirement, a monthly check that has been a substantial element of maintaining Grandma’s quality of life and healthcare.

I feel that mentioning these things is all worthwhile at the outset because it demonstrates that I have a genuine and multi-generational feeling of loyalty towards American public schools and their unionized teacher movement.

And thereby demonstrating such allegiance, I don’t mind saying that Steve Fraser’s recent column Class Dismissed is a load of bullshit. His rosy-spectacled reflections upon the history of teacher unions are so red one is almost compelled to deduce that the late Albert Shanker, the patron saint of teacher unions, had politics equivalent to Lenin rather than the truth, that he was a typical northern Cold War Liberal racist pig. Indeed, while Fraser makes great targets of the dastardly Koch brothers and their minions within the GOP, he fails to point out that Shanker was the man whose white collar business unionism is the exact reason why the union busters and school privatizers had an opening for such action in the first place!

His class analysis is bogus and should be dissected. “School teachers, however, have always been working-class stiffs,” he writes. Sorry, no. Working class people don’t have defined-benefit pensions OR 401k’s. And furthermore, the working class today in America (read: undocumented noncitizen workers) does not even have access to Social Security, instead they depend on false numbers and pay into a system they may never get payback from. The American model of retirement as a “three-pegged stool” is definitely a middle class marker and claiming otherwise is naive at best and white supremacist workerism at worst. Such a political economy is a mere half-step away from the “white working class” meme that has been bandied about since the 2016 election. And as David Roediger told me in a recent interview ( “I’m suspicious of too easily pairing “white” and “working class” and making it a kind of run-on phrase. Some working people claim “whiteness” as an identity as an alternative to being working class so people need to stop and say “Well, what does it mean if people are being called ‘white working class’? Are they more likely to inflect the ‘white’ or are they likely to inflect the ‘working class’?” In the United States, the temptation has always been to accent the ‘white’.”

Now let’s set the record straight on several historical matters.

First, the National Labor Relations Act, signed by FDR, that legalized unionization. Or more precisely, it domesticated unions. When combined with the Taft-Hartley Act, the Railway Labor Act, and Norris-La Guardia Act, the union movements of America were forced into a set of confines that reduced its arsenal of tactics so significantly that they became a shell of their pre-NLRA days. And this of course leaves to the side the impact of the McCarthy witch hunts on the ranks of good organizers. Those multiple pieces of legislation transformed the ontology of unions in America in a way that can only be equated with the Catholic transubstantiation of the host. Prior to the New Deal legislation, unions were effective and successful armies of the working class, shock troops of the proletariat. After NLRA, unions became a one-way ticket into the middle class. Being a unionized worker guaranteed benefits like healthcare and pensions that non-union workers still do not have. Furthermore, the NLRA intentionally excluded domestic and agricultural workers, which at that time was also known as the vast majority of the Black/Brown workforce in America. This is an undeniable element in the shameful history of segregation and suburban redlining that dates back to the days of white supremacist Samuel Gompers, cofounder and longtime leader of the American Federation of Labor. The AFL was jestingly referred to as the “A-F-of Hell” by a Black worker in the classic documentary film The Wobblies (dir. Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer, 1979).

Second, let’s move on to Albert Shanker in particular. His organizational culture has defined the public school teaching profession for over half a century and continues to maintain hegemony in many states. This is a view of the profession wherein the unionized employee alienates themselves from the fruits of their labor and is given a decent wage in return before driving home to family comforts. If you were a machine shop operator in the heyday of the American Keynesian epoch, that logic made some sense (even if it was underwritten by the white supremacist social contract given only to white veterans of WWII).

But what kind of sane human being can call that sort of behavior humane and nurturing when dealing with children, especially those facing childhood poverty because their parents can’t get into an AFL-CIO union or obtain a loan for housing or other needs from the racist banks?

Albert Shanker, that’s who!

Shanker was part of a cadre in the New York City unions who chased Communist teachers out of the profession that were advocating for Black civil rights, most notably being several members of the Foner family that has given us the historical volumes authored by Phillip and Eric. Later he fostered the self-destructive and deeply racist 1968 teachers strike in New York City that ruined a historic alliance between Blacks and Jews, an alliance yet to be repaired.

