Where Al Shanker Stood: Democracy In Public Education

Posted by on July 21, 2014

There is an ongoing debate in the U.S. about the role of democracy in public education. In March 1997, in his final “Where We Stand” column in the New York Times, Al Shanker addressed this issue directly. The piece, published posthumously, was an excerpt from a larger essay entitled “40 Years in the Profession,” which was included in a collection published by the Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

Why do I continue when so much of what I’ve worked for seems threatened? To a large extent, because I believe that public education is the glue that has held this country together. Critics now say that the common school never really existed, that it’s time to abandon this ideal in favor of schools that are designed to appeal to groups based on ethnicity, race, religion, class, or common interests of various kinds. But schools like these would foster divisions in our society; they would be like setting a time bomb.

A Martian who happened to be visiting Earth soon after the United States was founded would not have given this country much chance of surviving. He would have predicted that this new nation, whose inhabitants were of different races, who spoke different languages, and who followed different religions, wouldn’t remain one nation for long. They would end up fighting and killing each other. Then, what was left of each group would set up its own country, just as has happened many other times and in many other places. But that didn’t happen. Instead, we became a wealthy and powerful nation—the freest the world has ever known. Millions of people from around the world have risked their lives to come here, and they continue to do so today. Read More »


Tiananmen Anniversary Reflections

Posted by on June 4, 2014

Our guest author today is Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University

On the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, it is worth reflecting on the effect that tragic event had on labor conditions in China.

Tiananmen is generally thought of as a student movement, but there was also a great deal of worker participation. A group called the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation took shape during the movement under the leadership of Han Dongfang, then a young railway worker. Today he leads an important worker rights organization, China Labour Bulletin, that works on Chinese labor rights issues from its office in Hong Kong.  Outside of Beijing, demonstrations occurred in more than 300 other cities, also with worker participation. Some of the harshest penalties after the crackdown were imposed on workers, rather than students.

But workers, students, and other participants had the same goals in the spring of 1989. They all wanted the ruling Chinese Communist Party to open itself up to dialogue with society over issues of corruption, reform, rule of law, and citizens’ rights. One faction in the leadership, headed by Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, advocated that the Party accept this demand. He said that the demonstrators were patriotic and shared the Party’s goals for the nation, and that the Party could work with them. The other faction, headed by Premier Li Peng, argued that if the Party gave in to demands for dialogue, it would lose its monopoly of power and risk being overthrown. In the end, senior Party leaders headed by Deng Xiaoping sided with Li and used military force to end the demonstrations. In doing so, they reaffirmed the basic principle of authoritarian rule: the people have no right to interfere in politics. Read More »


“Show Me What Democracy Looks Like”

Posted by on April 29, 2014

Our guest author today is John McCrann, a Math teacher and experiential educator at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City. John is a member of the America Achieves Fellowship, Youth Opportunities Program, and Teacher Leader Study Group. He tweets at @JohnTroutMcCran.

New York City’s third through eighth graders are in the middle of state tests, and many of our city’s citizens have taken strong positions on the value (or lack thereof) of these assessments.  The protests, arguments and activism surrounding these tests remind me of a day when I was a substitute civics teacher during summer school.  “I need help,” Charlotte said as she approached my desk, “what is democracy?”

On that day, my mind flashed to a scene I witnessed outside the White House in the spring of 2003.  On one side of the fence, protestors shouted: “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”  On the other side worked an administration who had invaded another country in an effort to “expand democracy.” Passionate, bright people on both sides of that fence believed in the idea that Charlotte was asking about, but came to very different conclusions about how to enact the concept.  Read More »


In China, Democracy Must Begin On The Factory Floor

Posted by on February 20, 2014

Our guest author today is Han Dongfang, director of China Labor Bulletin. You can follow him on Weibo in Chinese and on Twitter in English and Chinese. This article originally appeared on The World Post, and has been reprinted with permission of the author.

After 35 years of economic reform and development, China’s Communist leaders once again find themselves on the edge of a cliff. With social inequality and official corruption at an all-time high, China’s new leaders urgently need to find some way of putting on the brakes and changing direction.

The last time they were here was in 1978 when, after the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, the then leadership under Deng Xiaoping had no option but to sacrifice Maoist ideology and relax economic control in order to kickstart the economy again.

