Taylor, Clarence “Reds at the Blackboard. Communism, Civil Rights, and the New York City Teachers Union,” Columbia University Press, 2013.
There once existed a powerful teacher organization that fought for every progressive aspect of education in New York City. The American Federation of Teachers today, which has advanced in social unionism far beyond the bad old days of President Albert Shankar, is still miles behind the Teachers Union of New York of 1935-1964.
They represented teachers with grievances, they fought for better pay and working conditions as unions do, but they also challenged the basic racism and corruption of education in their times. They fought hard, for example, to expose the explicit and implicit racism in textbooks. They did everything they could think of to improve school materials. They fought for integration of students and faculty. They fought just as hard for gender equality.
Their greatest accomplishment may have been to make the schools part of the communities they served. These were not nominal PTA’s holding fund drives, but honest hard-working community organizations working for community improvement — especially among the most downtrodden constituencies.
One important aspect of school racism was new to me. After Brown V Topeka in 1954, the main physical change in education was to shut down all the segregated Black schools and lay off their teachers! Most of those teachers stayed laid-off because they couldn’t get jobs in the so-called “integrated” schools. The Teachers Union of New York fought hard to get jobs for Black teachers! If anybody else did, I hadn’t heard of it.
While they were bringing social unionism to its heights, the Teachers Union had to fight off management’s attempts to undermine it. Male chauvinism and anti-semitism were useful tools for the bosses, but their big cudgel was anti-communism. Social unionism was the Communist Party’s program and a some of the Teachers Union leaders were reds.
Management, like bosses everywhere after 1947, were able to get a lot of people fired and a lot of careers destroyed. The American Federation of Labor kicked the Teachers Union out over anti-communism. They joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations and continued to thrive as social unionists. However, after 1947, the CIO joined the anti-communist wave and kicked the Teachers Union out again. The Board of Education managed to have the Teachers Union decertified as representatives of their members, so they could no longer settle grievances nor negotiate for job improvements.
Even then, they didn’t quit. The Teachers Union survived as an important voice for social unionism, especially for civil rights and community cooperation, until 1964. They need to be remembered.
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