New York Teachers Strike, 1968

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jonthom's picture
Joined: 25-11-10
Nov 25 2013 05:52
New York Teachers Strike, 1968

I read about this on wikipedia a while ago and found it interesting, though the wiki article left me with a few questions.

The New York City teachers' strike of 1968 was a months-long confrontation between the new community-controlled school board in the largely black Ocean-Hill Brownsville section of Brooklyn and New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. The strike dragged on from May 1968 to November 1968, shutting down the public schools for a total of 36 days and increasing racial tensions between Blacks and Jews.

Thousands of New York City teachers went on strike in 1968 when the school board of Ocean Hill–Brownsville abruptly dismissed a set of teachers and administrators. The newly created school district, in a mostly Black neighborhood, was an experiment in community control over schools—the dismissed workers were almost all white and Jewish.

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), led by Albert Shanker, demanded the teachers' reinstatement. At the start of the school year in 1968, the UFT held a strike that shut down New York City's public schools for nearly two months.

The strike pitted community against union, highlighting a conflict between local rights to self-determination and teachers' universal rights as workers.[1] Although the school district itself was quite small, the outcome of its experiment had great significance because of its potential to alter the entire educational system—in New York City and elsewhere. As one historian wrote in 1972: "If these seemingly simple acts had not been such a serious threat to the system, it would be unlikely that they would produce such a strong and immediate response."[2]


As presented, this seems a little too "perfect" - literally a textbook example, in that it's the kind of thing I could see being used as a hypothetical in politics seminars or "activist training sessions" or whatever. Which makes me wonder if there's any details being downplayed to make it fit this narrative.

There's some discussion of conflict between the United Federation of Teachers and the African-American Teachers Association - would be interested to know more.

It also talks mostly about "the union" and "the schoolboard" in general terms - would be interesting to know what the internal makeup was, groups opposed to their leadership, involvement of leftist or other political groups (or for that matter the stance taken by leftists, anarchos etc. in New York on the strike at the time).

Hieronymous's picture
Joined: 27-07-07
Nov 25 2013 06:41

Jerald E. Podair's The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis is an excellent account of the strike, showing the extreme complexity of the struggle but also showing that, at worst, it was a hate strike. I highly recommend it and it confirms what people who lived through that period in New York City have recounted.

I read the book a couple times and took copious notes and copied many passages. Here are some of the more relevant ones:

p. 55 wrote:
• "I hate these kids. They're impossible. How did they get this way?" By a NYC school teacher.

How did they get that way indeed?! This one really sets the tone for the whole book.

p. 5 wrote:
• ...thousands of white middle-class New Yorkers...espoused a liberalism that was integrationist, cosmopolitan, and humanist. It assumed that a consensus existed in NYC built around a set of basic principles held by both blacks and whites: individualism within a broadly pluralistic setting, equality of opportunity, and a race-blind, meritocratic approach to the distribution of society rewards.

p. 9 wrote:
• In 1945, New York was a blue-collar, working-class city. In 1965, it was a white-collar, middle-class one. p. 9.

In short, it was de-industrialized and gentrified.

p. 10 wrote:
• In 1945, NYC was the premier industrial city in the U.S. It had more manufacturing jobs than any other American city; in fact, it had more such jobs than any two other American cities combined

p. 16 wrote:
• During a period in which unprecedented opportunities for upward mobility were becoming available to the children of working-class whites in the city, most blacks found themselves on the wrong side of an economic shift. (see the passage from the Kerner Commission Report of 1968 at the bottom of this post)

p. 58 wrote:
• The culture of the white majority of the UFT in the 1960s was, to a large degree, a reflection of that of the white middle class in NYC as a whole. Both were built around conceptions of individualism, marketplace competition, and objective merit, a critical view of lower-class black cultural expressions, and a moderate pluralism featuring a cautious endorsement of group distinctiveness bounded by a common cultural framework. It was a white middle-class culture for a predominately white middle-class city. In the years after 1964, however, its assumptions would be challenged by other actors, mostly black, to whom this culture did not speak.

p. 59 wrote:
• ...Deviant and delinquent behavior could then be explained as the inability of the poor to achieve culturally acceptable goals by the use of legitimate means and existing institutions.

p. 206 wrote:
• Virtually every city in the nation had its own version of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville during these years [1960s and 1970s], a moment when blacks and whites realized, whether in the course of a busing crisis, an outbreak of urban unrest, a police brutality dispute, or a racially freighted electoral contest, that they lived in different worlds.

Here's how Al Shanker sold the hate strike to the rank-and-file (from this book review:

City Limits wrote:
• But the way the union handled the situation was shamelessly opportunistic and divisive. In order to demonize the opposition, Shanker took some anonymous anti-Semitic flyers that had been found in the mailboxes of teachers at one of the Ocean Hill schools and ran off over 50,000 copies for his members. (No one has ever connected this literature to the Ocean Hill governing board or any person or organization connected to it.)

The parents and students in Ocean Hill were also suckered by the divisive bait and said awful anti-Semitic things. There was no "good" side in this struggle. But supporting the teachers' union as an act of class solidarity is just as erroneous and equally lacking in nuance. Shanker ran a class collaborationist bureaucratic union that opportunistically played the race card when they needed to. This is shameful.

Changing gears a little, this is what the Kerner Commission had to say in 1968:

Kerner Commission wrote:
• Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education, and housing have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great number of Negroes from the benefits of economic progress....The black ghettos are where segregation and poverty converge on the young to destroy opportunity and enforce failure.

According to comrades who were born and raised in New York City, and still live there, the wounds from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict have never healed. The scars from it continue to racially divide the working class in New York to this day.

Entdinglichung's picture
Joined: 2-07-08
Nov 25 2013 09:32

from an obituary on Shanker, 1997: ... I also knew someone in NY (back than a member of the SWP/US) who crossed a picket line during a racist bus drivers strike against busing in the 1970ies

In this volatile situation, Shanker made a choice to exploit the conflict. He chose to call the situation a "firing" and to support a teacher strike in the district for the remainder of the school year. This in turn encouraged Black parents to see white teachers as sabotaging their children's schools. At the same time, it promoted racist attitudes among teachers.

This was not an inevitable result. Shanker could have tried to make an alliance with Black leaders to fight for greater funding and more resources for the public schools. He could have put a priority on educating the UFT membership on the need to accept Blacks as decision-makers and educational leaders.

This would have put the UFT in a strong position to gain full negotiating rights for teachers under even complete community control. Shanker, however, chose a different path.

He exploited the idea held by many of his members that Blacks were hostile, especially to Jews, and that their gain in decision-making power was a danger to white teachers. He played on white teachers' racist dislike of being supervised by people of color.

In September 1968 the UFT opened the school year with a series of three strikes whose goal was to end, or at least cripple, community control of local school districts. Most leftists in the union crossed the picket line, viewing the strike as an action against the community.

This was an accurate analysis. The strike did not aim to increase teachers' job rights or job security in general, but only to break the power of the decentralized community boards. It was, in this view, a strike of one part of the working class, the teachers, against another, the community and parents. Furthermore, this other section of the working class suffered from a special racist oppression.

When the strikes were finally settled in November, the union had won all of its demands. The local boards were disbanded. A New York State bill decentralizing City schools was defeated. A watered-down version of decentralization was subsequently implemented instead. Shanker also increased his grip on the union by stigmatizing the leftists in the union who had opposed the strike as scabs.

a similar conflict evolved about busing in Boston during the mid-1970ies, an interesting (albeit ML) document about the conflict is this one: