In New York Selden will work with Local 2 of the AFT which is the Teachers Guild. He sets his sights on the city’s entire teaching force which numbers around 40,000, and sees several obstacles to large-scale organizing. For one thing he considers the teachers relatively well paid. Another factor is that the Guild has only 1800 members and came into being as a result of a bitter factional fight within the old Local 5, the Teachers Union. The ideological division between the Guild and the Teachers Union wasn’t the only rivalry. Teachers were organized separately by borough, grade level, religion and subject.
As he describes it, the Guild “competed with its rivals by intense leafletting and providing a range of services. It maintained an office and published a four-page monthly paper. It also offered retirement counseling, grievance service and preparatory courses for the teaching license examinations. Its legislative program in Albany was the center of its action program.”
Selden describes the organizational structure of the Guild which was pretty much identical with the Teachers Union and the present-day UFT with its Administrative Committee, Executive Board and Delegate Assembly. There were also numerous committees which met often. Since he had assumed the position of executive secretary in addition to organizer he was kept busy.
As the months wore on Selden describes several misgivings he had about his work. One was the slow rate of growth in membership which “would take a hundred years to enroll a majority of teachers” in the city (p. 17). Another misgiving was the signs of conservatism in the labor movement generally and the lack of ideals. He recounts the IBEW workers in Albany objecting to public ownership of power plants, saying they’d prefer to work for a private company. He recounts that labor organizing seemed less and less to be an antidote for McCarthyism in full swing, the Cold War and a reactionary bipartisan coalition holding sway in Congress. By 1955 he was ready to quit and return to teaching.
Later things pick up as the efforts he put into developing a camaraderie with the younger members of the Guild begins to bear fruit. He brought them together for labor songs and films he’d borrowed and the organizing gets to be enjoyable, more like it was in Dearborn.
He enjoys the company of Ely Trachtenberg, who under the influence of Max Schachtman was well-schooled in leftwing debate but “had a pragmatic attitude towards the Guild’s problems” (p. 19) He persuades him to lead the organizing committee and together they formulate a long-range organizing strategy for the Guild.
Together they chart the factors that might make the Guild appealing or unappealing for teachers at large. They then used this analysis to formulate the “Big Guild, Little Guild” thesis that advances the notion that the Guild should strive to become a representative for teachers generally. It should avoid pushing ideas that were likely to alienate teachers. The example he gives is the Guild’s strong stand on the separation of church and state. He appealed for Guild member to focus on bread-and-butter issues and working conditions and to avoid arguments that would make teacher unionism less appealing for teachers. There were other organizations for advancing ideas that not everyone agreed with yet.
This view was not welcomed by the Guild leadership. Nevertheless Selden and Trachtenberg remain focused on transforming the union’s outlook and in spring of 1956, after a long debate, they succeed in convincing the delegate assembly to make collective bargaining a primary objective.
Selden recounts how the effort to make the Guild the main representative body for teachers generally owed a lot to Trachtenberg’s determination. He also confesses that the “Big Guild, Little Guild” thesis was in some ways too simplistic. It did not account for the risk, seen clearly with hindsight, that in the drive toward collective bargaining a union could become like a “vending machine” dispensing benefits in return for dues. (The key word in the phrase seems to be machine.)
He closes the chapter by mentioning that an early win for collective bargaining came through the efforts of Lou Hay. Through his organizing of a 400 strong unit of psychologists and social workers the Guild was made the bargaining agent with the city.