Friday, August 12, 2016

Lies My Union President Told Me- Whitewashing the AFT's History by Sean Ahearn

Lies My Union President Told Me
Letter to the American Educator re AFT President Randy Weingarten’s “Honoring Our Past and Inspiring Our Future” (
President Randy Weingarten’s “Honoring Our Past and Inspiring Our Future,” written on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the AFT is an exercise in “perception management.” Weingarten claims that she has “pored over historical documents from our archives” and concluded that the AFT “has been a vehicle to fight for positive change both in public schools and in society.” Further on she states her case even more explicitly:  “For 100 years, the AFT has worked to build power and use it for good.” 

As a member of the UFT for the past 17 years, son of a UFT retiree, brother to a former UFT teacher and CSA principal, product of the NYC public school system (1959-1971) and father of three, all of whom graduated from NYC high schools, I proudly count myself as a witness to the last 50 years of UFT/AFT history.  Based on my experience and knowledge I challenge her very one-sided findings for failing to point out major examples of how the AFT has been a hindrance to “positive change both in public schools and in society.”
I do not write to honor Albert Shanker and those who followed the course he took. It is my hope that through a full review of our AFT history, rational and thoughtful working people, acting in their own class interests, will conduct an internal critique, identify the wrong turns, and bravely set a new course for our union. It is my hope that current and future generations will overcome the seemingly willful blindness that is found in Weingarten’s article.

Weingarten’s airbrushed history offers a textbook example of how to frame a narrative by omitting all evidence that contradicts her thesis.  This method is not one of historical inquiry seeking educational enlightenment.  It is the method used by a defense attorney to sway a judge or jury, guilt or innocence aside.
In business and politics this is the method used to win market share, frame political campaigns and control the hearts and minds of the people. 
The sociologist and historian James W. Loewen has critiqued this method when applied to global and US history textbooks in his widely read Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Book Got Wrong (1995, 2008).  It is a method that seeks to produce a generation that is misinformed, politically unaware, and lacking in self-knowledge and self-esteem.  It casts pedagogues as society’s thought police.

There is much in in AFT history that should be critically examined.  When the full story is told it should include honest and in-depth criticism of key positions taken since Albert Shanker ousted his former mentor and colleague David Selden and rose to the Presidency of the AFT over two generations ago.   

The 1968 UFT strikes against community control, led by then UFT President Albert Shanker weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., became arguably the longest hate strike in US history and was part and parcel of the “white” backlash and neo conservative/neo liberal counter revolution which we still suffer from today.  I was a high school student at the time in one of the community control districts where progressive teachers and students kept the school open during the strike.

With community control ended decentralization still afforded parents the power to elect local school boards.  Efforts by UFT members to interfere with minority parents voting in the 1973 District 1 school board elections on the Lower East Side were successfully overturned in Federal Court and upheld on appeal.
“In their complaint, filed on September 18, 1973, the Coalition for Education in District One, various unsuccessful candidates at the election and members of minority groups (Black, Hispanic and Chinese) challenged the validity of the election under the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as amended in 1970, 42 U.S.C. 1971, 1973 et seq.”    

To be cited in violation of the 14th amendment and the 1965 Voting Rights Act hardly constitutes an “honor” to be conferred upon a supposedly liberal northern city and a largely “socialist” union leadership that prided itself on its support for civil rights in the 50’s and early 60’s.  I attended public school in this district from 1959 – 1971.  Weingarten apparently missed this case while she “pored over” the AFT archives.

The median salary for a NYC public school teacher in 2016, discounted for inflation and the extended day, is less than it was in 1973.  Add to that the explosive costs of education and housing and it is fair to conclude that a teacher with 7 years on the job today is worse off than their counterpart was over 40 years ago.  Top salary is now reached after 22 years on the job as opposed to 8 years in 1973. Even those few nearing retirement are just on par with their counterparts of 43 years ago.  I ask President Weingarten the simple question:  Who has the AFT been building “power” for? Surely the salary schedule is in the AFT archives and should figure in any assessment of the AFT’s “power” or lack thereof.

Jerald Podair in his Strike That Changed New York (2002) suggests a causal linkage between the 1968 strike and the decline in power, of both the UFT and the Black community.  Among his most striking and relevant observations is:

“…the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis had so damaged the UFT’s standing with black New York that Shanker, even if he had possessed the fire in the belly to attempt a cross-class interracial assault on the champions of fiscal austerity, would have found few friends there.  Black New Yorkers were as angry about the decimated schools as Shanker, but they viewed him, and the union he led, as an enemy…Community control in black neighborhoods was dead, replaced by a decentralization structure that gave the UFT more influence than black parents…the failure of the UFT and black citizens to work together to oppose school service cuts was as predictable as it was tragic.  The union would now cast its lot with the banks.  And the black community, politically marginalized, economically expendable and no longer in control of the language of “community” – would be unable to do anything about it.” (Pp194-195)

In the 1970s Shanker went on to become a leading national opponent of Affirmative Action, submitting a brief on Allan Bakke’s behalf.  The brief, submitted in the name of the AFT, is not mentioned by Weingarten though it is in the Shanker Papers and the AFT Papers that she claims to have “pored over.”