I turn to the grand polemic written by Paul Buhle at the time of Shanker’s death for further detail:

Joining the inner circle of George Meany’s AFL-CIO cronies who regarded Martin Luther King, Jr., as an ingrate for pressing too hard on integration and for coming out against the Vietnam war, and shunning even the cautious reformer Walter Reuther for the hawk faction gathering politically around Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Shanker made himself a national labor figure. A major element in his emerging labor statesmanship was his handling of race issues in the approved AFL-CIO fashion… [I]n the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis Shanker was encouraged by a group of self-proclaimed “democratic socialists” including, among others, Michael Harrington, Tom Kahn and Bayard Rustin, with Max Shachtman in the background as the powerful grey eminence. They considered parents’ “interference” to be intolerable for teacher-unionists, but they had a purpose far beyond the districts of Greater New York. By 1968, they envisioned themselves the heirs to the Meany labor empire. To demonstrate their capacity to deliver the labor support and labor votes for a greater coalition, however, they had to keep order—at any cost. Even then the disaster might have been avoided through careful negotiation. But Shanker called “his” teachers out on strike. Yesterday’s socialists who have become today’s Manhattan Institute operators correctly describe that moment as a turning point in New York City’s history… And so Shankerism, hammered out against a background of both middle class yearnings and ghetto rage, became the oddest possible American-style parody of “democratic socialism.” [Emphasis added]

In the half century since the 1968 catastrophe, the nature of the AFL-CIO has changed. The majority membership constituency nationally is now Black women. This is because the major bastion of the AFL-CIO has become the public sector, which now is also the largest employer of African Americans. But it is undeniable that the teaching profession is still hamstrung by structural racism, not entirely their fault, that makes for extremely vanilla teacher unions.

First, you need a four years Baccalaureate in Education to even qualify for a teaching license, which itself is costly for both first granting and later renewal. Many states further require that their public school teachers obtain a Masters degree within the first decade of their careers. Such a proposition is not impossible for Black students per se, but the legacy of their families being excluded from the New Deal, the GI Bill of Rights after WWII, and almost the entirety of the Keynesian social contract that followed that war for a mere three decades before the neoliberal advent is a ripple effect. In right-to-work states, such as the ones where we have been seeing these recent strikes, the challenges are compounded. (And remember, the Taft-Hartley Act was not some fiat imposed from on high by some authoritarian dictator, legislators in those states passed both the act and the state-level legislation with precise and clear malice towards minority workers and their white allies within the radical Left.) Now admittedly one of the major successful teacher strikes of recent memory, that of the Chicago union in 2012 (notably in charter school king Obama’s home state and under the mayoralty of former Obama White House official Rahm Emanuel), was that of a majority-Black teachers union. However, there is a significant need for the acknowledgement of this racism within the system in order to have a true victory, something Fraser’s piece did not mention. Instead, his rather standardized and milquetoast workerism, laced with an apocalyptic slant that is more Gilded Age than the neoliberal gilded cage, fails at what these strikes need to be doing most importantly, defending the most vulnerable present and future workers within the AFL-CIO.

Furthermore, let’s be frank about public school teacher habits. They use their salaries to live outside the urban core. Or they can do what my grandmother did, along with her siblings, and send their kids to parochial schools! Such an anecdote certainly can be contradicted by others to the contrary. But consider this fact. Rhode Island is a bastion of the AFL-CIO. The Providence Teachers Union membership, when combined with Teaching Assistants and Clerical Workers union members, would total the thousands. Yet this is a state where historically public school enrollment is one of the lowest in America owing to Catholic school alternatives being available. What kind of statewide union solidarity is that? Furthermore, another fact. Recently City Council was delivered a report on Providence finances authored by COO Melissa Malone, City Council President David Salvatore and Councilors Sam Zurier, Sabina Matos and Nirva LaFortune. The longtime cause of austerity in Providence is tied to one gigantic financial black hole called the pension fund. In December 1989, the Retirement Board gave retirees an annual compounding COLA payment, an act of financial suicide that has left school facilities and resources in shambles. The pensioners and employees of the city in 1989 were being selfish and greedy by engaging in something so reckless shameless.

What kind of unionism is this?

It’s Shanker-styled solidarity, the kind of unionism that is all about the worker getting theirs and screw the rest.

It should be noted here that, if we want to have a conversation about a less privileged workforce in public education, perhaps we should discuss teacher assistants (TAs). In Rhode Island, the only requirement to be certified as a TA is either a high school degree or equivalency combined with a multi-session training program. In Providence, a large number of people of color, particularly women, make up the ranks of the TA union and it has always been a true honor for me to work with them.

Teacher unions can and should play a role in the lives of students and their families that goes beyond the classroom and the 8-to-3 school day. Within the urban cores, they should embrace a social movement unionist culture where they are willing to take risks so to protect students from police brutality, ICE goons, and the school-to-prison pipeline. This is an existential matter of necessity now that cannot be avoided. Within this year, we can expect to see the Supreme Court rule on the Janus v AFSCME case that could destroy public sector unions as we know them via a ruling on dues collection. With such a matter at hand, effectively making the entire country right-to-work, teacher unions need the alliance of their students and families. They need to be at the forefront of opposition to killer cops that continue to murder Black and Brown people without penalty. As a social force, they could turn society upside down by following the lead of the legendary Harry Bridges of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Bridges used the union pension fund to finance the construction of low-cost apartments at St. Francis Square in San Francisco. Public school teachers could do the same also.

But to do this, their locals must exorcise the specter of Albert Shanker from their midsts and cast his soul into the eternity it should have gone to over twenty years ago.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.