The New York City teachers’ strike of 1968 was a months-long confrontation between the new community-controlled school board in the largely black Ocean-Hill Brownsville section of Brooklyn and New York City’sUnited Federation of Teachers. The strike dragged on from May 1968 to November 1968, shutting down the public schools for a total of 36 days and increasing racial tensions between Blacks and Jews.
Brownsville was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood until the 1960s, and politically radical from the 1880s to the 1950s. The Jewish population consistently elected Socialist and American Labor Party candidates to the state assembly, and was a strong supporter of unionized labor and collective bargaining.
By the 1960s, the area’s population had become largely African-American. In 1968, the central New York City Board of Education began an experiment to give the people of the neighborhoods control over the schools in their area (see decentralization). The Board, actively supported by New York City mayor John Lindsay, established the Ocean Hill-Brownsville area of Brooklyn as one of three decentralized school districts, in an effort to give the minority community more say in school affairs. The school district operated under a separate, community-elected governing board with the power to hire administrators. If successful, the experiment was to lead to a city-wide decentralization. While the local black population viewed it as empowerment against what it saw as an intransigent white bureaucracy, the teachers’ union and other unions saw it as union busting — a reduction in the collective bargaining power of the union who would now have to deal with 33 separate, local bodies, rather than a central administration.
In May 1968, Brownsville was the setting of a protracted and highly contentious teacher strike. The newadministration of Ocean-Hill Brownsville summarily dismissed 13 teachers and 6 administrators, allegedly for efforts to sabotage the decentralization experiment, in violation of union contract rules. The teachers were all white and mostly Jewish.
Under the terms of the decentralization agreement, the teachers were returned to the control of the New York City public school system, where they sat idle in the school district offices. The school board’s action led to a series of citywide teacher strikes that roiled a city already on edge and strained traditional alliances — pitting liberals against labor and blacks against Jews. At the center of the storm was Albert Shanker, leader of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. Over the previous decade, the junior high school teacher-turned-labor leader had played a key role in organizing New York City’s fractious teachers into a cohesive force and winning them the right to bargain collectively, finally taking the UFT’s reins in 1964.
Shanker took a tough line in demanding the reinstatement of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville educators, stating they were denied due process, as they were removed without specific charges being filed and without a chance to defend themselves. On May 8, 1968, the union held a one-day strike in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district. A protracted dispute ensued, between those in the community who supported the Ocean Hill-Brownsville board and those who supported UFT’s argument that the teachers were denied their rights illegally. A series of city-wide strikes took place between September 9 and November 17, 1968, shutting down the public schools for a total of 36 days. The majority of the city’s 58,000 teachers defied the new Taylor Law to go out on strike, and more than a million students were not able to attend school during strike days.
What began as a local labor dispute quickly developed into a fundamental quarrel of the teachers’ union, politics, race and culture. While striking teachers picketed schools, parents and nonstriking teachers broke into schools that had been sealed off by janitors, whose unions were sympathetic to the teachers’ union. Some camped on school grounds overnight to prevent further lockouts by janitors and custodians. Many supporters of the local school board resorted to racial invective. Shanker was routinely branded a racist, and many African-Americans accused the UFT of being ‘Jewish-dominated’.
In the end, the union prevailed. 79 teachers who had been transferred out of the district or walked out in sympathy were re-instated, and an agreement was worked out, reaffirming due process rights for New York City educators. Shanker emerged from the strike a figure of national prominence, though he was later jailed for 15 days on February 3, 1969, for sanctioning the strikes in contravention of New York’s Taylor Law. The strike badly divided the city and became known as one of John Lindsay‘s “Ten Plagues”.