Unfortunately, the party relaxed economic control so much that it ceded just about all power in the workplace to the bosses. Workers at China’s state-owned enterprises used to have an exalted social status; they had an “iron rice bowl” that guaranteed a job and welfare benefits for life. Some three decades later, that “iron rice bowl” has been completely smashed and the majority of workers are struggling to survive while the bosses and corrupt government officials are getting richer and richer. Read More »


Democracy’s Champion: Albert Shanker

Posted by on February 3, 2014

Our guest author today is Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 20007). 

Freedom House recently released the significant – and sobering — results of its report, “Freedom in the World 2014.”  The survey is the latest in an annual assessment of political and civil liberties around the globe.  For the eighth year in a row, the overall level of freedom declined, as 54 nations saw erosion of political and civil rights, including Egypt, Turkey and Russia.  (A smaller number, 40, saw gains.)  Despite the early hopes of the Arab Spring, democracy promotion has proven a long and difficult fight.

None of this would surprise Albert Shanker, who devoted his life to championing democracy, yet always recognized the considerable difficulty of doing so.  Around 1989, when the world was celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, Shanker took the long view:  “What we’ve seen are the beginnings of democracy.  We haven’t really seen democracy yet.  We’ve seen the overthrow of dictatorship.  Democracy is going to take generations to build and we have to be a part of that building because they won’t be able to do it alone.” Read More »


An Attempt To Decapitate: Turkey’s Trade Unions On Trial

Posted by on January 29, 2014

Our guest today is Eric Lee, founding editor of LabourStart, the international labor news and campaigning site.

On a chilly Thursday morning in late January I found myself standing at the entrance to an ultra-modern building that looked exactly like a shopping center or hotel.  An immense atrium, mirror-like glass everywhere, it was certainly designed by architects with ambitions.  The building was the main courthouse in downtown Istanbul — the largest courthouse, we were told, in all of Europe.

I was there in order to attend the opening of the trial of 56 members of KESK, the Turkish trade union for public sector workers.  The KESK members are accused of membership in an illegal organization, and making propaganda for that organization.  A handful of them were accused of being leaders of the organization.

The organization they are accused of joining is the Devrimci Halk Kurtuluş Partisi-Cephesi (DHKP-C) — the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front — which for more than three decades has conducted an armed struggle against the Turkish state.  The DHKP-C is considered a terrorist organization not only by the Turkish government but also by the European Union and the United States. Read More »


In Opposition To Academic Boycotts

Posted by on December 19, 2013

Our guest author today is Rita Freedman, Acting Executive Director of the Jewish Labor Committee, and a recent retiree from the American Federation of Teachers.

There is a growing, worldwide effort to ostracize Israel and to make it into a pariah state. (This despite the fact that Israel is still the only democratic country in the Middle East.)  A key ingredient of this campaign is the call to boycott, divest from and impose sanctions on Israel (known as BDS for boycott, divest, sanction).  Within the world of higher education, this takes the form of calls to boycott all Israeli academic institutions, sometimes including boycotting all Israeli scholars and researchers. The rationale is that this will somehow pressure Israel into an agreement with the Palestinians, one which will improve their lot and lead to an independent Palestinian state that exists adjacent to the State of Israel (although it is worth noting that some in the BDS movement envision a future without the existence of Israel).  

Certainly, the goals of improving life for the Palestinian people, building their economy and supporting their democratic institutions – not to mention supporting the creation of an independent Palestine that is thriving and getting along peacefully with its Israeli neighbor – are entirely worthy.  Read More »


I Am Malala: A Book Review

Posted by on November 12, 2013

In October, 2012, the Pakistani Taliban attempted to assassinate Malala Yousafzai, a teenager known throughout Pakistan for her outspoken advocacy of woman’s rights, especially a woman’s right to education. Standing up for women’s rights can be a risky business in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, where violent Islamist extremists have a strong foothold. But these religious disputes were thought to be mainly an adult affair. Innocents suffered, to be sure, but only as a regrettable consequence of grownups’ attacks on each other. Few expected that even the Taliban would target a precocious schoolgirl – until Malala.

