Monday, January 19, 2009

NY Teacher Reporter Responds to Our Shanker Book Review

Last year Vera Pavone and I reviewed Richard Kahlenberg's "Albert Shanker: Tough Liberal" for New Politics (A Journal of Socialist Thought) (

We titled it "Albert Shanker: Ruthless Neocon." (Get the pdf on the ICE web site.)

We tried to cover a lot of ground in our review of 40 years of UFT history. We tied the role Shanker played in the alliances with business starting in the
early 80's with the catastrophe that has befallen public ed based on so much of where Shanker really stood. While some people think Randi Weingarten shifted the union in another direction, in fact she has only continued the policies set by Shanker.

We also dealt with Shanker's sell-out in 1975, a precursor to what is to befall schools in today's crisis - listen to Randi's words carefully and you will get the picture. Then there was Shanker's role in undermining teacher unions around the world based on his anti-left ideology.

Michael Hirsch, on the editorial board of New Politics, has responded. Hirsch is a reporter for the NY Teacher and employed by the UFT. Think he has a dog in the race?
He does fess up in his comments that Randi Weingarten is his boss while at the same time claiming he is not responding because of that.

Interesting that at the end of his response, he is identified this way:
MICHAEL HIRSCH is a New York-based labor journalist and is a member of the editorial boards on New Politics and Democratic Left.

Not exactly truth in advertising. In Hirsch's first draft he ended with a mild criticism of Shanker, which in a follow-up he removed. Call that being careful. Very careful.

We were given half the number of words (800) that Hirsch used in our response. Thus, we were severely constrained in responding to his red-baiting and attacks on us as members of ICE where he tries to marginalize as the lunatic fringe by distorting the election results.

This comment is particularly revealing:
"But surely the point of view of habitual dissidents whose union caucus garnered just 7 percent of the vote in the last presidential election, and who remain a null factor in union politics is itself a telling critique. These were the wrong reviewers to take on Kahlenberg."

For a null factor, Weingarten and Unity spend a hell of a lot of time addressing our nullness, something Hirsch who is present at DAs and Ex Bd meetings has known full well. This goes beyond distortion into the realm of outright lies.

Hirsch also confuses the ICE position with that of TJC when he talks about strikes. As a matter of fact he seems to completely confuse the positions of ICE and TJC.

He totally misrepresents the '68 strike. And to disclaim any responsibility for the leadup to NCLB on the part of Shanker by saying he died years before the law was passed is to ignore the entire last third of Kahlenberg's book.

And for a supposed socialist, Hirsch spends a lot of time red-baiting. The very first words of his commentary? Leon Trotsky. And he makes sure to throw in Rosa Luxembourg and Lenin for good measure. Doesn't Hirsch know I'm still (barely) a capitalist?

Both responses are posted at the New Politics web site. It is worth checking out. The hard copy will be out in a few weeks. I'm now a subscriber and it is a pretty serious looking journal. I'm looking forward to reading Jack Gerson's,"Where Will Obama Go?" (Jack was briefly with Coalition of NYC School Workers, a precursor of iCE, in the early 70's before he went on to bigger things. Just about every left wing teacher teacher in NYC passed through our group back then.)

I posted Hirsch's piece on Norms Notes for ease of access.

Hirsch Responds to Pavone-Scott Review of Shanker Book

Our response is also on Norms Notes. Ira Goldfine joined us in the response.

Scott/Pavone/Goldfine Response to Hirsch

Here were some comments on ICE-mail

Woodlass says:

Great response to Hirsch review.

In addition to all you've come back with in the limited space, and particularly that line you
quote below where he talks about ICE: "But surely the point of view of habitual dissidents whose union caucus garnered just 7 percent of the vote in the last presidential election, and who remain a null factor in union politics is itself a telling critique" —

Hirsch makes it seem that ICE has been around for as long as Unity has, being composed all these many decades of "habitual dissidents" who could in all this time only garner 7% of the vote. So on top of the election analysis you laid out in the response, it's also important to note that ICE is a fairly recent development in the history of this union. It's a caucus with no money, no headquarters, no access to new members, no computers connected to DoE statistics, restricted speaking time at union meetings, and in general very few ways to do any garnering at all. That it has been able to take on the Unity machine at all these past six years — and have people like Weingarten, Casey and even Hirsch take so much note — is a result of its dogged commitment to teachers and kids and a keen eye for the abuses of imperial unionism.

J says,
I think its a measure of how strong your critique was that he doesn't even attempt to defend the book.


  1. No, the Morton school is not a steakhouse reference, but the place where Jane Eyre accepts a job in the novel.

  2. Me too. Personally, I'm shocked the good folks at Unity choose to respond to your work with gratuitous personal attacks.

  3. Hirsch and Kahlenberg repeat the central myth about how teachers were terminated in Ocean Hill Brownsville in 1968 precipitating the strikes. Hirsch wrote as much in his NY Teacher review of Tough Liberal in Sept '07. Kahlenberg's book discusses the "terminations" and I heard him talk about "pink slips" at the Tamiiment Library Book talk that I attended along with Loretta and Gene and David B. Kahlenberg is a a hired pen, with little direct experience of the class struggle and scant concern for independent scholarship. Hirsch is a different character. Old enough to know and feel the torment of this history he is a person on the left who may be injuring himself by defending the indefensible. His waistline continues to expand and I'm concerned that it might be stress related.

