Albert Shanker and Michael Mulgrew: Tough Times Need Tough Leaders

Dr. Aragon: “Now this is the Central Parallel of the American Federation. This district is what you you’d probably call the Southwestern United States. That was before it was destroyed by the war.”

Miles Monroe (played by Woody Allen): “War?”

Aragon: “Yes. According to history, over 100 years ago, a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.”–Sleeper (1973).

Well, perhaps a little harsh, Shanker’s reputation was a “take no prisoners” union leader who defended his members, within, a contentious union membership.

A little history: the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) emerged after decades of in-fighting among teacher activists in scores of teacher organizations.  The Teachers Guild and the Teacher Unions were bitterly opposed to each other. In 1949 New York State enacted the Feinberg Law, requiring teachers to sign a loyalty oath, over 500 teachers were forced to defend themselves and several hundred teachers were fired. The law was challenged in the courts, all the way to the SCOTUS, who affirmed the law. (See Clarence Taylor, “Reds at the Blackboard,” 2012 here). The Guild and the High School Teachers Association merged into the United Federation of Teachers, a one-day recognition strike in 1960, a negotiated contract in 1961 with the remnants of the  Teachers Union (TU) as the opposition caucus within the UFT.

The roiling sixties: the civil rights and the anti-war movements within the union and John Lindsay (1965-1973), a mayor trying to weaken an increasingly powerful union.

Shanker navigated through the bitter union infighting: should the UFT take a formal position supporting or opposing the war in Vietnam?  [A UFT referendum endorsed a “no position” position], involvement in the burgeoning civil rights movement [teachers traveled to freedom schools in the South over the summers], and teacher strikes in 1967 and 1968. The strike in 1967 centered on salary, a “disruptive child” process and “More Effective Schools,” a program to pump millions into early childhood programs in targeted schools.

The 1968 strike, forty days long, ripped the city apart.

The union opposed the power of newly created demonstration school districts, created by the Ford Foundation (the Gates Foundation of today) with the disputed authority to unilaterally discharge teachers. (See Diane Ravitch, “The Great School Wars: New York City 1805-1973,” and Dana Goldstein, “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession,” 2014).

After the bitter 1968 strike and the re-clustering of schools into thirty self-governing districts Mayor Lindsay, with eyes on the White House, tried to ingratiate himself with angry teachers; the mayor agreed to support the creation of a new far, far better pension system, called Tier 1. Instead of weakening the union Shanker reorganized the union by paralleling the decentralized districts with union leaders in each of the thirty districts who engaged in local district politics and thrived. The UFT became a political force across the city.

The contract negotiations in 1975 dragged through the spring and the summer. A few days before school reopening the union negotiating committee was considering asking to extend the expiring contract for thirty days, hoping to patch together a contract in a financially strapped city; the city, without notice, sent layoff notices to 12,000 teachers, all elementary school teachers with less than 5.5 years of service, French teachers with less than twelve years were laid off. The Delegate Assembly meeting rapidly approved a strike vote chanting, “We won’t come back until we all come back.”  It became clear: the strike was funding the city’s deficit, city leaders were urging the city to declare bankruptcy, and, there was no public sympathy for the laid off or the striking teachers. After five days the strike ended, teachers returned, a shortened school day to account for fewer teachers, and, the teacher pension fund lent the city 150 million to pay pending bonds, preventing a city default and bankruptcy. (Read “How Shanker Saved the City” here).

In 1983 a presidential task force released “A National at Risk, a scathing report that harshly criticized education, from K-12 through college and university and called for major changes, the report was attacked by the education establishment, except Al Shanker. A lengthy debate ensued, and slowly the establishment, begrudgingly, accepted that “education” needed major changes, and, Shanker became the national voice for reform.

(See “The Agenda that Saved Public Education” here and Richard Kahlenberg, “Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy,” 2007  here.

Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor of New York City in 2001. After eight years of Republican Rudy Giuliani in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, four candidates contended in the  democratic primary scheduled to take place on September 11(9/11). The primary was halted, rescheduled, no candidate reached the 40% required to win, a run-off election and Mark Green stumbled to election day; Bloomberg won by a slim margin, losing in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Bronx, winning in Queens and Staten Island.

In his first two terms Bloomberg was a popular mayor, a deft administrator, and immune from the “politics” that dominated the city. Teacher contracts in 2005 and 2007 increased salary by 42%; however, as Bloomberg tried to remove teacher tenure his relationship with union frayed.

Mulgrew became the UFT leader in 2009 and skillfully pushed back against Bloomberg; hundreds of meetings in neighborhoods across the city, and simply waiting for Bloomberg’s third term to end. In New York State public employee contracts remain in “full force and effect” until the successor contract is negotiated.

Although the UFT endorsed Thompson in the primary Mulgrew and de Blasio bonded; the contract included back pay in the successor contract, to be paid in five annual installments.

Mulgrew and de Blasio work well together, the city funded schools at far higher levels than previously, the PROSE program, encouraging schools to adopt innovative school-based practices was created and expanded.

In addition Mulgrew and Governor Cuomo developed a working relationship, in spite of the antipathy between de Blasio and Cuomo. The Janus Decision could have resulted in dramatic losses of union membership, Cuomo issued an executive order protecting unions.

As de Blasio hesitated over closing schools Mulgrew vigorously objected and forced de Blasio to close schools. The UFT threatened safety strikes and nimbly danced between the governor and the mayor.