The attack triggered an international uproar. Malala was shot in the head while sitting in a school bus (two of her friends also were hit in the spray of gunfire). It was a survivable injury, but the critical care facilities she needed do not exist in Pakistan. After initial fumbles, Pakistani government officials scrambled to respond. Malala was whisked away to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England. She recovered and, with her family, began a new life in exile, still under Taliban death threat. The teenager from Pakistan’s remote Swat Valley of is an international celebrity. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and received the 2013 Andrei Sakharov Award. She has been made an honorary citizen of Canada. She has spoken at the United Nations and, recently, she met Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.

And now, with the help of a skilled ghostwriter, Ms. Yousafzai has written a book: I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. Read More »


Can Solidarity Rebound?

Posted by on November 6, 2013

Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe. In 2011, the Republic of Poland awarded him with the Commander Cross of the Order of Merit, one of its highest civilian honors, for his contributions to Poland’s democratic transformation and role in providing support to Solidarity Underground during Martial Law.

In the West, Poland’s Solidarity trade union remains a symbol of the triumph of workers, united in defense of their fundamental rights, against the might of communist dictatorship.

Its remarkable rise in 1980 after nationwide strikes, its nearly ten-year struggle for freedom after the government tried to crush it using  martial law, and its 1989 electoral victory that led to the collapse of communism throughout the region — all of this has become the stuff of historical legend. The story of Solidarity after 1989, however, is less well known. It is the story of how free trade unionism was nearly destroyed by extreme “free market” policies carried out in the name of democratic reform. Read More »


Egyptians Who Protest Worker Rights Abuses Are Labeled “Terrorists”

Posted by on September 9, 2013

Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli.  She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Democracy and Civil Society. The views expressed here are her own.

Amid the political and social chaos that reigns in Egypt today, a semblance of normality persists: People go to work; they buy food; they try to feed their families.  And, as in the past, Egyptians employers, with the active support of the Egyptian government, flagrantly violate fundamental workers rights. Workers are fired for trying to organize unions and they are not paid what they are owed, including legally mandated bonuses, profit-sharing and health care benefits or proper safety equipment.

There is a familiar political dimension to these events. Elements in the police and military are accusing workers who protest employer abuses of being “terrorists” — which in today’s Egypt means members or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). In a recent New York Times article, two Egyptian media sources claimed that the workers striking at the Suez Steel company were infiltrated by MB activists attempting to “destabilize” the country.

This is an accusation supported neither by the facts, nor the history of blue collar unions. Read More »


Learning From The 1963 March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom

Posted by on August 28, 2013

Today marks the actual calendar day of the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In honor of that day, we republish Al Shanker’s tribute to A. Philip Randolph, the director of the March, on the occasion of Randolph’s passing in 1979. One of the themes of Shanker’s comments is the distinctive place of A. Philip Randolph in the African-American freedom struggle, distinguished from Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, by his focus on the empowerment of African-American working people and his commitment to non-violent, mass action as the means of empowerment. One of the lesson plans the Shanker Institute has published for teaching the 1963 March focuses precisely on this distinctive contribution of Randolph. Other lesson plans look at Randolph’s close partner, Bayard Rustin, who was the organizing genius behind the March, and examine the alliance between the labor movement and civil rights movement which made the March a success. All of the Shanker Institute lesson plans can be read here.

It may be said – I think without exaggeration – that no American in this century has done more to eliminate racial discrimination in our society and to improve the condition of working people than did A. Philip Randolph, who died this week at the age of 90. 

For A. Philip Randolph, a man of quiet eloquence with dignity in every gesture, freedom and justice were never granted people. They had to be fought for in struggles that were never-ending. And progress was something that had to be measured in terms of tangible improvements in people’s lives, in the condition of society generally, and in the quality of human relationships. Read More »


Richard Parrish And The March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom

Posted by on July 18, 2013

Our guest author today is William P. Jones, history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of The March on Washington:  Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (W.W. Norton & Co., 2013)

If Richard Parrish had his way, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would have occurred in 1941 rather than 1963.  As President of the Federation of Colored College Students in New York City, the 25-year old student was a key organizer of the mass demonstration that union leader A. Philip Randolph called to protest discrimination in the armed forces and the defense industries during the Second World War.  He was furious, therefore, when Randolph cancelled the march in exchange for an executive order, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, prohibiting defense contractors from discriminating against workers on the basis of their race, color religion, or national origin.  Parrish agreed that this was a major victory, but pointed out that it would expire when the war ended and do nothing to address discrimination in the armed forces.  Accusing Randolph of acting without consulting the students and other groups that supported the mobilization, he insisted that the March on Washington be rescheduled immediately.

