Democracy’s Champion: Albert Shanker

Inspiration from the late civil rights activist, teachers’ union leader, and Freedom House trustee Albert Shanker.

by Eric Chenoweth, Guest Blogger

Inspiration from the late civil rights activist, teachers’ union leader, and Freedom House trustee Albert Shanker

Albert Shanker knew from an early age the power of prejudice. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he grew up in a poor Queens neighborhood where anti-Semitism was rife. Among the few Jews at his school, he was subject to constant taunts and a near fatal attack by fellow students. The lessons of his childhood and upbringing gave him a profound sympathy for other marginalized groups in society and helped lead to his activism in the civil rights movement (he was an early member of the Congress of Racial Equality).

His upbringing also taught him other powerful lessons. His mother’s membership in textile workers’ unions had helped his family out of poverty (“trade unions were second to God in our household”), while the public schools he attended (and other institutions such as public libraries) were essential to his gaining greater opportunities for higher education that ultimately led him into teaching. All of it was intertwined.

Perhaps most profoundly, the rise of fascism, World War II, and the postwar challenges of Soviet communism informed his early worldview. He became a committed believer in democracy and opponent of dictatorship. His early leanings towards socialism were rooted in the study of anti-fascist and anti-communist intellectuals of his era, including John Dewey, Sidney Hook, George Orwell, Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler, and Victor Serge—Left intellectuals who opposed all forms of government that would oppress freedom.

As we mark the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker’s death, it is important to remember the foundational lessons that shaped his life, even as the United States and the world again confront challenges to freedom and democracy.

In many respects, our current challenges are surprising. In the years before his death, Shanker pointed with pride to the role played by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the AFL-CIO, and Education International (the world federation of free teachers’ unions he helped craft) in helping international trade unions and democratic movements to overthrow dictatorships, helping to win the Cold War on peaceful terms, and to build and strengthen democracy around the globe. He left a world in which freedom was thought to be still advancing.

As president of both New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the AFT, Shanker had made sure he and the union were engaged in the central struggles of his time for human rights, workers’ rights, and freedom. An early action as UFT president was to answer the call of the Committee of Conscience, led by civil rights and trade union leader A. Philip Randolph, to withdraw union funds from Chase and First National Banks for their role in bankrolling apartheid in South Africa. The AFT supported a range of projects and actions aimed at strengthening teachers’ unions, trade unions generally, and democracy movements: Poland’s revolutionary Solidarity movement, Chile’s Campaign for the No that ousted Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, South Africa’s free teachers’ and broader trade union movements, which were essential to ending the apartheid regime, and many more.

Still, towards the end of his life, Shanker saw warning signs: the challenge of China’s hybrid communist-capitalist system as a political model; the reversals of democratic transitions in Russia and other post-Soviet states; and the rise of nationalism, as seen in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere.

Shanker’s legacy in international affairs can also instruct and inform. Shanker believed in the fundamental importance of the institutions that buttressed freedom and democracy: The international labor movement was central; so, too, were NATO and the Transatlantic Alliance and Winston Churchill’s project of European unity (now called the European Union). Equally important were the institutions and principles of the international liberal world order built by the U.S. and its allies on all continents.

Shanker understood the centrality of the United States and its role in defending, protecting, and promoting these international institutions and the “free world” generally. That the U.S. did not always live up to its billing was something Shanker spoke up against in many instances. But this did not diminish the U.S.’s overall role or importance in defending freedom.

Shanker would be the first to heed the perspective of history and remind people of the true threats to freedom that existed during the Cold War—as well as how the West won the Cold War through a combination of military strength, principled defense of human rights through the Helsinki process, and supporting non-violent movements for freedom such as Solidarity.

Shanker’s legacy points to what should be done: demand accountability and truth about the threats posed by Putin’s and Russia’s international aggressions, and build alliances and coalitions (even unlikely ones) in order to restore a policy of support for democracy, democratic alliances, and human rights in the world.

Shanker challenged people to look realistically and logically at the country’s and the world’s problems; simplicity was not an option. But it is worth reminding ourselves also of Shanker’s idealism in challenging times. At perhaps the bleakest moment in the Cold War, 1973, when the power of the Soviet Union promised permanent confrontation and ongoing totalitarian dictatorship, Shanker wrote of the dream of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov:

At some point, hopefully, freedom will become general. It will then be accepted for what it is: not a feared and subversive doctrine but an essential condition for the flourishing of the human spirit.

Shanker would remind us to keep hold of such hopes.

Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and a consultant for the Albert Shanker Institute’s Democracy Web project, is author of Democracy’s Champion: Albert Shanker and the International Impact of the American Federation of Teachers, available from the Institute. He worked in the AFT’s International Affairs Department from 1987 to 1991.

This article was abridged from a version published on March 3 by the Albert Shanker Institute.