This chapter highlights a growing appreciation on Selden’s part of what he calls the “organizing power of militancy” (p. 29). A dramatic collective action engaged in by high school teachers in 1952 was for him a welcome development. This use of a confrontational tactic contrasted with the methods Selden has been employing to increase membership growth which he realized would seem to require decades to make the union a force of respectable strength.
The High School Teachers Association was pushing back against the abolition of the differential in pay with teachers of lower grades which went into effect in 1947. The teachers refused to take extracurricular assignments such as after-school sports and other programs. In response the Board eventually undercuts the boycott by granting a special salary increase to coaches and a general salary increase to everyone else. However, the high school differential was not restored and two years later the same tactic was attempted again.
Although the Teachers Guild had supported an equal pay scale for K-12 teachers they felt compelled to support the after-school work stoppage. In the ongoing confrontation Selden did not want the Guild teachers to remain on the sidelines. He called for a work slowdown on their part, which he termed a “minimum service program.”
A strategy committee drew up a list of things teachers would refused to do as part of this action. It included no work on bulletin boards, no hall patrol, no bringing materials from home, and no writing on the blackboard. Selden recounts that the initiative was failure and he left to die a quiet death. In his words the teachers “could not bring themselves to sabotage their own work” (p. 25) It’s an interesting lesson but the account of it is somewhat muddled since Selden doesn’t identify any objective for the action.
At the start of the chapter he noted some sources for teacher frustration. Small rises in wages were lagging behind inflation and social conditions were becoming turbulent. In the junior high schools there were large numbers of substitutes because of a turnover he attributes to the unruliness of the students.
One measure of the generation dissatisfaction was the growing size of annual demonstrations at city hall and marches in Albany. Selden listened for complaints and then drafts petitions to be circulated on specific issues. This is a standard tactic done weekly which gauges the strength of sentiments about the stated problems. In the spring 1958 he observed a huge response to the demand for a duty-free lunch among elementary school teachers. It drew several thousand signatures in in a month.
This became the “Right to Eat” campaign. It would figure among the six demands that the newly constituted UFT would bring to the first bargaining for a contract with the city. The next event which Selden narrates is his attempt to rally Guild teacher around a work stoppage. The response is underwhelming but the Board of Education leaves teachers fired up with its backpedaling on a raise. With the stoppage threatened the full raise is agreed to.
At this point Selden succeeds in obtaining funding from the AFT for a second union organizer (in addition to himself). Al Shanker, he relates, was his third choice after Ely Trachtenberg and George Altomare who declined the position. Al Shanker agrees and begins his rise out of the ranks.
This chapter closes with the most significant development so far in the book. In early January 1959 the night school teachers struck for wages and better working conditions. They were led by Robert Parente and Sam Hochberg. Although Condon-Wadlin was still in effect the organizers who were leaders in the High School Teachers Association developed a strategy in which the mass of teachers would submit resignations.
This posed a dilemma for the Teachers Guild which considered itself in competition with the HSTA. But as Selden relates, Ely Trachtenberg was crucial influence in bringing the Guild into a cooperative perspective. Trachtenberg had already “convinced me many months before, that it did not matter which organization sponsored a particular militant action. What mattered was that the workers, in this case the teachers, advance.” (p. 31) The Guild gave the strike their full support and its success signaled the beginning of a new era of collective bargaining.