In The Diaspora: School's out

What is different when a Jew no longer leads NYC's United Federation of Teachers?

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit: )
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
Every Sunday morning, as part of my longtime interest in public education, I read the wedding announcements in The New York Times. What I look for, and what I so often find, is a bride or groom with a parent who taught in the city's schools. And almost invariably, the newlywed child is doing something like banking or law. The wedding announcements, in their way, chart the end of the era of the Jewish teacher in New York. More by accident than intent, they chronicle a generational change that has seen the proportion of Jews in the public-school teaching force here drop from more than half for much of the 20th century to less than one-third now. But I didn't need any research nearly as indirect - or, canny, if I may say so myself - to see the same kind of change at the top of the teachers' ranks. It made major news late last month when Randi Weingarten announced her retirement as president of the United Federation of Teachers, the citywide union. When she stands down, Weingarten will end 45 years of Jewish leadership of the UFT, starting with the compelling and controversial Albert Shanker in 1964, continuing with the ascent of his protégé Sandra Feldman in 1986, and culminating with Weingarten's installation in 1998. One couldn't ask for a much starker contrast to Weingarten's successor, Michael Mulgrew. He is, paradoxically, the product of a Catholic high school and a former member of the carpenters' union, the kind of building-trades union that has historically been heavily Catholic. He spent most of his teaching career in New York at a vocational school on Staten Island, another redoubt of gentile white ethnics. Nothing in this resume means Mulgrew is undeserving of the UFT presidency; some of the early buzz, in fact, depicts him as more combative than Weingarten, whose background was in law. With the city's school system - a million students, 1,200 schools, 80,000 teachers - being run by the two-man monarchy of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein, a pugnacious union provides one of the only checks on untrammeled power, however idealistic its aspirations. THE MORE relevant question is what is different when a Jew no longer leads the UFT, and when Jews no longer dominate the union's rank-and-file. For Jews to flock into teaching and its union was itself a generational advance; those educators were often the children of Jews who toiled in the garment trades and for a time made the garment unions like the ILGWU and the Amalgamated the definition of Jewish labor. To be a unionized teacher, much less to lead a teachers' union, was to have one foot in the organized-labor past and the other in the white-collar future. Only now a teacher's collar isn't white enough for all those betrothed couples in the wedding announcements. And something inevitably gets lost along the way. Shanker had his personal roots in the Socialist movement and the civil-rights group CORE. He fought a bitter internal battle against a Communist-leaning rival union among New York's teachers. In the epic school decentralization battles of 1968 and 1969, he stood as the lightning rod of opposition to "community control" by blacks and Puerto Ricans, and wound up, ironically enough, being a hero to conservatives whom he would have opposed on countless other issues. It takes nothing away from Feldman and Weingarten to say they could not fill his outsized silhouette. Maybe it commends them that, inheriting a racially polarized situation in New York's schools, they chose not to play the provocateur. Still, they were inevitably the custodians of a certain Jewish tradition within the union. 'THE UFT has always been marked by certain characteristics sometimes associated with Judaism," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, author of the excellent Shanker biography Tough Liberal. "It's always been a very intellectual union, which engages in high-level discussions and debate. It has, throughout its history, been sympathetic to Socialism, as many immigrant Jews were. And it has a proud record of supporting civil rights - and opposing racial quotas - that's consistent with the views of many American Jews." Joshua B. Freeman, a labor historian at Queens College, points out that Weingarten's departure comes after the retirements of other Jewish labor leaders in New York, particularly of public-employees' unions - Victor Gotbaum, Barry Feinstein. "The process of ethnic succession," he said, "has ended an era that saw teacher unionism go from a marginal idea to a powerful force." At the same time, as the historian and author Hasia R. Diner of NYU points out, teaching in New York was very much gendered work. It was one of the few professions, probably the archetypal one, for a Jewish woman in the pre-feminist era. A lot of female talent wound up in the classroom for lack of alternatives, and, even so, women went underrepresented in the ranks of principals and, until Sandra Feldman and Randi Weingarten, the union hierarchy. "The passing of this leadership," said Diner, the author most recently of We Remember With Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, "represents basically an example of the success of feminism in opening up a vast range of professional opportunities to women and the trajectory of Jewish women rushing to take advantage of them." Diner is surely right, and the Times' wedding announcements offer plenty of supporting evidence. The position to which Randi Weingarten is ascending, president of the national union, the American Federation of Teachers, puts her at the level of a Washington power broker, especially with Democrats holding the White House and Congress. In New York, though, her departure from the UFT comes as one more indication that the Jewish teacher, and maybe the Jewish labor leader, too, is going the way of the Lower East Side, from vibrant reality to honeyed, irrelevant memory.n