The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis

Jerald Podair, The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

During New York’s fiscal crisis, which began in 1975 and continued for the remainder of the decade, the controvery’s scars prevented blacks and white unionists from making common cause to oppose the severe budget and spending cuts that devastated the city’s infrastructure of expansive public services. Cut off from the black citizens they served, New York’s public employee unions, especially the UFT, were unable to offer an alternative to fiscal austerity. Indeed the city’s financial crisis forced white union leaders like Albert Shanker into a shotgun marriage with New York’s financial elite that, by definition, excluded blacks. Thanks in large part to Ocean Hill-Brownsville, he had nowhere else to go. (p. 192)

As parents and teachers again face cuts to education and demands for contractual concessions, we may well ask ourselves why, in the richest city of the richest country in the world, we haven’t the political wherewithal to set the education of our children and our own compensation on firmer foundations. How can teachers help to change this abyssmal state of affairs? “…He had nowhere else to go” may be a fitting epitaph for Shanker’s tombstone but it offers little hope to working teachers. There is always somewhere else to go, there are always choices to be made, for individuals no less than for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), with its force of numbers and its financial and organ- izational resources.

The Strike that Changed New York offers UFT members in particular a carefully drawn portrait of events which have largely shaped our present conjuncture and which suggest ways for us to reshape it. I strongly recommend it to veterans and newcomers alike, working teachers and UFT staffers, supporters and critics of the current leadership.

Podair offers us a snapshot of the moment which he believes to be a critical one and suggests, in the quote above, a link between the racially polarizing New York City teachers strike of 1968 and the manner in which the city’s fiscal crisis of 1975 was resolved. This is only one of a series of observations made by the author but a particularly relevant one given the crisis of 2003.

In the fall of 1968 the UFT called three citywide strikes. The strikes began as a protest against the involuntary transfer of ten white teachers by the newly elected, predominantly black, Community School Board of Ocean Hill-Brownsville in May 1968. The conflict soon escalated into the most racially divisive event in the City’s history since the Draft Riots of the Civil War and, in my opinion, one of the most self defeating, ill advised labor strikes in US history.

Community control came to NYC in 1967 almost as a consolation, some would say diversion away from integration. Schools in NYC were separate and not equal, yet a concerted effort in the early 1960s to integrate them stalled in the face of vocal and organized white opposition and weak support from the UFT. The integrationist forces shifted gears and took up community control as a way to improve the quality of education in the black community. The Republican-dominated State Assembly approved a measure for local governance of schools that was commonly enjoyed by upstate towns and cost the state nothing in the way of new funds for city schools.

UFT relations with the black community grew strained in the mid 1960s as the integration efforts stalled. Two bellwether issues pointed to the open breach that would emerge during the 1968 strike. One concerned the low percentage of black teachers and supervisors city wide but particularly in the black community; the other revolved around divergent approaches to disruptive students, an issue which sparked teacher walkouts at two schools and was later one of the UFT’s’ strike issues in 1967. In 1967, a year before his assassination, Martin Luther King wrote to Shanker to urge caution that student misbehavior not be viewed by teachers as a purely police matter.

A “fateful decision” was made in the winter of 1968, prior to the citywide strikes, when the UFT under Albert Shanker’s leadership came to define the “rights” of teachers to due process, in opposition to the “rights” of parents to a modicum of control over their children’s education. Sandra Feldman, now President of the American Federation of Teachers, played a key role in framing the union’s case when she met with the teachers in question (two of whom were chapter leaders) to ensure their support for the UFT’s unprecedented challenge to the involuntary transfers. Assignment to the Ocean Hill- Brownsville school district was after all not a plum, and the teachers could easily have been reassigned. Superintendent Donovan, who did not support the local community board, insisted that Rhody McCoy, District Administrator for Ocean Hill-Brownsville profer charges against the teachers, in effect ordering his subordinate into the path of confrontation with the UFT. This bureaucratic manuever was not overlooked by Lindsay, the liberal Republican mayor, who soon after obtained greater control over school policy by appointing five additional members to the Board of Education.

The die was cast however when charges were filed against the teachers and found by a civil court judge to be without merit. In this ruling, opposition to community control was not found to be a sufficient cause for removal as it fell within free speech protections, and the few allegations of poor performance were found to be baseless. This ruling in favor of the UFT only led both sides to dig in their heels further. The school board on the one hand was determined to assert its control, the UFT on the other hand equally determined to limit its powers.

The Local Community School Boards in their very conception posed a challenge to the authority of the Central Board. That this institutional challenge received its urgency and momentum from the Black community’s demand for control over the supervision of their children’s education, magnified the threat and undermined the very foundations of the so-called “merit” system, or unaccountable bureaucracy, depending on your perspective.

Prior to the establishment of the experimental community control districts, involuntary transfers by the Board of Education were not uncommon, nor had they been customarily challenged by the UFT. The case in point however was not a routine transfer of a teacher or administrator for poor performance. This was the decision of the school board to select its staff based on their support for the commuity control experiment. Even if the powers granted to the community school board were very limited and tentative, they were embraced by community and parent leaders not to bust a union, or deprive teachers of the right to due process or to drive Jewish teachers out of the black community, but rather to improve the education of black children by assuming the direct responsibility for it. This was a sentiment to unite with and had that been done by the UFT, differences that existed between black and white teachers, parents and teachers, or teachers and administrators appointed by the community board might have more easily been viewed in their proper perspective and addressed apart from the labor relations equivalent of warfare. The fundamentals strongly favored cooperation. The black community needed teachers willing to give their best effort, the union needed parental cooperation in the classroom and the wider political arena, and children needed adult leadership.