The current wave of “Education reform” was launched with the 1983 publication of A Nation At Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform towards the end of Reagan’s second term.
For over 30 years the leadership of the AFT has been a partner in this latest wave of “education reform” and thereby maintained their “seat at the table” alongside the “reformers.”  This is a matter of public record.   When questions were raised that strongly contradicted the claims made by “A Nation At Risk” (see the Sandia Report, Bracey, Berliner and Bidell, Emery and Ohanian) the AFT and those closely associated with Shanker (including Diane Ravitch, then Assistant Secretary of Education in the Reagan Administration) chose to ignore and even suppress a devastating critique that potentially could have deflated the bubble of “reform” a generation ago (See ).

Comfortably based on the education reformers  bogus critique of the state of public education and its politically motivated remedies, Shanker, Feldman and Weingarten are all on record in support of the “reforms” themselves: high standards for students and teachers, standardized curriculums, high stakes testing for students and teachers (for how else to measure whether the high standards are being met), charter schools (to counter the states monopoly over education and to give parents “choice”) and mayoral control in large urban systems serving predominantly Black, Latino and Asian students which has been the means through which “reform” was foisted upon school communities.
Most recently, the “reformers” and their corporate cabal attempted to hoist the AFT on its own petard.    It was only the death of Supreme Court Justice Scalia that averted a negative ruling in Vergara v California that would have done away with the agency shop. The stay of execution is only temporary, there are more cases to follow.  Is this what Weingarten means by “building power?”  Power for whom?  Power for what? 

I challenge president Weingarten to go before any large urban local delegate assembly and defend the AFT’s record over 30 years in support of education “reform.”  Does she have the gall to tell us to our face that school closings, privatization, elimination of sports, the arts, electives, vocational programs, attacks on tenure and seniority, the disappearance of Black and Latino educators, increased segregation, high stakes testing and value added teacher assessments are to be viewed as “collateral damage,” and not the central defining features of a neo conservative/neo liberal, corporate led consensus on the proper role and direction for public education?  She wouldn’t do such a thing, so she redacts the record of AFT collaboration with the “reformers” and then presents herself as a teacher and student advocate.

Teachers and their unions face grave pressures and are in a more defensive posture than they were 50 years ago.  What power?  What positive changes have been brought about?  No doubt Weingarten and her supporters will point to the fact that teachers have a job with benefits and a defined benefit pension plan, a rarity now among US workers.  What is the message here? Do senior teachers shut up and thankfully crawl to the finish line? Do new and mid-career teachers count their lucky stars that they are not suffering the same hardships that the majority of our students, their families and communities face?  Is this then the real meaning of “professionalism;” to divide us from the rest of the working class?   Should the membership cast a blind eye to the AFT’s quisling response to the neo conservative/ neo liberal consensus on education, the U.S. empire and the economy so that at least some of  the so called “professionals,” (most importantly the paid staff and retainers at AFT Inc.) will be spared because the oligarchy has need of an ideological police? 

The isolated individual, teacher, parent, student, may opt to save their own skin when no alternative option is in sight, but experience shows that this is a losing proposition for the large majority.  The greatest good for the greatest number comes not from dog eat dog competition, but from collaboration.  Acknowledgement of this historical fact has led working people at important moments to embrace the fundamental credo of solidarity and act accordingly.  Such a moment is upon us.

There is no defending the AFT record of betrayal of this credo and the self-destructive impact it has had on the membership and the communities we serve.  Weingarten simply casts a blind eye over what needs to be understood and corrected. If teachers applied this same method to reflect on our own classroom practice we would never learn a thing.

I urge the American Educator to open its pages to a real discussion of AFT history.  I urge my sister and brother educators to study and reflect upon AFT history.  As William Faulkner wrote, “the past is not over, it’s not even past.”
Sean Ahern

Delegate to the UFT Delegate Assembly. Member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) caucus.  August 7, 2016


Ira Shor said...

Thank you for setting the record straight. Removing Weingarten and her clique from AFT office is the most important task facing teachers who hope to rescue the public schools and their own profession as well as their students.

Jeffrey B. Perry said...

An important letter from Sean Ahern. I encourage people to circulate it widely.

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