Madison Protests, Biography of Difference Maker Albert Shanker

Albert Shanker helped pave the way for the rights Gov. Scott Walker seeks to strip.

The protests in Madison show little signs of abating as they enter their third week.

The weekend action at the state capital drew polarizing filmmaker Michael Moore, among thousands of participants.  Moore compared the protestors’ actions to those of the people in Egypt who recently toppled the longtime autocratic and repressive rule of Hosni Mubarak.

At issue is a bill by Republican Gov. Scott Walker that would strip public employees of nearly all of their collective bargaining rights.

Teachers would be among the directly affected should the 14 Democratic senators who left the state eventually return and the bill be passed.

During the first week of the protests, many of the city’s teachers participated in a two-day ‘sickout’ in which large numbers of teachers called in sick in an effort to render the system unworkable for a day and to register their discontent with Walker’s actions.

The rights that teachers were exercising and that other public employees seek to preserve are the product of extensive struggle, much of which was lead by controversial union leader and longtime American Federation of Teachers head Albert Shanker.

In Tough Liberal, Richard Kahlenberg offers a biography of Shanker’s life and a somewhat wistful analysis of the divisions within, and state of, American liberalism.

The book takes us through Shanker’s formative years in New York, his hardscrabble roots and his Russian immigrants father’s ceaseless toil selling newspapers.  Kahlenberg argues that the feisty and combative Shanker that sparked the quip in Woody Allen’s Sleeper, where a character wakes up in the future to learn that civilization was destroyed when “a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead,” was forged in the crucible of his home and neighborhood.

Although Shanker was Jewish, he did not grow up in a Jewish enclave, but rather in a rough Catholic area where he was bullied, occasionally brutally so (Kahlenberg includes a quote from Shanker’s sister that suggests he never got over one particularly abusive incident.).

After gaining his undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois and doing most, but not all, of the work necessary to earn a doctorate at Columbia University, Shanker joined the world of teaching before becoming a full-time union president and advocate.

It was during this time that he led the bitter strikes of 1967 and 1968 that paralyzed the New York Public Schools and contributed to bitter animosity between the largely Jewish teaching staff and union members and the black communities of Ocean Hill-Brownsville who were eager to retain community control.

Kahlenberg does not shy away from discussing the unsavory aspects of this episode, writing about the accusations of racism hurled toward Shanker and his cronies, the invective foisted upon long-time and tireless advocates of black progress Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph and the antisemitic statements and flyers distributed by Shanker’s opponents.

The event cost Shanker many of his allies within the liberal community, but Kahlenberg writes about how his subsequent actions in organizing paraprofessionals, penning weekly Where We Stand columns in The New York Times, and  focusing on national education reform helped him mend those fences.

In the book’s later sections, Kahlenberg talks about Shanker’s  embrace of the need for national standards, his support of merit pay, and his relationships with various presidents.  According to the author, Clinton, who Kahlenberg somewhat dubiously also calls a “tough liberal” in the Scoop Jackson tradition, had the closest relationship with Shanker of the presidents alive in his education reform years.

Although he had largely been an absent parent who was away from home 300 evenings per year and was distracted in the rare moments when he was home, Shanker appears to have had some measure of peace with his family and his second wife Eadie, who bore the brunt of his ever-increasing travel and ever more filled schedule.

Shanker’s blend of sparkling and ferocious debate skills, voracious intellect and love of cooking are all on full display.

And Kahlenberg seems most concerned with placing him within the context of American liberalism, which he appears to argue lost its way in a fashion similar to how Bugs Bunny emerges from a tunnel to say, “I knew I should have taken a left turn at Albuquerque.”   Specifically, the authors appears in support of Shanker’s combination of idealism and pragmatism in domestic and foreign issues-he writes that some of his strongest agreement with Reagan was on the need to confront the Soviet Union and to support freedom movements like Lech Walesa’s Solidarity in Poland-that Shanker espoused.   This support does have its limits, as he does fault Shanker for his ostensible support of the Vietnam War late in that conflict’s unfolding.

Shanker died in 1997 from the cancer he had fought for years, and left behind a rich legacy of advancing the state of teachers’ unions and  the cause of education reform.  Although Kahlenberg’s writing is a bit wooden and formulaic, he moves the project forward with sufficient clarity to have the reader understand, if not agree with, his arguments.

Whether one is in agreement with Kahlenberg’s hope for the return to national prominence of other tough liberals in the Shanker mode, it is undeniable that he helped expand the very rights that Walker is trying so doggedly to strip from teachers and other public sectors workers in our neighboring state.  Kahlenberg’s biography helps us deepen our appreciation of Shanker’s many contributions.


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