A different kind of teachers union

Reds at the Blackboard:

Communism, Civil Rights, and the New York City Teachers Union

SINCE THE early 1960s, the leadership of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) has tried to project itself as a union of professionals, paid and treated accordingly. The largest teachers’ union in the country, representing 200,000 members, practices traditional service unionism, focusing on benefits and salaries. This approach, however, has sacrificed democratic involvement of the rank and file, community alliances, and the building of “shop-floor” power, a neglect that has resulted over time in deteriorating working conditions.

Clarence Taylor’s Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights, and the New York City Teachers’ Union offers an account of an alternative to this model in his history of the Communist-led Teachers Union (TU), which pioneered a strategy based on social-movement unionism. The book, while academic in style, offers a highly readable and engaging story of the rise of this model as well as the ferocious onslaught against it during the McCarthy era. It is a must-read for those looking to emulate the TU’s approach and apply it to modern teachers’ unions.

Unlike service unionism, social-movement unionism focuses on building alliances with grassroots organizations for the purpose of providing resources to the communities and schools in which teachers work. The TU’s brand of unionism prioritized forging partnerships with Black and Latino parents, civil rights organizations, unions, community groups, and civic organizations to improve the lives of the children they taught as well as the working conditions of their members.

Taylor methodically disproves the allegation of anticommunist historians that the union did little to advocate on behalf of its members for better working conditions or salaries because its leadership followed the latest Communist Party (CP) line. He explains that teachers’ reasons for supporting or joining the CP were rooted in the “Party’s analysis of racism and class exploitation, and its professed objective of working to build a society where these social impediments no longer existed.”

Taylor’s carefully documented work argues that the TU never counterposed its social movement goals to a commitment to higher salaries, smaller class sizes, or safer working conditions. For the TU, economic issues simply “did not take priority over social justice. Building strong ties with parents to improve schools and communities benefited teachers as well as children.” 

The union’s legislative program, for example, included strong advocacy for higher salaries, especially for the most vulnerable teachers—women and substitutes—but also focused on racial integration and lowering class size. Strong on-the-ground female leaders such as Lucille Spence and Alice Citron led the Permanent Committee for Better Schools in Harlem, which helped campaign against a racist principal and exposed the Board of Education for discrimination in a public 1937 “mock trial.” 

The story of the New York City Teachers Union began in 1916 when a group of teachers sought collective representation and became Local 5 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Led by the initially radical socialist Henry Linville and his ally Abraham Lefkowitz, the TU gradually became more focused on teachers being valued as professionals with a pay scale to match.

By the 1920s, a left opposition grew within the union. Led by members of the Communist Party, they argued that teachers were not middle-class professionals but workers who had interests diametrically opposed to the management of the Board of Education. The opposition, organized in the Rank and File Caucus, argued that all teachers should be organized, as unskilled workers were in industrial unions—and campaigned hard for substitutes, part-time teachers, and the unemployed to be full members of the union. The caucus grew by organizing mass actions for pay increases, recruiting teachers for the union, and forming a “Classroom Teachers Group” that organized school based chapters around bread-and-butter issues.

TU officers, increasingly threatened by the opposition, began accusing the Rank and File Caucus of promoting the politics, policies, and positions of the Communist Party. In 1935, the leadership of the TU walked out along with 700 members to establish the anticommunist Teachers Guild (TG), leaving the opposition’s CP leaders at the helm of the union. The TG preferred professional association to class struggle and tried to discredit the TU through a red-baiting campaign. 

The TU grew rapidly despite the split, incorporating substitute teachers—previously not allowed to be members—as well as growing numbers of radicalizing teachers who were eager to join an organization that fought for improved basic working conditions as well as around social campaigns focused on opposing racism and fascism. By 1940, there were at least 6,000 members, about a fifth of the overall AFT membership. 

Unfortunately, as TU policy followed the twists and turns of Stalinist foreign policy in the late 1930s, including supporting the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, anticommunist forces were able to successfully campaign for the expulsion of the TU from the AFT in 1940.

The expulsion set the stage for anticommunist witch hunts against teachers in the 1940s and 1950s, which Taylor exposes in useful detail. Between 1951 and 1956, 284 New York City teachers were fired or forced to leave the profession because of their alleged association with the Communist Party. Taylor documents that in no case was any evidence of professional misconduct, incompetence, or “indoctrination” presented.

The atmosphere of terror was such that one seventeen-year veteran teacher, Minnie Gutride, committed suicide after being interrupted in her class to face interrogation about alleged Communist leanings. Taylor exposes the web of police spies and paid informants in the classroom, reaching the point where a teacher could be questioned because a cop found suspect materials in her classroom or because of an insufficiently pro-US lesson plan.

