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Albert Shanker (September 14, 1928February 22, 1997) was President of the United Federation of Teachers from 1964 to 1984 as well as President of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997.

Early life

Shanker was born in Queens, New Yorkmarker to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family. His parents were both immigrants from Polandmarker and union members. His father Morris delivered newspapers and his mother Mamie worked in a knitting factory. The experience of watching his mother work 70 hour weeks made Shanker aware of the need for societal changes from an early age.

Shanker read several newspapers daily as a young boy, with a vast thirst of knowledge and a love of philosophy. By the time he was a teen, Shanker avidly read the philosophy of Thomas Hook. His idols were Franklin D. Roosevelt, Clarence Darrow, and Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader.

In 1946, Shanker graduated from Stuyvesant High Schoolmarker where he was the head of the debate team. His academic life continued at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbanamarker. He joined the Congress of Racial Equality. Shanker picketed segregated movie theaters and restaurants and was a member of the Young People's Socialist League and chair of the Socialist Study Club. In 1949 he graduated with honors and enrolled in Columbia University. In order to earn money while writing his dissertation, Shanker became substitute teacher at PS 179 in Manhattan's upper West Sidemarker.

Founding the United Federation of Teachers

Shanker took a year off after graduating from college, then began teaching mathematics at an East Harlem School from 1952-1959. He began his tenure as a union organizer in 1959 to help organize the Teacher's Guild - NYC's AFT affiliate that was started by John Dewey in 1917. The Teacher's Guild would merge with New York City's High School Teacher's Association to form the United Federation of Teachers or UFT in 1960. During the 1960s, Shanker received national attention and considerable criticism for his aggressive union leadership and skillful negotiation of pay increases for New York City teachers. He left his teaching job to organize full time. He felt that a teachers union would be more effective if it was united with a common set of goals. In 1964, Shanker succeeded Charles Cogen as UFT president a position he held until 1985. In 1967, and again in 1968, he served jail sentences for leading illegal teachers' strikes. The New York City teacher's strike of 1968 closed down almost all New York City schools for 36 days.

Perhaps Shanker is best known for organizing workers in the Ocean-Hill Brownsville district. In 1968, Shanker organized Ocean-Hill Brownsville's teaching staff in the mostly black neighborhood. Shanker called for a strike after white teachers were purged from the school district by the recently appointed administrator.

For more than a decade, Shanker authored essay-like advertisements in The New York Times and other publications. Accompanied by a small photograph of Shanker, the columns, entitled "Where We Stand," sought to rationally and dispassionately clarify the union's position on various matters of public interest.

Activist Legacy

Despite Shanker's organizing efforts, and the fifteen days that he would spend in jail due to his organization, Shanker was branded a racist by critics. Yet Shanker would persist in building the United Federation of Teachers and would be elected president of the American Federation of Teachers in 1974. He was re-elected every two years until his death.

In 1975 the UFT authorized a five day strike, leading to allegedly saving New York City from bankruptcy after he asked the Teachers' Retirement System to invest $150 million in Municipal Corp.(MAC) bonds.

On September 21, 1981, Shanker had dinner with Leon B. Applewhaite, a personal friend and one of the heads of the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Applewhaite was involved in deciding whether to uphold the decertification of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization for the strike they had called in August of that year. During the dinner Shanker urged Applewhaite not to decertify the union, an action which plainly violated the prohibition on ex parte contact contained in the federal Administrative Procedure Act. Although the contact was not ultimately found to have legal consequences, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals criticized Shanker's behavior in their review of the FLRA's decision. See 685 F.2d 547.

Later years

Shanker was a visiting professor at Hunter College and Harvard University during the 1980s. He would continue to work to organize teachers throughout his life, attempting to bridge the AFT with the National Education Association. Despite his efforts, he never saw this convergence. In 1991, President Bush appointed him as an original member of the Competitiveness Policy Council. He died of bladder cancer in 1997 at the age of 68.

Shanker was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 by President Bill Clinton.


"When school children start paying union dues, that 's when I'll start representing the interests of school children."

"a lot of people who have been hired as teachers are basically not competent"

“There is no more reason to pay for private education than there is to pay for a private swimming pool for those who do not use public facilities.”

Shanker in Popular Culture

In the futuristic Woody Allen movie Sleeper (1973) the protagonist is told that the old world was destroyed when "a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead." Shanker was president of the AFT at that time.

See also


External links

  • Albert Shanker Institute
  • Braun, Robert J. Teachers and Power: The Story of the American Federation of Teachers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972. ISBN 0671211676
  • Buhle, Paul. "Albert Shanker: No Flowers." New Politics. 6:3 (Summer 1997). (Accessed October 15, 2006)
  • Gibson, Rich. "The AFT and Albert Shanker." Black Radical Congress. November 6, 2000. (Accessed October 15, 2006)
  • Gordon, Jane Anna. Why They Couldn't Wait: A Critique of the Black-Jewish Conflict Over Community Control in Ocean-Hill Brownsville, 1967-1971. Oxford: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001. ISBN 0415929105
  • Kahlenberg, Richard D. Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. ISBN 0231134967
    • Excerpted as "The Agenda that Saved Public Education," American Educator, Fall 2007, 4-10.
    • Review in Slate
  • Mungazi, Dickson A. Where He Stands: Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995. ISBN 027594929X
  • NY Times Obituary
  • Podair, Jerald. The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis. Princeton, N.J.: Yale University Press, 2003. ISBN 0300081227
  • Schierenbeck, Jack. "Part 6: Al Shanker's Rise to Power." Class Struggles: The UFT Story. United Federation of Teachers, AFT, AFL-CIO. February 16, 1996.] (Accessed October 15, 2006)
  • Selden, David. Teacher Rebellion. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1985. ISBN 088258099X
  • Quotations from Albert Shanker

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