On Wednesday, July 20, I was honored to participate in the 100th anniversary celebration of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The theme of AFT’s convention, which featured addresses from Hillary Clinton and others, was “Generation to Generation: Honoring Our Past, Inspiring Our Future.” Founded in 1916 by educator John Dewey and others, the AFT was led for many years by unionist and education reformer Albert Shanker. Throughout its history, the union of educators has been a bedrock of American democracy.
I spoke on a panel whose participants included former AFT president Ed McElroy, Albert Shanker’s daughter, Jennie, AFT officials Nat LaCour, Fran Lawrence, and Loretta Johnson, and 98-year-old AFT member Beatrice Lampkin. A video of the “AFT 100th Anniversary Tribute” is available here. My remarks, which outline the need for educators to ally with the labor movement, are found below.
It’s an honor to celebrate with you the 100th anniversary of this remarkable, indeed unique, organization in our American democracy. There are other labor unions that represent workers; and there are other organizations that represent teachers. But only the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) stands directly at the intersection of the nation’s two most important sources of equality in our democracy: public education, and the trade union movement.
My name is Richard Kahlenberg. I’m a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, which in most venues, I am very proud to say, is ninety-seven years old. I wrote a biography of the great AFT president Albert Shanker, who guided this organization for roughly a quarter of its history, from 1974–1997. I’m so pleased to share the stage with his daughter, Jennie.
In my biography, called Tough Liberal, I note that union president Tom Mooney called Al Shanker “the George Washington of the teaching profession” for his role helping establish collective bargaining for teachers in New York City. In the late 1950s, some teachers were wary of unions, saying collective bargaining was for blue collar workers, not college-educated professionals. Shanker asked: is being paid less than those who wash cars for living what you mean by being treated as a professional? Teachers understood, and embraced collective bargaining in droves, first in New York City, then across the nation.
If Shanker was the George Washington of the profession, he was also arguably the Abraham Lincoln of New York’s teachers. He brought unity to the teaching profession throughout New York State, which, like many jurisdictions, had long suffered a civil war between the AFT and National Education Association (NEA) affiliates.
For years, the AFT and NEA fought bitterly to represent teachers, and that old issue of class snobbery that Shanker fought in New York City reared its head again in these turf battles. In Buffalo, for example, the NEA argued it could better represent teachers because it was not affiliated with the AFL-CIO, as was the AFT. One NEA placard asked: “Do you want to be affiliated with “plumbers, carpenters, and sheet metal workers?”
Shanker’s answer, and the answer of AFT members going back to John Dewey, was a resounding “yes.” Shanker knew that if teachers really wanted to serve kids, they needed to be part of a coalition of labor unions that pushes for better wages, better health care, and better housing because all those things make it easier for children to learn in school.
In 1971, an opportunity arose to unite New York State teachers. When the state legislature proposed to increase the probationary period a teacher had to work to gain tenure from three years to five years, Shanker reached out to NEA state president Tom Hobart to fight that proposal and also to create New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), which became one of the strongest voices for teachers in the entire country. A few years later, when forces tried to divide the union once again, the vast majority of NYSUT members said no. We have built a beautiful thing, they said, and we will not let it be destroyed.
That commitment to having an energetic, unified teacher voice has continued under Sandy Feldman, Ed McElroy, and now under the tremendous leadership of Randi Weingarten—because they know, to coin a phrase, that we are “stronger together.” Thank you, and best wishes for the next 100 years.
To view my full remarks, see the video below.