Workers Vanguard No. 956

9 April 2010


1968 Teachers Strike Revisited

IG in Bed with Scabherders

(Young Spartacus pages)

On March 11 the Class Struggle Education Workers (CSEW), a lash-up of “unionized and non-unionized” school and university employees supported by the Internationalist Group (IG), sponsored a forum at CUNY Graduate Center called “Behind the Drive to Privatize Public Education: Where Racism and Class Intersect.” Posturing as leading some “class-struggle wing” of students and teachers, the IG in fact provided a radical-sounding cover for the retrograde politics of union-busters, most graphically when panelist Sean Ahern bragged about strikebreaking in the 1968 New York City teachers strike. Speaking on the panel as a United Federation of Teachers (UFT) delegate and a member of the Grassroots Education Movement, the Coalition for Public Education, and Teachers Unite, Ahern proudly stated that, as a high school student in 1968, “we opened up the Liberation School, we crossed the picket lines.” He continued, “This was seen as a progressive, radical thing to do, and I was a young student and I was a part of that.”

The 1968 strike was sparked when Rhody McCoy, the newly appointed black superintendent of Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district, sought to replace union teachers with non-union ones. Mayor John Lindsay and Governor Nelson Rockefeller pulled out all the stops to bust the union by mobilizing blacks and Latinos in the ghettos and barrios against the union movement, using the demagogic slogan of “community control” of the schools. Lindsay sought to whip up anti-union sentiment to legitimize New York State’s 1967 anti-strike Taylor Law, which has been used time and again against public employee unions, not least the Transport Workers Union.

While denouncing the policies of then-UFT president Albert Shanker, a notorious Cold Warrior whose bureaucratic regime catered to racist sentiment, the Spartacist League stood with the union in a fight for its survival. We sought to link the struggles of the union and of black and Latino working people, circulating the leaflet reprinted on the facing page: “New York City School Strike: Beware Liberal Union Busters!” (13 November 1968). Most of the left came out in support of outright strikebreaking.

In the late 1960s, “community control” was a major slogan used by the ruling class, mainly acting through the Democratic Party, to co-opt a layer of young black activists. Many of these activists, including those who voiced white-baiting separatist rhetoric, became overseers of the segregated black ghettos. The same period saw the emergence of black Democratic Party mayors in a number of cities. One of these, Kenneth Gibson in Newark, attacked the teachers union. However, because the union had an integrated membership and a black woman president, the ensuing 1971 teachers strike had substantial support from the city’s black population. The Newark teachers strike exposed the anti-union purpose of “community control” and black-separatist rhetoric in the 1968 UFT strike.

Former supporters of our organization who are well aware of this history, the IG supporters on the panel didn’t let it stop them from assiduously pursuing an “alliance” with an apologist for strikebreaking. A preview of the lineup at the CSEW forum was given when Sean Ahern and IG supporter Marjorie Stamberg spoke on March 4 on WBAI’s Education at the Crossroads program. WBAI was a mouthpiece for liberal union-busting during the 1968 strike, so it was no surprise when program host Basir Mchawi sought to smear the UFT as having “a negative impact on the educational system,” asserting, “Many of us historically have had all kinds of problems with the United Federation of Teachers, historically going back at least to 1968.” Sean Ahern called to “make a fundamental break with the past [Mchawi] spoke of.” Far from defending the union, Stamberg added: “You mentioned that the UFT had been divided from the black community going back at least as far as 1968, but one of the things that I think has made us be able to overcome this lately is that [New York City schools chancellor Joel] Klein and [New York City mayor Mike] Bloomberg have simultaneously attacked the teachers union, the black community, the parents, all at once, and what has happened is that people have come together” as “allies that I haven’t seen since 1968.”