Randolph refused—accusing Parrish and other young militants of being “more interested in the drama and pyrotechnics of the march than the basic and main issues of putting Negroes to work”—but the disagreement did not prevent the two black radicals from working closely together to build a powerful alliance between the civil rights and labor movements in the postwar decades.  After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1947, Parrish worked as a teacher and union leader until his retirement in 1976.  He also worked closely with Randolph to open jobs and leadership positions for black workers in organized labor.  When Randolph decided to reorganize the March on Washington in 1963, Dick Parrish was one of the first people he turned to for support. Read More »


Red Card For Morsi

Posted by on June 3, 2013

Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. Currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Democracy and Civil Society, Prof. El-Shazli  has 25 years of international experience in political and economic development, including democracy promotion programs and  support  for independent trade unions. She has worked with trade unions, political parties, and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The views expressed here are her own.

Egypt has become a land of stark, astounding contradictions. There is so little stability that political pundits cannot predict or even explain what is happening in the political sphere or society. As it is in politics, it is in daily life. Some examples:

Driving in Cairo has become the art of the detour. Demonstrations and protests can materialize any time of day and anywhere. If a protesting mass of humanity does not impede your way, then one of the new cement block walls will. These walls are erected by the government across major streets to contain demonstrations. Surely the time is right for some inventor to launch a new app — “Avoid Protests – Egypt” — to guide drivers and protesters alike.

Times are not tough for everyone. In the affluent areas of Cairo, youngsters still sport the latest fashions, shoppers carry home their purchases, and restaurants brim with high class clientele. New restaurants are opening and one even sells fancy “cupcakes,” the craze imported from the US. One would hardly believe that, for the average Egyptian, the country is indeed sinking into a financial abyss. But that is what’s happening. Read More »


‘A Single Garment Of Destiny’ For American And Bangladeshi Workers

Posted by on May 2, 2013

“Injustice anywhere,” Martin Luther King famously wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Two events last week which might seem worlds apart provide evidence that working people around the globe are indeed tied together in King’s “single garment of destiny.”

In Texas, fourteen people died and up to 180 were injured in an explosion that obliterated a fertilizer factory and leveled the surrounding town. In Bangladesh, over 400 garment workers died when a factory building collapsed with thousands inside. Rescue and recovery operations continue to find additional Bangladeshi dead, with hundreds still missing. The human toll makes this the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry worldwide, even before the terrible final count is known.

Neither of these terrible events was “an accident.” In both cases, factory management engaged in dangerous and reprehensible conduct, creating entirely avoidable conditions that made these events possible, even predictable. Read More »


Education Under Attack In Bahrain

Posted by on April 4, 2013

Our guest author today is Jalila Al-Salman, a Bahraini teacher and vice president of the Bahrain Teachers’ Association (BTA). A leader in the Bahraini uprisings of Arab Spring, she was arrested, held in prison under abusive conditions, tortured and sentenced to three years in prison. Released late in 2012, Ms. Al-Salman continues to advocate for a peaceful, democratic transition in Bahrain.

Since the outbreak of protests in Bahrain in February 2011, people there have faced varied and numerous forms of oppression by the Government of Bahrain. Peaceful protesters have been arrested and beaten, detainees have been tortured, public and private sector employees have been wrongfully terminated from their positions for participating in protests, and over 100 people have been killed.

Shortly after the uprising began, the Bahrain Teachers’ Association (BTA), of which I am the vice president, participated in a three-day strike from February 20 to 23. Up until then, we had been escalating our calls for improvements to the education system, so it seemed like an appropriate time to make our voices heard. In addition to calls for political reform, educators expressed frustration with the Bahrain government’s policy of hiring foreign educators from Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – a practice that limits opportunities for domestic educators to teach in Bahrain’s schools. Following the strike, an estimated 9,000 teachers marched to the Pearl Roundabout, a traffic circle in the heart of Manama that served as the epicenter of the 2011 protests. It was the largest protest by educators in Bahrain’s history. Read More »


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Banner image adapted from 1975 photograph by Jennie Shanker, daughter of Albert Shanker.