What can we learn from comparing the current New York City school shutdown to the 1968 citywide teachers strike? Lots, as it turns out.
By Alexander Russo
As of January 2021, roughly 700,000 New York City schoolchildren are learning from home. They’ve been doing so since March.
The last time that so many NYC children experienced a prolonged, unscheduled absence from school may be way back in 1968, when the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) went out on a series of strikes over its concerns about the removal/transfer of teachers in one Brooklyn district.
Though the circumstances are quite different, there are a number of intriguing similarities between the 1968 shutdown and the current one: racial tensions and political polarization, ad hoc efforts to educate and engage kids, and a central role being played by the teachers union.
However, as I learned from talking with Mark Winston Griffith and Max Freedman, the duo behind the much-admired School Colors podcast about race, class, and power in the schools of Central Brooklyn, there are as many differences as similarities.
The debate was much more clearly divided along racial lines. The picking of sides for or against the strike was in some ways simpler. The union role was actually much stronger in 1968 than it is presently, as was local community control, a reform strategy that has long since been replaced by centralized mayoral control.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ALEXANDER: What if any similarities are there between 1968 and the present moment?
MARK: I think that what you saw in 1968 was a flexing of agency by Black people in central Brooklyn in particular but really across the city. And a reaction to that by the UFT. There was an attempt by Black people to control their educational destiny, and the UFT reacted to that along labor lines but in many ways, it was a racial act and some people would even say an act of anti-Blackness.
I think what’s happening today is sort of the inverse of what happened in 1968. In 1968, the unions and local communities were exercising agency and control. The city government was sort of a bystander, reacting to that. In this moment, I think that parents and communities feel a lack of agency and what you see is the city government trying to take control of the situation.
MAX: The system of mayoral control we have today was created in reaction to the perceived failure of local school boards, which were themselves created in the aftermath of 1968. And I think mayoral control is really being tested now during the pandemic. Administrators have been put in the position of having to tell parents and teachers, over and over again, “we’re waiting for guidance, we’re waiting for guidance, we’re waiting for guidance.” People already feel like they have no control over their lives because of the virus, and then they also have no control over what their schools are going to do, because all the power is vested in the mayor. So I think the lack of community control has never been more apparent, and I’m wondering if anyone’s going to do anything about it.
In 1968, the unions and local communities were exercising agency and control. The city government was sort of a bystander, reacting to that. In this moment, I think that parents and communities feel a lack of agency. – Mark Winston Griffith
ALEXANDER: How does the level of polarization compare between that period of conflict in the late 1960s and the present?
MARK: In 1968, it was polarized; you’re either on this side or you’re on that side. In this moment, the politics get really muddled and confused. Whether you are for the schools being shut down or staying open doesn’t neatly comply with what your ideology is, what your politics are, what your partisan leanings are.
MAX: I think that’s right. There was a line in the sand, and it was very clear, you were either on one side or the other. And that division had long term consequences. I mean, there were people who never spoke to each other again after the strike was over. The way the line was drawn in 1968 was essentially, you were for the union or on the side of parents. I mean, the union would not have said they were against parents, but the way that it was portrayed, it felt to many people that you were either with the teachers or you were with the parents.
ALEXANDER: Is the union-parent divide as sharp or clear in 2021 as it was back then?
MAX: Right now, I would say that there is a small but loud group of people in New York City who feels the same way. But I do think it’s small. There’s a small but loud group of people to whom it is very clear, the lines are very clearly drawn, it is the union against the parents. But I don’t think in reality it’s that clear cut in 2021, for a variety of reasons.
MARK: I don’t think the popular discourse really hinges on that. We’re all very atomized. While I think the UFT and labor issues feature in all of this, I don’t think that’s what’s most prominent on people’s minds as they react to the closing of schools. I think oftentimes, it comes down to safety versus the educational interest of our children. Where labor comes in is that it’s not just the safety of children, but also safety of teachers and administrators and other people who are in those buildings.
The way the line was drawn in 1968 was essentially, you were for the union or on the side of parents…Right now, I would say that there is a small but loud group of people in New York City who feels the same way. But I do think it’s small. – Max Freedman
ALEXANDER: What if any comparisons can be made between the divisions and differences among the city’s Black leadership, then and now?
MAX: We describe in the podcast this march across the Brooklyn Bridge in October 1968 one of the people who was there notes that’s what’s remarkable about it is that all of these Black organizations that didn’t usually get along standing arm in arm. This movement did unify a lot of disparate groups that had very, very different ideologies. There was plenty of internal debate over tactics and ideology and stuff. But it did bring people together, a unified sense of purpose against what seemed to be kind of a common enemy.