The alliance she was talking about was on display at the March 11 forum—an alliance very reminiscent of the lineup in 1968. Stamberg enthused over Ahern’s presentation and made a point of agreeing with him about the supposed “whitening” of New York City’s teachers. Ahern had ranted about “white racial privilege”; Stamberg took a swipe at white teachers coming from Colorado (while saying she had nothing against Colorado!). Then Stamberg explained that “Sean and I have been arguing over the evaluation of the ’68 teachers strike.” She went on to say: “I support the 1968 teachers strike” and “my position is you do not cross a picket line, period.” However, she concluded that the ’68 strike “paralyzed us, it was terribly damaging. It split black and Latinos from organized labor but something has happened now,” adding that Bloomberg and Klein’s attacks have “brought us all together as allies.” So Stamberg and the apologist for scabbing could be “allies” and both agree the strike was “damaging.”

A number of teachers in the audience spoke out cogently against the use of charter schools to pit some black and Latino parents against the teachers union. The decline of the quality of public education has been coupled with increased racial segregation and class inequality, so that public schools today are more segregated than at any time since the civil rights movement. The Obama administration’s program for school “reform” means cutting funds, closing schools and laying off teachers, “reforms” that will hit impoverished inner-city schools the hardest. At the same time, in an orchestrated drive to bust the teachers unions, Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are attempting to scapegoat the teachers unions for the abysmal state of public education in the U.S. In fact, in February the entire staff at Rhode Island’s “underperforming” Central Falls High School was fired (see “Labor: Fight Union Busting Attack on Rhode Island Teachers!” WV No. 954, 12 March).

The capitalist rulers have profited immensely by sowing racist divisions among the working class, dividing native-born whites against immigrants, whites against blacks, blacks against immigrants and so forth, obscuring the fact that the class division between the workers and the capitalists is the primary dividing line in capitalist society. Pro-capitalist union bureaucrats play into this scheme as the “labor lieutenants of capital” within the working class; “liberal,” “community control” union-busters run point for the bosses’ ongoing war against the hard-won gains of the working class. Thus, although it took place over 40 years ago, the 1968 New York City UFT strike remains a live question today.

Against the unsavory lineup at the CSEW forum, a Spartacist supporter spoke early in the discussion round: “While at times the Internationalist Group may sound ‘revolutionary’ in fine print, on the ground what’s being pushed here is crass reformism and providing a left cover for others on this panel—like the guy here who’s with the Coalition for Public Education, whose founding convention featured a who’s who of New York Democratic Party hustlers, and they also push a variant of ‘community control’.” Our speaker pointed people to our 1968 leaflet, saying, “We called for a radical alliance of teachers and black and Puerto Rican working people on the program and basis of opposition to the liberal union-busters and the understanding that the fight for free, quality education lies not simply in the classroom but in getting rid of the system. We defended the UFT against liberal union-busting in ’68 and we defend it today despite its rotten, class-collaborationist leadership.” But one of the panelists “crossed the picket lines and defended it here as ‘progressive’.” She nailed the IG for refusing to put forward anything that might alienate its bloc partners.

Another Spartacist supporter noted that the attacks on education are part of generalized attacks on the working class internationally. He called for “a party that fights for workers revolution, socialist revolution here and internationally…a point that they are not making.” Forum facilitator Ajamu Sankofa—a CSEW member and a leader of the pro-Democratic Party lobbying coalition Private Health Insurance Must Go!—replied: “That party is now in formation.” Not from this crew it isn’t!

It was left to our comrades and the Spartacist literature they circulated outside the meeting to make the elementary Marxist point that the capitalist system, built on the bedrock of chattel slavery and racial oppression, cannot provide full social, political and economic equality for black people, but it has created the multiracial working class as its gravedigger. Black workers must play a key role in forging a revolutionary workers party that fights for socialist revolution to establish an egalitarian society where those who labor rule. This perspective is directly counterposed to the liberal, black-separatist and Third World nationalist ideologies pushed by those the IG is promoting.

Even though the IG couldn’t answer our polemics against them, they could not contain their giddiness at the successful turnout they got building their “class struggle” movement of strikebreakers, liberals and fake Marxists. In her summary, Stamberg happily praised the discussion as a model. Then she admonished our speaker that she resented the “sister’s” intervention about the 1968 teachers strike. This event showed the real face of the IG, in words and deeds.