Notes on the Teacher Rebellion Chapter 4

With the success of the Night School teachers strike, Robert Parente and Sam Hochberg looked to strengthening the campaign to restore the salary differential for high school teachers by enlisting the Junior High Schools in the struggle.  The High School Teachers Association was rechristened the Secondary School Teachers Association.  However, this was resisted by the Guild which had a large influence with teachers of the middle grades.  Subsequently, the SSTA and the Guild entered into merger talks.

The two groups found a resolution to the stalemate over restoring the differential for high school by supporting a “promotional increment” that reflected the qualifications for high school but could be granted to anyone who earned an equivalent academic achievement.

This resolution would never be acceptable to the leadership of the SSTA.  The merger would occur only when the militants, including Parente, Hochberg, John Bailey and others  had split to form the Committee for Action through Unity (CATU).  The plans for the merger were a surprise to the old guard of the Teachers Guild. 

To Selden’s chagrin the plans for a merger was presented by Al Shanker to the Executive Board as a fait accompli which no one could stop. Selden described his embarrassment over this, wishing that Shanker had allow the Board to “work their own way to the inevitable conclusions.” (p. 38)

The behind the scenes power play puts into the mind of the Old Guard the split brought on by younger members of the Teachers Union during the 1930s.  The reluctant parties resisting the merging refer to the younger faction as the “Popular Front from Below,” a reference to the winning side in those earlier days. 

However, the Guild remains intact and at a special meeting of the delegate assembly the merger receives the blessings of the former president, Rebecca Simonson.

Notes on The Teacher Rebellion Chapter 3

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.

Notes on the Teacher Rebellion Chapter 2

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.

Notes on The Teacher Rebellion Preface and Chapter 1

David Selden’s The Teacher Rebellion is a memoir of his experiences first as a union organizer, and later as the embattled president of the AFT.  The chapters in this book will span the late 1940s to the early 1980s.  Along the way he recounts the struggles of the factions that became the UFT before collective bargaining, through a heyday of dramatic teacher strikes and then into a subsequent period of financial austerity and union givebacks.

In the preface we become familiar with Selden’s passion for labor organizing in the schools.  By the style of the book Selden seems to be striving to recover a lost era and make it vivid and immediate again.  The Memory Tape segments of the chapters are reminiscent of the Camera Eye feature in the fictional USA trilogy by John Dos Passos which brought the first three decades of the 20th century to life a decade later.

In a brief account of his role as a leader of a small AFT local in Dearborn, Michigan, Selden contrasts the enormous growth of the United Auto Workers in just a few years with the modest size of the AFT after more than two decades.  He attributes the slow unionization of teachers to a tendency on the part of members to view their colleagues as too conservative to be expected to join a union.  He says these members expected the locals to remain “small agitation groups” (p. 5).

This was not Selden’s view.  He opposed the preference of the local’s founders to restrict membership to those with a similar outlook on social and economic issues.  He instead advocated recruiting all teachers, insisting that “half-hearted members” (he mentions gym coaches as an example) if they were left out, might end up working against the union cause (p. 6).

Selden had settled down in Peekskill, N.Y. as a Junior High School teacher but readily welcomed an opportunity to become a full-time AFT organizer for the Eastern U.S.  His first foray into cross-country organizing took place in Kentucky where teachers were in the throes of dissatisfaction over their low pay and working conditions.  He was able to organize thirteen new chapters in just one school year.  However, when he revisited the newly formed locals in the new school year, after the state had enacted a pay raise and teachers were facing intense anti-union pressures from school administrations he found that many of the chapters were no longer functioning.

Among his observations on this period he notes that “young unions are highly perishable” and required constant attention and support not only due to changing economic conditions but also because they could defeat themselves with infighting (p. 9).

Selden resolves to form a plan to make the organizing more sustainable and achieves this by convincing the AFT state affiliates to fund organizers through raising union dues.  He puts together a three state territory for himself for what he calls “circuit riding.”  This involves a long week of driving district to district, meeting with small groups of teachers who could form a nucleus that other staff would rally around “when the time was ripe.”  In response to his efforts he saw AFT membership in the region he covered increase and chartered dozens of new locals.

Selden remarks that he still hadn’t seen the kind of growth that he had experienced in Dearborn.  Then in 1953 there is a political shift in the AFT leadership and he comes under the supervision of a new president who he anticipates will not regard he work so favorably.  He obtains an offer to become an organizer in New York City.