Hovering over the city is the specter of layoffs and perhaps even a city default, declaring bankruptcy. While large city bankruptcies are rare Detroit did declare bankruptcy, with dire consequences for public employees, even retired employees. (Read about Detroit bankruptcy here).

The Independent Budget Office (IBO) predicts deep budget deficits over the next two budget cycles. Another federal stimulus package is questionable. A week ago the city informed the union that it could not pay the last installment of the retroactive 2013 contract settlement. An arbitrator decided that half the retro must be paid now and the remainder in July, the next budget cycle, and, a no-layoff pledge for the remainder of the school year.

The opposition caucus was extremely critical, belittled the no-layoff agreement, in my view Mulgrew deftly “guaranteed” the payment and protected the jobs of newer teachers.

Navigating the power struggle between the governor and the mayor, vigorously supporting safety protocols, working with communities across the city, guiding schools through the COVID world, Mulgrew has and continues to be both tough and skilled.

Mentioning bankruptcy is not a scare tactic, it is one scenario, the mayor included $1 billion in “labor savings” as part of his anticipated 2021 budget and the Citizen’s Budget Commission issued a report (Read here), including wage freezes, reducing “headcount” by attrition and reduction in health and welfare plan costs for active and retired employees.

In tough times we need tough leaders and Mulgrew has the “toughness” to keep us afloat.

3 responses to “Albert Shanker and Michael Mulgrew: Tough Times Need Tough Leaders

  1. A brief history of the early days of our Union by someone who was there. Well done Peter.


  2. The agreement averted a potentially crippling job action and the no layoff provision protected the paras, the lowest paid and most vulnerable members. It made clear that the City must pay its obligations. Going forward and negotiating a new contract in a fiscal crisis is an opportunity to really look at at where money is spent in the DOE. Maybe we can move non-educational costs, breakfast and lunch programs into a separate funding stream. Maybe we can terminate or renegotiate consultant contracts that were a big part of the Bloomberg and Klein years. Most importantly, maybe we can look at whether the system is really well served by a nineteenth century model of supervision built when many teachers had little formal education themselves and the “principal” teacher in each school was a normal school graduate. No crisis should be wasted, and this one offers the City and the Union the chance to rebuild the system around a teacher leadership model that looks more like the way hospitals and medicine is run.


  3. You cherry pick a few things and ignore the overall Mulgrew record.

    From the ICEUFTblog response to the Unity video that they refused to print in the public comments there:
    Moving our Union forward. Are you serious?

    -Unity surrendered our seniority rights in 2005 by agreeing to the creation of Absent Teacher Reserves and never ended the ATR pool since then (there is no such thing as Absent Firefighter Reserves; when firehouses are closed, firefighters are placed permanently; most unions respect seniority rights);

    -Unity in 2009 let the interest on the fixed TDA go down from 8.25% to 7% (CSA [principal’s union] and PSC [CUNY Teachers union] still get 8.25%);

    -Unity-Mulgrew weakened tenure rights where the burden of proof is now on teachers when charged for incompetence;

    -Unity allowed the law to change so there is an extra year to achieve tenure for new teachers;

    -Unity did nothing to stop the creation of the vastly inferior Tier VI pension system for teachers hired in 2012 and after;

    -Unity under Mulgrew allowed anti-public school state education commissioner John King to impose the horrible Danielson teacher evaluation system on us;

    -Unity agreed to a contract with 18 months of zero raises in 2014 and they lied to us by saying the city’s cupboard was bare when the city’s financial situation was improving and moving ahead was better than ever;

    -Unity agreed in 2014 to set the worst pattern for raises for municipal unions in NYC history by agreeing to increases totaling 10% over 7 years and then Unity extended the contract for almost another half year of zeros.

    -Unity leadership under Mulgrew did not pull UFT members out of school buildings the UFT knew were infected with Covid-19 in March 2020 (subsequently over 70 DOE in school employees died in the spring from COVID-19 and even President Mulgrew admitted it’s logical to assume some were infected at work);

    -Unity leadership sent out a memo worrying more about losing union dues than protecting member lives in March where they discouraged UFT members from engaging in a life saving sickout;

    -Unity-Mulgrew forfeited spring break in the pandemic;

    -Unity-Mulgrew suspended the grievance process since the pandemic started, leaving individual members at the mercy of administrators (courts are open via Zoom so why not virtual grievances?);

    -Unity-Mulgrew is as responsible as the mayor for allowing the city to reopen schools in the fall when the majority of parents are opting for remote learning and many buildings are not safe;

    -Unity-Mulgrew AGREED to let the city withhold the final payment of the interest-free loan we made to NYC in the 2014 Contract so now we will be waiting 12 years before we will be paid back in full for work we did from 2009-2011 (and by the way, the city is not so broke;

    -Unity -Mulgrew will not stand up publicly to most of the many principals who abuse UFT members;

    -Unity-Mulgrew enthusiastically supported Bill de Blasio’s reelection in 2017 when we knew after four years, he was Bloomberg lite on education and would not allow me to speak against the deBlasio endorsement at the DA.

    -Unity-Mulgrew ended even rudimentary democracy at union meetings so now all questions are screened in advance and now basically only softballs are asked to the president;

    -Unity-Mulgrew rigs elections by allowing retirees scattered all over the country to vote for who will represent active teachers. (In what other union can a retiree in Florida vote on who will be the high school vice president for NYC?)

    I can go on and on.

    I ask one question: Is the teaching profession in NYC better off now than it was before Michael Mulgrew and Randi Weingarten took over the UFT? It’s time to repair or replace the UFT with a real union.


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