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Published in Print: March 5, 1997, as The End of an Era

The End of an Era

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To many people, Albert Shanker was the American Federation of Teachers. Over 22 years, he built the organization into a labor union that often acts like a think tank and is an influential force in education reform.

Now, Mr. Shanker is gone. And while AFT officials said last week that they will carry on in the same vein, his death Feb. 22 marks the end of an era for the 907,000-member union.

During his two decades at the helm, Mr. Shanker gained credibility with both the union leadership and its rank and file that allowed him to take quick, bold stands on issues. As his own thinking evolved, he shaped and remolded the union. It became a forceful crusader for collective bargaining for teachers, then emerged as a staunch advocate for changes to strengthen and preserve public education itself.

'Strong Organization'

Clearly, the union's next president won't have the latitude to speak out that Mr. Shanker enjoyed by dint of his long tenure and stature, most observers said last week. And almost certainly, the AFT will see more turnover of its presidents in the future.

For the next few months, Edward J. McElroy, the secretary-treasurer, will run the organization. In May, the 38-member executive council of union vice presidents will meet and elect a new president from its ranks to serve out the remainder of Mr. Shanker's term, which expires in July 1998.

"Nobody will ever fill his shoes, but this is a very strong organization. He left it that way," Mr. McElroy said. "We have a lot of, in my view, very competent people on the executive council. We'll be fine--but we'll miss him terribly."

Merger Question

One big question facing the union is the possibility of merging with the larger and traditionally more bureaucratic National Education Association. Another round of talks with the NEA's negotiating team is scheduled for next month, Mr. McElroy said.

Keith B. Geiger, who stepped down last year as president of the NEA, said he thought Mr. Shanker's death would not affect the pace or substance of the talks, which have occurred on and off for the past 3« years. But other observers suggested it could help speed up the process because some NEA members had objected to Mr. Shanker's ideas and dominant voice in teacher unionism.

"There was always the gossip that it would never happen as long as Al was alive," said Helen Bernstein, a former president of United Teachers of Los Angeles, which is affiliated with both major national unions. "I'm not so sure his actual physical presence was not a hindrance."

But because Mr. Shanker was trusted and respected, he could probably have sold his members on any merger agreement, Ms. Bernstein added. Without such a strong hand, there could be more opposition to such a deal.

The executive council, which governs the AFT, has several strong vice presidents who have earned reputations as education reformers and could be future candidates for union president.

The most frequently mentioned is Sandra Feldman, the president of the 125,000-member United Federation of Teachers in New York City for the past 10 years. Mr. Shanker built that local affiliate, now the nation's largest union local, into a powerhouse.

Some observers also consider Mr. McElroy a candidate, although his reputation is as a nuts-and-bolts manager, rather than an education thinker. He was elected secretary-treasurer in 1991 after serving as an AFT vice president and the president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers.

Ms. Feldman is a prominent figure in AFT circles and played a high-profile leadership role at last summer's QuEST conference, the union's professional-development institute. She also stood in for Mr. Shanker at important events during his three-year illness.

Because New York state labor leaders are so powerful on the AFT executive council, Ms. Feldman is considered a shoo-in to fill out Mr. Shanker's term if she wants to serve. She also would stand an excellent chance of being elected to a full term next year, union watchers said, because the UFT and the New York State United Teachers are the largest voting bloc in the union.

Ms. Feldman last week declined to discuss her future. But she remarked that the next president will have to "make their own way" and should not be compared with Mr. Shanker, who had devoted a lifetime to unionism and been a champion of freedom in such places as the former Soviet Union, South Africa, and Chile.

Still, she said, the union's identity will persist.

"The philosophy of the AFT and the things the AFT stands for and has stood for for all these years is powerfully ingrained," she said. "That same work will go forward."

Demanding Boss

Mr. Shanker ran a tight ship at the AFT, whose national headquarters is in Washington. He hired most staff members personally, placing a high value on smart and capable people rather than employees who would be afraid to challenge him.

He kept both staff members and elected officials on their toes with a steady stream of opinions and new ideas--some of which they read in his paid advertisement, "Where We Stand," which appeared weekly in The New York Times.

Mr. McElroy said last week that no decision had been made about whether the column will continue.

In addition to being a voracious reader, Mr. Shanker was a gifted communicator who could "grasp difficult and complex ideas and make them understandable to most of the rest of us," said Julia Koppich, a California education consultant who once worked for the AFT in San Francisco.

"He had an enormous ability to stand fast on principle, but also to be flexible about strategy and tactics," she said. "It was an unusual combination of skills and talents they'll be hard pressed to replace."

In the last years of his life, Mr. Shanker seized on internationally competitive academic standards as the key to improving public education. He also was keenly aware of the need to meet the public's worries about student discipline and wasn't afraid to take firm stands on sensitive issues, such as arguing against including special education students in regular classrooms.

His drive was evident at the QuEST conference in 1993, where the audience at one session found copies of questions from the German, French, and British high school examinations on their seats. Mr. Shanker walked his members through a couple of the problems with relish.

'Lessons for Life'

In 1995, the union launched its "Lessons for Life" campaign, which stresses high standards of conduct and academic achievement for students. Mr. Shanker pushed union locals to work with their local elected officials and communities to forge tougher policies. ("AFT Project To Push Order And the Basics," Sept. 6, 1995.)

Last summer, in a speech to union delegates that he had to deliver sitting down because of illness, Mr. Shanker beat the drum for the campaign.

"Any union that does not participate in and press for the Lessons for Life program is engaged in union malpractice," he said, "by which I simply mean that it is as much your duty to preserve public education as it is to negotiate a good contract."

Many of the AFT's most respected leaders thrived on Mr. Shanker's relentless pace. Their willingness to take risks, in turn, reflected well on him. The reluctance of other AFT local presidents to embrace reform, however, didn't seem to tarnish Mr. Shanker's reputation.

"I didn't necessarily agree with everything Al said or did or believed in. But you had to be damn sharp if you disagreed with him, or he just tore you apart on a very intellectual level," Ms. Bernstein of Los Angeles said last week. "He brought a kind of class to what it is to be a labor leader."

Vol. 16, Issue 23, Pages 1,30-31

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