The Issue at Ocean Hill

Albert Shanker
Albert Shanker; drawing by David Levine

About a month ago in these pages I suggested that the conflicting interests in the New York City school strike were irreconcilable and that they raised questions of national importance. What I meant was that the city’s entrenched and decadent educational bureaucracy had come to be regarded by much of its clientele not as an aid but an obstacle to the education of a majority of the city’s children, and that for many New Yorkers the time had come for this bureaucracy to be dismembered and its various powers decentralized. Since the bureaucracy is largely white and the school population more than half black and Puerto Rican, the transfer of authority over budgets and personnel from the central bureaucracy to local governing boards, many of them inevitably to be controlled by blacks and Puerto Ricans, foreshadowed a revolutionary transfer of power not only within the educational system but within the economy of the city itself, with obvious implications for the country as a whole. It was to prevent this transfer that the United Federation of Teachers went on strike.

As of this writing it is still unclear how the strike will be settled, for the issues have proven to be not only persistent and deep but incendiary in ways that could not quite have been foreseen even a few weeks ago. What had begun as a conflict between a complacent educational bureaucracy and its disaffected clientele has emerged as a struggle between Jews and Negroes, in which the largely Jewish school bureaucracy finds itself allied with a broad coalition of organized civil servants and trade unionists against the blacks and Puerto Ricans, who are supported by an alliance of educational reformers, foundation executives, business leaders, and university presidents. That the city’s trade unionists seem determined to destroy Mayor Lindsay in the bargain suggests that their further aim may be to offer one of their own leaders as Lindsay’s Democratic opponent in next year’s election for mayor. Thus, for example, if Albert Shanker, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, and currently the most publicized of the city’s labor leaders, were to win the Democratic primary he would inherit as his constituency a powerful coalition of unionists, civil servants, police and firemen, construction workers and schoolteachers, Conservatives as well as Democrats, not to mention a residue of aging socialists for many of whom John Lindsay has come to seem as sinister, in his advocacy of the rights of Negroes and Puerto Ricans, as Earl Warren must seem to the supporters of George Wallace. The bitterness toward Lindsay of these groups is only superficially ideological. More than 95,000 union personnel within the school system, of whom 71,000 are pedagogical staff, are protected by fifteen separate collective bargaining agreements with the Board of Education, covering not only teachers in all categories but construction workers, cooks, custodians, etc. To transfer a portion of the city’s…

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