    The 'firings' of 10 teachers in Ocean Hill Brownsville in 1968 is a lie used then and now to legitimize the actions of Shanker and his supporters in leadership. Who can fault a labor leader who goes to bat for his fired members? This view is common among Unity members as well as some leading members of the opposition. Once you swallow this line however , you're hooked and drawn away from closer examination of the challenges to the defacto separate and unequal school systems which the Ocean Hill Brownville Community Board, the ATA and many others, particularly in the Black community city wide, challenged. If the 1968 strikes can be framed in this way; as a strike against the "firing" of a union brother, further inquiry is made to appear superfluous. A pro union person is thereby freed from critical examination of the UFT's own approach to racial inequality, then and now. One is rendered deaf, dumb and blind to a crucial piece of history to labor solidarity, sound pedagogy and social justice.

    The 10 teachers in question were never 'terminated' by Rhody McCoy or the community board in 1968. They were instructed to report to the central board for reassignmemt. There were no 'pink slips', they were transferred involuntarily, a fairly common practice at the time which the union had regularly acceded to numerous times in other districts. Most of the time those being involuntarily transferred were sent to predominantly Black and Puerto Rican schools.

    The ocean hill community board received different treatment from the Chancellor and the UFT, both of whom opposed the experimental districts. Herein lies the rub which the firing mythology seeks to cover up: Why did the UFT and the BOE collude and conspire to destroy the experimental community control districts? Why did they accept involuntary transfers when teachers were moved from white schools to Black Schools, but not in a reverse direction? How did this one way transfer system serve the interests of the membership, the students or the working class as a whole then or now?

    The actual letter the teachers received is reprinted in The Strike That Changed New York (Podair) an award winning work of scrupulous scholarship that was never even mentioned let alone reviewed in a single AFT local or national paper or magazine.. The disembling and spin regarding the actual situation faced by the 10 teachers was a major point of the criticism of Shanker at the time as expressed in by the NYCLU, The Nedermeyer Report, and the President of the New Rochelle local of the AFT, Steve Zeluck who was also a former editorial board member of New Politics.

    As the rationale for the UFT's position started to wear thin by the third strike in November 1968, as positions hardened on both sides, Shanker seized upon an anonymous anti jewish flyer (Also in Podair's The Strike That Changed New York) that appearred in teacher's mailboxes in at JHS 271 and made 500,000 copies of it for distribution in Jewish communities throughout the city, pouring gasoline on the fire, even as 15-20% of the members were crossing the picket lines.

    I don't begrudge anyone for making a living. Hirsch is a labor reporter for a compromised leadership. Okay , so there are lots of thing he can't say in writing without pissing off his boss - I get that (by the way I don't think the critical remarks in Hirsch's review of Tough Liberal, which you can read on line, made the printed copy that is sent out to members) but there are sins of omission and sins of comission, Hirsch crosses over to the latter when he repeats the firing myth as fact. If he's not going to speak the truth, then at least he might have the decency to remain silent.


  4. 1/21/09


    After months of too much to do here, we're finally settling down a bit.

    Reading the entire thread about the Kahlenberg book, Sean's take on the
    underlying lie of 1969, and the Hirsch attack on Norm and Vera, I'm hoping in the
    coming months there will be time and space to make a few of these points
    coherent in the pages of Substance and to our broader audience. Sean's points are
    among the most important, especially from the point of view of Chicago history.

    Chicago, under Arne Duncan, has finally begun the job it was unable to do
    back in the days when Al Shanker (in the name of "standards") was sustaining an
    ethnic cleansing of the teaching force in New York City.

    As you know, Chicago was always an anthesis to New York inside AFT. By the
    1970s, Chicago had an enormous base of black teachers, and black leadersip at
    all levels within the Chicago Teachers Union. By the mid-1980s, that leadership
    was across-the-board. Jackie Vaughn was CTU President, and with massive
    support from unionized black teachers (and some others, like us here at Substance)
    Harold Washington had become mayor. By the time Jackie Vaughn died in 1994, the
    number of black teachers in Chicago's public schools nearly equalled the
    number of whites (with "other" gaining). By the end of the 1990s, white teachers
    were in the minority in the teaching force, and the majority of people working
    (in union jobs) in Chicago's public schools were black.

    "School reform" in Chicago has been a sustained attack on those gains for
    black people. But, like other bourgeois attacks (especially of course the Jim
    Crow South under the Dixiecrats, the old "Solid South") on unionized workers, the
    entire class suffers when these divisions take hold.

    The most grotesque thing about Barack Obama's appointment of Arne Duncan to
    be U.S. Secretary of Education is not (as some including former CTU president
    Debbie Lynch) that Duncan is "unqualified," but that Duncan has successfully
    led the ethnic cleansing of Chicago's teaching force (via privatization) while
    simultaneously ignoring Brown v. Board of Education and all federal
    desegregation rules (including Chicago's deseg consent decree) in a white supremacist way
    that would have been unthinkable at any time between the 1960s and the dawn
    of this century.

    1. Chicago has purged the teaching force of 2000 black teachers and
    principals since Duncan took over in 2001.

    2. Chicago has created a segregated separate privatized school system (the
    charter school system of more than 80 "schools" and "campuses") since Duncan
    took over in 2001. That school system would be the second largest school system
    in Illinois were it made outside CPS.

    Needless to say (especially for those of us who supported Barack Obama from
    "back in the day" when we first met him as an Illinois State Senator), the
    appointment of a segregationist privatizer and union buster to run the Department
    of Education is more than a bad sign. It's a clear indication of the struggle
    we will face in the years ahead.

    And, as Sean notes in his material about 1968, our ability to counter a Big
    Lie with facts will continue to be challenged. After all, it's only been 40
    years since "Ocean Hill Brownsville". And that Big Lie still holds central sway,
    not just because it's being repeated now in "Tough Liberal."

    George N. Schmidt
    Editor, Substance



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