The UFT leadership never advocated white supremacy, and many would grow indignant at the sugestion that they were even indirectly supporting such a system or ideology. On the contrary, they argued, they were supporters of Dr. King, integration and civil rights. This strike was about workers’ rights and the merit system, they said. The union would be just as adamant in the defense of black teachers if their rights were violated by a predominantly white community school board. The union is race neutral, upholding the principle of due process for teachers consistently and without regard to race.

Unfortunately the UFT never had the opportunity to defend black teachers being transferred out of a white shool because community control was a dead letter after this strike. Black teachers however almost unanimously supported the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district by the third strike. To the Black community citywide, the UFT action seemed designed to undercut black leadership. The UFT, which had refused to endorse a boycott in 1966 because it feared reprisals from the board, did not hesistate to launch the longest strike in city history when ten white teachers were transferred out of the district. Apparently the risk of reprisal was not so imminent, when the target of strike action was the community board.

The UFT won the return of the ten teachers, and community control was effectively pilloried, mismanaged and the corpse hung up to rot, like a captured pirate. The UFT scavenged sucessfully in the ruins of the system, using its organizational and financial resources to achieve a level of influence in local school governance that it had not enjoyed before.

More to the point, however, is what was lost. New York City was never an oasis of racial tolerance but there was a time when the UFT leadership was aligned with the civil rights revolution and when some of its members fought battles on curriculum to include the history of Black Americans. Indeed the political climate that facilitated the rise of municipal unionism can be said to have been based in part on the democratic impulse unleashed in American society by the civil rights movement. This is what was lost or rather cast aside by the leadership of the UFT-that most precious, fragile, and elusive missing link of American democracy, solidarity between black and white working people. Cast aside in favor of what and under what pretext? What was worth more more than this, even if it was just a fragment, a shard, a fragile shoot pushing up to the light of day?

The due process dispute initially involved ten teachers who faced no financial penalties, disciplinary actions, suspensions, letters to file or other damages except that they were being involuntarily transferred out of one of the most overcrowded, lowest performing, impoverished districts in the city. Community control was an arrow aimed at the heart of the central bureaucracy, but what threat did the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Community School Board pose to working teachers that merited such a response from the UFT? At critical points in the evolution of this conflict, the union choose to escalate and press forward, heedless of the consequences, apparently intent on pushing the issue as one would a test case.

Much of the background to the conflict between the black community and the UFT is contained in two chapters entitled the “Birth of Community” and the “Culture Wars.” I found the author’s premise about cultural war to be needlessly obtuse and unexamined. Do these warring cultures have names and discernible outlines? How do cultures go to war, even metaphorically? (Breaking Newsflash: The Austria-Hungary Klezmer Orchestra will shortly face off against Dizzy Gillespie and his quartet in the Battle of the Bands. Warning: noncombatants are advised to buy ear plugs, plastic sheeting and bottled water.)

Cultural issues were not at the core of the dispute. It was a fight by the black community to improve education, to have a say in who is teaching and running the schools, to determine how disruptive children should be handled, and to increase the percentage of black teachers and supervisors in the system. These issues were raised by community leaders and the African American Teachers Association in the two years leading up to the strike. For the most part they were opposed by the UFT leadership. Why?

Shanker opposed affirmative action before the term was even coined and went on to be a national opponent, most notably in the Bakke case. The problem is that if you oppose affirmative action for blacks, what action do you support (apart from dismantling Jim Crow and passing the Voting Rights Act) to reverse the effects of 300 years of affirmative action for whites? Not your problem? Think again.

Community control is now officially dead and appararently suitable for dissection by historians, but as the quote above indicates and as Trent Lott can attest, history is never quite over or as safely removed from today’s headlines when the subject involves a challenge to the privileges or perogatives of the white race. Such a challenge was posed by the community control experiment in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. The Community Board was in the process of wresting a measure of control from a white bureaucracy. White teachers were now under supervision chosen by the predominantly black community.

In the white backlash that followed and engulfed the city, teachers found themselves in new and unusual company. Some found a home in the emerging neo-conservative, neo-liberal world, most notably Albert Shanker, but working teachers found their union emeshed in a “shotgun marriage” with an elite that would soon lay off 20,000 teachers and gut public education for a generation. Just as it seemed we were coming up for air, this same elite is preparing a new round of service cuts. It should come as no surprise that in the nearly 30 years since 1975, the UFT has won no significant gains in teachers’ salaries, pensions or working conditions. By opposing the black community’s demands for affirmative action, white teachers and the UFT ended up in a hopelessly isolated and compromised position. It is a position in defense of privilege that whites have taken, like a bad habit, quite often in our history. As one son of the the South put it many years ago when speaking of the poor white’s propensity to defend slavery, he is “made to fold to his bosom the adder that stings him.”

For those teachers primarily interested in educational reform the events recounted here are no less relevant. The pious hypocrites at the helm of our national, state, and local governments who defend the need for austerity on the one hand and bemoan the state of public education on the other are also the first to indulge in teacher- and parent-bashing, alternating between the two as it suits them. Somehow the adults most immediately responsible for the education and welfare of the children are undeserving, selfish, lazy, narrow minded while our political leaders would “leave no child behind” and “put children first.” The move to privatize public education and the ever increasing emphasis on standardized high-stakes testing can be turned around through the joint efforts of parents and teachers in the large urban areas. Will predominantly white teacher unions again so recklessly cast this alliance to the winds if their own privileges or prerogatives are challenged by parents of color demanding a measure of power in the schools? What could be a better indication that teachers have rejected the policies of old than our own internal critque of those policies? If the current UFT leadership or those critical of the leadership seek to reverse this division between the black community and the UFT, what better place to start than in our own backyard?

Reviewed by Sean Ahern
Teacher, New York City Public Schools

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