Al Shanker and I

Al Shanker and I

If Al Shanker had emerged somewhere in New Mexico in 1950 the world would have been none the wiser. But Al Shanker in New York City in the turbulent 1960s was an entirely different thing. It was a classic example of the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I first met Shanker in the late 1950s. He was one of half a dozen younger members of the executive board of the New York Teachers Guild, AFT Local 2. I was the Guild’s organizer and general factotum. In the five years from 1957 to 1962 the Guild, a relatively small organization with social democratic traditions, moved out of the welter of New York teacher groups to become the exclusive bargaining agent for all 45,000 members of the teaching staff. The most influential of the young Turks—until his sudden death in 1960, from a heart -attack —was Eli Trachtenberg.

The contrast between Shanker and Trachtenberg is instructive. Trachtenberg was a socialist, ironically, from the same Shachtmanite faction which now controls the United Federation of Teachers and several AFL-CIO-sponsored front groups. Before becoming a teacher he had worked in the auto plants around Buffalo, and he clung doggedly to his proletarian values. Trachtenberg believed in militant, democratic, Reuther-style unionism.

Shanker also presented himself as a socialist in those days. By 1957 his devotion to socialist objectives had dimmed, however, a rightward drift which has continued to the present. Organizing the union, like bridge, which he taught in night school, was a game to be savored for its own sake.


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