This inquisition did not go unchallenged. Taylor does an excellent job of uncovering the resistance waged by the TU and the Communist Party, particularly against the Timone Resolution, which sought to ban the union from schools. Teachers mobilized parent allies from a wide number of PTAs and a broad swath of community organizations to testify against the limitation of civil liberties. There was a similar mobilization from right-wing forces, however, with groups such as the American Legion, the Knights of Columbus, and the neofascist Christian Front pulling out large groups to Board of Education meetings. The eventual victory of the resolution permanently crippled the ability for the union to organize within the schools.

Former TU activists, now aligned with the Teachers Guild, played key roles in the witch hunt. Ex-socialist Benjamin Mandel, for example, became research director for the House Un-American Activities Committee. Mandel, a follower of Jay Lovestone, a CP leader who eventually ended up working for the State Department, abandoned his principles by deciding that US imperialism was a “lesser evil” to Stalinist dictatorship. He was not alone: Abraham Lefkowitz became a school principal and played an important role in the opening salvo of the witch hunt. 

The positions taken by these anticommunist “socialists” would shape the politics of teacher unionism: Albert Shanker, for example, who was then a young middle-school teacher (and a member of the Young People’s Socialist League), agreed with the TG Delegate Assembly in 1950 that voted to ban communist teachers. “These are not independent minds,” he would say later. “These people are not looking for answers. They know the answers.”1 These conservative politics, although initially accompanied by economic militancy, would eventually lead to the bureaucratic ossification of the UFT.

Taylor documents the continued commitment of the TU to antiracist work. The union spearheaded some of the pioneering work on pushing for an integration of Black history into the New York City curriculum and for the banning of racist textbooks (many penned by New York City administrators) that contained rosy depictions of slavery and the KKK or racist caricatures of Reconstruction. Equally important, and equally relevant to today’s struggles for a diverse teaching workforce, Taylor points out that the Teachers Union consistently demanded an increase in the number of Black teachers hired by the Board of Education, using a survey of members to document how licensed Black teachers were underrepresented. Furthermore, they were key allies of the early struggles to integrate the New York City school system. 

However, the TU’s continued focus on antiracism was weakened by its accommodation to patriotism, especially after the beginning of Second World War. Following the lead of the Communist Party, the TU decried racism as “weakening the war effort” and tried to prove themselves to be the most patriotic cheerleaders of the US state, saying, “we believe the American way is best” and “concern for our neighbors inspires love and not race hatred.” Wrapping themselves in the flag did nothing to protect the Communists from the ferocity of the 1950s witch hunt. Taylor’s review is unfortunately silent on some of the key weaknesses of Communist Party politics, from their collapse into the Democratic Party to their support for Japanese internment and the wartime no-strike pledge. These political deficits, all stemming from a subordination of Marxist politics to the needs of Soviet foreign policy, disarmed the left for the impending counterattack.

Taylor’s final chapter on the triumph of the UFT (formed by TG activists along with others) over the TU to become the bargaining agent for New York City teachers is also revealing. Taylor underlines how the UFT won mostly through its on-the-ground school organizing focus and an emphasis on a militant strategy that brought the first citywide teachers’ strike in 1961. The banned and weakened TU was forced to sit on the sidelines during the strike. The UFT, by showing its courage and muscle in an illegal strike, easily won the representation election. In 1964, TU members finally voted to dissolve, and some of its members entered the UFT to form a new opposition. The legacy of the defeat of social-movement unionism lingered, as the UFT played a divisive and racist role in opposing Black community control over education during the 1968 strikes. According to Taylor, however, this did not have to be the final outcome. The UFT model of service unionism was unable to address the real obstacles facing the city’s public schools—racism and poverty. But because McCarthyism destroyed the TU and its alliances with communities of color, there was no alternative posed to Shanker’s strategy, which ultimately left an unhealed rift between New York City’s teachers and the majority of parents that they served.

Taylor draws a useful balance sheet of the TU. He acknowledges that Stalinism hampered the union, although he doesn’t recognize the depth of the failures of the party’s political perspective. His basic assessment is that the TU was an organization that helped to pioneer social-movement unionism, that “worked to advance equality in schools and in the larger society…through a larger struggle, one that involved teachers, parents, and the communities they served.” 

Clearly, that type of unionism, driven by a larger social vision, is a useful model for today’s teacher-activists, and must also be combined with the kind of grassroots militancy and struggle that in the end forced the city to recognize the UFT. While teachers may not be facing mass unemployment, any working teacher will tell you that the economic crisis of the last four years has taken its toll on the students in our classrooms. The model that Taylor documents so well in his book offers the beginnings of a strategy for a way out, both for teachers and their unions that are under assault, as well as for students and their families.

  1. Jack Schierenbeck, “Class struggles: The UFT story,” part 8, New York Teacher, January 13, 1997, www.uft.org/your-union-then-now/class-struggles-uft-story-part-8.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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