MARK: There was a political spectrum of thought and approach that did seem to get unified on that bridge that day and in broad terms. But you did see that spectrum of ideology played out in how Ocean Hill Brownsville itself played out and how community control played out in other parts of the city. There were folks who were more conservative or more middle class, and then there were the sort of fire-breathing radicals and a lot of other people in between. But at the end of the day, I think it was sort of like a referendum on your Blackness, right? I’m just thinking about my own family and people whom I associate with. My father and uncle, who are not radicals at all, definitely stood on the side of Ocean Hill Brownsville. White folks were forced to show their progressive and civil rights credentials by siding with the community control experiment. And then you had Black labor leaders who sided on with the UFT, and that created some issues.
As far as today is concerned, there’s no easy way to sort it. I think it all depends on your own self-interest and what your own children are doing, whether you work in the system or not. I just don’t think there’s any sort of neat way to kind of capture thought on this. I can talk to five different Black parents who are in the system and they’ll have six different opinions. And I don’t think that any elected official feels the need to go out and stake a claim on any position, because people are coming from different angles. Your best bet is just to keep your head down.
As far as today is concerned, there’s no easy way to sort it…I can talk to five different Black parents who are in the system and they’ll have six different opinions. – Mark Winston Griffith
ALEXANDER: What are the similarities and differences that you would see between the union’s role in shaping the course of events?
MARK: Labor unions in general are not what they were in 1968. And the UFT is not what it was in 1968. I mean, look, the UFT still has a lot of power, but I don’t know if the UFT could get away with a strike like they did in ’68 and have as much popular support as they had in 1968. And nationally speaking, there is a big critique of the UFT and of labor in general that I think has made it much more difficult for the UFT and other unions to flex their muscle in the way that they did before. While I feel like the UFT is perhaps one of the most important institutional actors, they’re certainly not as visible as they were in 1968. And I don’t think people are looking to them for leadership, in the ways that they did in 1968.
MAX: Just because the UFT is less visible doesn’t mean that they’re less powerful. But you’re right, that they couldn’t get away with a citywide strike with popular support, and maybe more to the point the UFT has entirely abandoned strikes as a strategy. They don’t do that anymore. That’s just not how they operate. What you’ve seen in some of these Republican- controlled states that have had Red for Ed movements, or even in big cities like Los Angeles and Chicago where the teachers unions have become a little bit more radicalized and also done more of the groundwork with families, they’ve done these big strikes with a lot more support in communities of color, certainly than the UFT had in 1968. I just don’t think that would happen in New York. The UFT, and the caucus that controls the UFT, is basically conservative, not politically conservative, but tactically.
MARK: Yeah, and the UFT is not all that interested in doing a lot of organizing, not the way they were in 1968. They just don’t have the organizing muscle nor inclination at this moment to pull together a citywide referendum where people are supporting them, and they’re flexing. I haven’t seen any indication in that direction.
Just because the UFT is less visible doesn’t mean that they’re less powerful. But you’re right, that they couldn’t get away with a citywide strike with popular support, and maybe more to the point the UFT has entirely abandoned strikes as a strategy. – Max Freedman
ALEXANDER: Where have you come out in terms of the school reopening debate?
MAX: It’s very tempting if you’re plugged into Twitter to stake out a strong opinion, but I’m actively resisting doing that. That wouldn’t be conducive to what we’re doing right now, which is slowly and deliberately putting together a second season of School Colors, trying to listen to people who have a variety of positions on this and gain their trust.
MARK: I think I really do react mostly as a parent and I’m conflicted. I work backwards from the fact that look, at the end of the day, what we need to do is keep as many people out of the hospitals as possible, right? That is what will ensure safety for us and make sure that people who are sick get the treatment they need. So I think that’s the bottom line. And I think the only way to ensure that is to keep people separated from one another and to not have children and administrators go into the schools. And I think that we’re just gonna have to suck it up as parents as much as we hate it.
My child is not the kind of child who thrives under these kinds of conditions. He’s a very social being. And I’m starting to see this as a lost year for him in terms of his public schooling, The lack of rigor and discipline, the lack of quality, substantive content, the extent to which I think he will be unprepared for high school – all while currently attending one of the best public middle schools in Brooklyn – it’s just appalling, to me. But I feel like I’ve got to make this Sophie’s Choice between our collective health and his education and the education of people in his generation, and I come down on the side of health.
The lack of rigor and discipline, the lack of quality, substantive content, the extent to which I think he will be unprepared for high school – all while currently attending one of the best public middle schools in Brooklyn – it’s just appalling, to me. But I feel like I’ve got to make this Sophie’s Choice between our collective health and his education and the education of people in his generation. – Mark Winston Griffith
Griffith and Freedman are working on a new season of School Colors, supported by the Spencer Fellowship in Education Reporting at Columbia University. The first season is available to stream for free on any podcast app, or at www.schoolcolorspodcast.com.
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