The NY Times piece today on the teachers fired in the 50's for being members of the Communist Party or refusing to answer questions by exercising their 5th amendment rights has some interesting offshoots, some relevant even today. The unfinished documentary is called “Dreamers and Fighters: The NYC Teacher Purges.”
“None of those teachers were ever found negligent in the classroom,” said Clarence Taylor*, a professor of history at Baruch College who has written a study of the Teachers Union and the ideological strife that destroyed it. “They went after them for affiliation with the Communist Party.”
The Teachers Union was a major bulwark defending teachers and schools in the 1930's when the depression was at its worst. Unsurprisingly, Albert Shanker was in favor of firing these teachers in the 50's and his rise had some basis in his virulent anti-communism, perfect for the 50's.
This strain has continued right through to today, as witnessed by the Unity Caucus Red Scare attack on the ICE/TJC presidential candidate Kit Wainer in the 2007 elections.
The unfinished work is narrated by the actor Eli Wallach, whose brother, Samuel, was president of the Teachers Union
from 1945 to 1948 and was fired from his teaching job for refusing to answer questions before the superintendent of schools, Dr. William Jansen.
“They called everybody a Communist then,” growled Eli Wallach, 93, in a telephone interview, still bridling over the way his brother was treated.
The Teachers Union, which was expelled from the American Federation of Teachers in 1941 before disbanding in 1964 and being succeeded by the United Federation of Teachers, maintained that “no teacher should be disqualified for his opinions or beliefs or his political associations.” State and city authorities countered that Communists were unfit to teach because they were bound to the dictates of the party.
When asked by Mr. Moskoff, “Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?” many teachers refused to answer. They were then charged with insubordination and subject to dismissal.
The UFT, formed out of a merger of the anti-communist Teachers Guild and the High School Teachers Association, defeated the leftist Teachers Union in the bargaining election in 1960. The TU had been decimated by the witch hunts of the 40's and 50's. Before the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939 (which led to the desertion of the CPUSA by many), the TU was pretty well respected and even as late as 1940/41 led the resistance to budget cuts. In unpublished research I saw, the Teachers Guild seemed to play no role in these battles. Thus, the ultimate rise of the UFT was fueled to some extent by the Red Scare, though it is hard to imagine collective bargaining rights would have been granted to a communist dominated movement even in the early 60's.
Though the Teachers Union disbanded in 1964, many of the members became the core of Teachers Action Caucus which opposed the 1968 strikes, as most of the extremely pro-labor left did as they viewed the strike not as a labor struggle but against the community.
The group I was with (NYC School Workers) ran with TAC in a number of elections from the mid-70s through the mid 80s. A third group, New Directions, merged with Teachers Action Caucus to from what is currently New Action.
The files contain reports by informants who have never been publicly identified. But one operative known as “Blondie” and “Operator 51” was later revealed as Mildred V. Blauvelt, a police detective who went undercover for the Board of Education in 1953 and was credited with exposing 50 Communist teachers. Later, in a series of newspaper reminiscences, she said her hardest moments came when, posing as a Communist hard-liner, she had to argue disaffected fellow travelers out of quitting the party.
Nice job, Mildred. Do you think there are any undercover agents lurking in your schools today rooting out people who disparage differentiated learning?
*Clarence Taylor was a high school teacher and involved with various incarnations of New Action in the 80's and early 90's. His twin brother Larry, is chapter leader at Arts and Design HS and associated with TJC. Larry was one of the six people ICE/TJC elected to the UFT executive board in 2004. Larry also was David Pakter's chapter leader and testified for him at his first 3030a hearing a few years ago. Larry's enormous integrity and support of David went a long way in getting us involved.