Albert Shanker

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Albert Shanker
in 1965
Born(1928-09-14)September 14, 1928
New York City, United States
DiedFebruary 22, 1997(1997-02-22) (aged 68)
New York City, United States
EducationStuyvesant High School
Alma materUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (BA)
Columbia University
Occupation(s)Labor Leader, AFT & UFT President
SpouseEdith Shanker

Albert Shanker (September 14, 1928 – February 22, 1997) was president of the United Federation of Teachers from 1964 to 1985 and president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) from 1974 to 1997.

Early life[edit]

Shanker was born on Manhattan's Lower East Side in New York City[1] to a Russian Jewish immigrant family. As a toddler, his family moved to the Long Island City district in Queens.[2]

His parents, Mamie and Morris Shanker, were immigrants from Poland. Both were union members; his father was a union newspaper deliveryman, and his mother, who operated a sewing-machine in a knitting factory, was a member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. The Shanker family's deeply held political views were staunchly pro-union, following the socialism of Norman Thomas and including ardent support of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. The experience of watching his mother work 70-hour weeks convinced Shanker from an early age that there was a need for societal changes.

Shanker read several newspapers daily as a young boy, with an interest in philosophy. His idols were Franklin D. Roosevelt, Clarence Darrow, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and American philosopher Sidney Hook.[3]

In 1946, Shanker graduated from Stuyvesant High School,[4] where he was the head of the debate team. Thereafter, he majored in philosophy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He joined the Congress of Racial Equality. Shanker picketed segregated movie theaters and restaurants and was a member of the Young People's Socialist League and chairman of the Socialist Study Club.[3] In 1949, he graduated with honors and began graduate studies at Columbia University, where he ultimately attained all but dissertation status. In order to earn money while writing his dissertation, Shanker became a substitute mathematics teacher at Public School 179 in East Harlem, a historically working class neighborhood near Columbia's campus. He later taught mathematics in a full-time role at Junior High School 126 in the Astoria section of Queens from 1953 to 1959.

Founding the United Federation of Teachers[edit]

He began his tenure as a union organizer in 1959 to help organize the Teacher's Guild, a New York City affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers that was founded by John Dewey in 1917. Eventually, the Teacher's Guild merged with New York City's High School Teacher's Association to form the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in 1960. During the 1960s, Shanker received national attention and considerable criticism for his aggressive union leadership and skillful negotiation of salary increases for New York City teachers. He left his teaching job to become a full-time union organizer. He felt that a teachers' union would be more effective if it were united with a common set of goals. In 1964, Shanker succeeded Charles Cogen as the UFT president, a position he held until 1985. In 1967 and again in 1968, he served jail sentences for leading illegal teachers' strikes. The New York City teacher's strike of 1968 closed down almost all New York City schools for 36 days.

Perhaps Shanker is best known for opposing community-control leaders in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district of New York City, which led to the 1968 strike after white teachers were dismissed from the school district by the recently appointed black administrator.[5][6]

For more than a decade, Shanker wrote more than 1,300 columns in The New York Times (which appeared as paid advertisements) and essays in other publications. Accompanied by a small photograph of Shanker, the Times columns, titled "Where We Stand", sought to clarify the union's position on matters of public interest.

Activist legacy[edit]

Shanker was a key figure in building the United Federation of Teachers and was elected president of the American Federation of Teachers in 1974. He was re-elected every two years until his death.

Shanker's organizing efforts for educators cannot be separated from the legacy of his actions related to racial equity and anti-Blackness. [7] Shanker is remembered for his actions during the Ocean Hill–Brownsville crisis. In 1968, Black and Puerto Rican parents in Brooklyn were piloting a community school program, known as community control, where school districts had the power to hire, fire, and approve budgets at the local level. The pilot program was design to fight school segregation and racial inequity in school policies, teacher hiring, and Black and Puerto Rican student outcomes.[8] When the majority Black and Puerto Rican school board fired 14 white union teachers for underperformance, President of the UFT, Shanker led UFT teachers in a strike to oppose community control.[9]

When the UFT proposed Lesson Plans on African-American History, “Shanker personally intervened and cut out radical ideas.”[10] His intervention included removal of two chapters on Malcom X and Fredrick Douglass’s words, “power concedes nothing without a demand.”[11]

In 1975, the UFT authorized a five-day strike, leading to allegedly saving New York City from bankruptcy after Shanker asked the Teachers' Retirement System to invest $150 million in municipal bonds.

On September 21, 1981, Shanker had dinner with Leon B. Applewhaite, a personal friend and one of the three members of the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA). Applewhaite was involved in deciding whether to uphold the decertification of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization for the strike they had called in August of that year. During the dinner, Shanker urged Applewhaite not to decertify the union, an action which plainly violated the prohibition on the ex parte contact contained in the federal Administrative Procedure Act. Although the contact was not ultimately found to have legal consequences, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals criticized Shanker's behavior in their review of the FLRA's decision. (See 685 F.2d 547.)

