Teacher Strike by
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Prompted By Strikes

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In September 1968 I was a new minted school librarian working in a New York City public high school when my union,  the United Federation of Teachers (UFT),  then led by Al Shanker,  voted to strike.  I joined the picket line.

The strike followed a confrontation between a newly established community-controlled school board in the largely Black Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn after 19 teachers and administrators – almost all of whom were Jewish  – were fired  without notice.  The UFT demanded the teachers‘  reinstatement and accused the school board of anti-semitism.

Thus the situation was complex involving racism and school decentralization,  and over 90% of the city’s teachers walked out leaving over a million children with no school.

Finally after 36 days of stalemate, protests,  and picket lines at schools all over the city,  the New York State Education Commissioner took temporary control of the Brooklyn school district,  the dismissed teachers were reinstated,  and the schools reopened.  But for his part in leading the teachers strike – illegal in New York State – Shanker was jailed for 15 days.

Later he went on to lead the national teachers  union,  the American Federation of Teachers (AFT),  and In 1998,  a year after his death,  President Clinton posthumously awarded Al Shanker the Medal of Freedom.

(If you’ve just read this,  thank a teacher!)

– Dana Susan Lehrman

Profile photo of Dana Susan Lehrman Dana Susan Lehrman
This retired librarian loves big city bustle and cozy country weekends, friends and family, good books and theatre, movies and jazz, travel, tennis, Yankee baseball, and writing about life as she sees it on her blog World Thru Brown Eyes!

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Tags: Strikes, Teachers, New York City


  1. Khati Hendry says:

    I remember that teachers’ strike, if not in all the detail. It was a big deal, and complicated. Al Shanker was reviled and revered, and ultimately honored. My mother was a public school teacher and active in school politics, but always thought it should be a professional association and not a union–teachers given autonomy to educate as respected professionals and not just wage workers. Reality prevailed and she represented teachers to administration in the boss-employee relationship that they had to deal with.

  2. What a story. Wo well told providing the context .Your strange initiation in education and politics.
    The introduction to this prompt mentioned Reagan’s counter strike policies.
    Today we are in a deja vue. There are three protesting and protested strikes in process, and Reagan’s legacy still plays a major role.
    Here is the MAGA defense of the possible shutdown (given a few days ago).

    Many things the federal government manages are important and necessary. However, some of these (such as the air-traffic control system and infrastructure programs) can and should be devolved to state and local governments, civil society, and private entities.

    They have failed to include banning books, defunding the Federal Education Administration, eliminating much of the federal legal system and destroying civil liberates.

  3. Suzy says:

    Thanks for this story, Dana. You are someone who actually did go out on strike and walk a picket line. I wonder if anyone else on Retro has had that experience. (My strikes have always been political, not labor strikes.)

    • Thanx Suzy, yes I may be the only one so far who actually walked a picket line, but your activism was certainly as big or bigger a statement.

      When I was in college in the early 60s there were protests against the presence of ROTC on campus, but I was then dating a ROTC guy and confess I loved seeing him in his uniform! Shame on me and full disclosure – I’ve written a few Retro stories about that guy!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Suzy, I was involved in my clinic’s union for many years, and we picketed in support of other local unions’ actions (Kaiser comes to mind). We also lobbied in Sacramento and Washington DC for various issues. While we had our own thorny moments, and had informational actions and campaigns to vote tentative agreements up or down, we fortunately never had to go out on strike ourselves. I think there were some local hospital nurses’ strikes that some of us had to cross because we still had patients in the hospital we had to see, which was extremely difficult. We tried to avoid admitting patients, but someone is in labor, what do you do? I believe the strikers were tolerant of that situation however.

  4. Forbidding some groups from legally striking – health care workers, teachers, air traffic controllers – is indeed a slippery slope.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    I remember the name Al Shanker, even from all those years ago. We have two teachers unions in MA, both very powerful. You were brave to go out on strike, but I admire you for it. Stand up for what’s right! Teachers do not get paid enough for what they do – teaching our most valuable asset!

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