Book Review

“Communist Teachers and Social Movement Unionism: A History Worth Considering”

9780231152686_p0_v1_s260x420a review by Randi Storch

Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights, and the New York City Teachers Union
by Clarence Taylor
384 pages. Columbia University Press, 2011.

Within the last few years, leaders within the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) have come to an important realization: isolation in the fight to save public education is no winning strategy. New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg and the city’s Department of Education have moved swiftly since 2002 to replace public schools with charter schools, all the while placing teacher unions and their members under critical, public scrutiny.  Randi Weingarten and the UFT began the hard work of building, and then nurturing, ties with parents, neighborhoods, and civil rights groups. In other words, doing the kind of outreach and activism missing in unions that work on a service model. A social movement model of unionism holds promise for those who understand that the health of public education is fundamentally tied to the well-being of American democracy as was evident in the struggle and short-term victory Chicago’s public school teachers, students and neighborhoods achieved just last year.

What Clarence Taylor demonstrates in Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights and the New York City Teachers Union is that the UFT’s “new” community-focused ideal of teacher unionism is rooted in the history of the New York City Teacher Union (TU) and that this tradition was not simply abandoned by teachers but was beaten down in a systematic anti-Communist campaign. Taylor argues that from its inception in 1916 through its demise in the 1960s, the union shared a vision that “embraced the possibility of creating a city and nation where all vestiges of social and economic injustice could be eliminated through a wider struggle, one that involved teachers, parents, and the communities they served” (320).   Today UFT’s foils are charter schools and neo-liberal calls for privatization.  In Taylor’s history anti-communist union factions, Board of Education members, state and federal government agencies, civic organizations, state laws, and anti-Semitic public attacks frustrated and ultimately undermined the union’s ability to support larger labor and civil rights movements and the interests of their own members.

Taylor writes to rectify the cold war thinking that surrounds scholarship on the Teachers Union.  He explains that in one camp sits scholars who share an anti-Communist bend and understand the union’s political positions and public actions in terms of Moscow’s dictates and needs. To this group, the union was dominated by Stalinists obsessed with Russia and unwilling to align the union with the needs of the teachers.  Revisionist scholars comprise a separate camp. To them, the union members’ affiliation to the Communist party was less relevant than the union’s work to promote social justice and equality.  Taylor argues for a more nuanced look at the union.   Yes, members of the Communist party openly supported party policies and programs, but, he claims, “these teachers did not abandon the interests of TU members. They equated Communists with militant fighters for the rights of teachers, workers and nationally oppressed groups, in particular African Americans” (3).   Their version of what Taylor calls “social movement unionism” focused on alliances with other labor, community, civil rights and political groups to “gain greater resources for the schools and communities in which they worked (3).”

Taylor juxtaposes TU support for Communist party positions on particular domestic and international issues with its simultaneous fight “to improve the working conditions of teachers, increase salaries, reduce class size, and protect academic freedom” (36).   Arguing that the TU “operated within the framework of democratic unionism,” Taylor describes the union’s governance structure, including mechanisms for ensuring minority opinions and the “free expression of different opinions” (50).  While pointing to examples when union elections were likely tampered with by Communist party unionists, he also emphasizes the fact that “both Communists and non-Communists were elected to leading positions in the union” and the non-Communists in leadership positions were confirmed independents (54).  As far as espionage is concerned, Taylor revisits Harvey Klehr and John Haynes’s accusations of three people who were affiliated with New York City’s school system and finds that there is “no evidence that the Teachers Union was a conduit of Soviet espionage” (59).  Two of the three accused of espionage activity were not employed by the Board of Education when they were accused and the third, accused of working to free Trotsky’s assassin, never held union office or attempted to influence union policy.

In addition to its everyday work of protecting the interests of its workers, Taylor outlines the union’s civil rights activities.  Because the focus of the Communist party during World War II was on winning the war, some scholars have argued that the fight for racial equality took a back seat to industrial productivity. Taylor finds, to the contrary that the TU labeled racism as “un-American” and characterized racist people and acts as fascist, and broadened the fight against racial intolerance to include anti-Semitism and the war’s larger purpose. Its members established intercultural education for teachers, youth and communities, drawing on insights emanating from developments in cultural anthropology, and maintained local anti-racist efforts through committees it established in Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Williamsburg.  Taylor writes in the tradition of scholars who see continuity in the civil rights struggles of the labor movement from the period of the 1930s and 1940s into the 1950s and 1960s. He describes the TU’s post-war effort to pressure the board of education to end the use of racist textbooks, hire more black teachers, promote black history, and support school integration in the context of advancing American democracy through mass organization rather than electoral politics or legislative routes.

Interspersed with chapters devoted to analyzing TU efforts to promote their members’ interests, Taylor makes a compelling case against the anti-democratic assaults on the TU and its opponents’ argument that Communist-influenced TU leaders betrayed teachers’ interests.  Well-organized chapters and revealing evidence tell the cold war story of anti-Communist hearings and investigations, new state laws, and Board of Education crackdowns.   Taylor’s chapter entitled, “Anti-Semitic Rhetoric and Perception” and the one entitled, ”Undercover Agents, Informers and Witnesses,” do the best job of demonstrating the overwhelming forces frustrating the union’s ability to serve its members.

Overall, Taylor is strongest when he is examining the forces lined up against the union. Here his evidence is clear and convincing.  When it comes to Communist party unionism, Taylor’s narrative is less fluid. His institutional sources lead to an institutional story of structures and policy, especially in early chapters that describe internal union factionalism.  Taylor makes no use or mention of more newly available, internal Communist party records that may have informed the earlier part of his story, but instead relies on more traditional sources.  Here and there Taylor provides the names of Communist party unionists, but little else to contextualize their motivations, backgrounds, or experience. Still, Taylor’s institutional/political approach convincingly demonstrates that, as a whole, anti-Communist forces were less democratic than Communist TU supporters.   But since the Communist party was never a monolithic organization, Taylor’s depiction of how it manifested itself in the TU would have been strengthened by more attention to the methods of social history.  This, of course, is a small criticism of an otherwise important and thoughtful contribution to the history of teacher unionism in New York City, and one that points to a timely and useable past of social movement unionism.

Randi Storch is Chair and Professor of History at the State University of New York, College at Cortland. She is author of Working Hard for the American Dream: Workers and their Unions from World War I to the Present (Wiley, 2013) and Red Chicago: American Communism at Its Grassroots, 1928-1935 (University of Illinois Press, 2007).  She is also an on-line editor and contributor to the Labor and Working Class History Association’s laboronline blog, which can be located at http://lawcha.org/wordpress/committee-portal/labor-online/.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Still, Taylor’s institutional/political approach convincingly demonstrates that, as a whole, anti-Communist forces were less democratic than Communist TU supporters.

    The first question to be answered is whether Communists/Communist Sympathizers gave each other preference in hiring and union politics. If a self-dealing ideological cabal existed, then “democracy” is a meaningless term here.

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