In 1988, Shanker was the first to propose charter schools in the U.S. He was inspired by a visit to a public school in Cologne, Germany, in which teams of teachers had considerable control over how the school was run, and about what and how to teach. They stayed with each class of students for six years. The schools were integrated by ethnic and economic origins, and were originally intended to focus on the neediest students, drop-outs and those most likely to drop out soon.[12]

In 1993, Shanker turned against the charter school idea when he realized that for-profit organizations saw it as a business opportunity and were advancing an agenda of school privatization.[12] Indeed, the charter schools that were finally established in the U.S. were different from Shanker's vision. "On average, charter schools are even more racially and economically segregated than traditional public schools," according to an opinion piece in The New York Times explaining Shanker's views.[13]

Although Shanker marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr., later in his career, Shanker moved politically to the right. He came out in proud support of the Vietnam War.[14] [15][16]

Later years[edit]

Shanker was a visiting professor at Hunter College and Harvard University during the 1980s. He continued to work toward organizing teachers throughout his life and attempted to bridge the AFT with the National Education Association, which he never saw happen. In 1991, U.S. President George H. W. Bush appointed him as a member of the original Competitiveness Policy Council.

Shanker died of bladder cancer and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 by U.S. President Bill Clinton.[17]

Erroneous quote[edit]

The quote,

"When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of school children."[18]

is often erroneously attributed to Shanker.

The Albert Shanker Institute attempted to find the source of this quote, and concluded that "we cannot demonstrate conclusively that Albert Shanker never made this particular statement... but, we believe the quote is fiction." The first appearance, which those at the Institute could find, was in the Meridian Star newspaper, August 13, 1985, but no source is included in the article.[19] Shanker's biographer, Richard Kahlenberg, found no record of Shanker's ever saying this and does not believe he ever did.[20]

In popular culture[edit]

  • There is a reference to Albert Shanker in the Woody Allen movie Sleeper (1973).[21] The protagonist is transported to the future, where he is told that the old world was destroyed when "a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead." Film critic James Monaco wrote, "This is not funny at all, unless you know the cranky, whining head of the New York United Federation of Teachers".[22]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "About Albert Shanker". The Albert Shanker Institute. Archived from the original on July 27, 2012. Retrieved August 13, 2012.
  2. ^ Jack Schiernbeck (January 13, 1997). "Class struggles: The UFT story, part 8". United Federation of Teachers. Archived from the original on April 21, 2019. Retrieved September 20, 2010.
  3. ^ a b "Albert Shanker: Biography from". Retrieved 2014-08-20.
  4. ^ Schierenbeck, Jack (1996-02-16). "Class Struggles: The UFT Story". Archived from the original on 2019-04-21. Retrieved 2007-11-01.
  5. ^ Sewell chan (October 16, 2007). "Assessing the Legacy of Albert Shanker, Tough Liberal". The New York Times.
  6. ^ Joseph Berger (February 24, 1997). "Albert Shanker, 68, Combative Leader Who Transformed Teachers' Union, Dies". The New York Times.
  7. ^ The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession. Random House. 2014-09-02. ISBN 9780385536967. Retrieved 2015-05-09.
  8. ^ Harding, Vincent (1990). Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement.
  9. ^ "The UFT's Opposition to the Community Control Movement". Retrieved 2024-02-24.
  10. ^ Jones, Brian; et al. (Edited by Jeff Bale and Sarah Knopp) (2012). "The Struggle for Black Education." In Education and Capitalism. Chicago: Haymarket Books. pp. 64–65.
  11. ^ Podair, Jerald (2004). The Strike That Changed New York. Yale University Press. p. 142.
  12. ^ a b Ravitch, Diane. "The Myth of Charter Schools". The New York Review.
  13. ^ [This statement is incorrect]The Original Charter School Vision, By RIchard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter, The New York Times, August 30f, 2014
  14. ^ Pavone, Vera; Scott, Norman (June 14, 2009). "Albert Shanker: Ruthless Neo-Con". New Politics. XII (1): 45.
  15. ^ Buhle, Paul (1997). "Albert Shanker: No flowers". New Politics. Archived from the original on February 18, 2008.
  16. ^ "Tough Liberal". Archived from the original on 2014-08-21. Retrieved 2014-08-20.
  17. ^ "Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients". United States Senate. Archived from the original on 25 July 2007. Retrieved 2007-07-26.
  18. ^ The Failure of American Schools, By Joel Klein, Atlantic Magazine, June 2011
  19. ^ "Quote, Unquote". Shanker Blog. Retrieved 2014-08-20.
  20. ^ Jonathan Mahler (April 28, 2023). "How Randi Weingarten Landed at the Heart of America's Political Fights". New York Times.
  21. ^ "Albert Shanker | United Federation of Teachers". Archived from the original on 2017-04-06. Retrieved 2014-08-20.
  22. ^ Monaco, James (1979). American Film Now. p. 244.


External links[edit]

Trade union offices
Preceded by President, American Federation of Teachers
1974 - 1997
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Erich Frister
President of International Federation of Free Teachers' Unions
Succeeded by
Federation merged
Preceded by
New position
President of Education International
Succeeded by