Appendix E: Paper Tiger: The UFT Strike and the Curious Case of PL
Pdf file downloadable here
During the 1968 UFT strike, a handful of leftist groups such as the SDS Labor Committee, the Spartacist League, and the Workers League – along with prominent Socialists like Michael Harrington as well as the organized trade union movement as a whole – backed the teachers, even as the majority of groups on the Left (both Old and New) strongly endorsed the Lindsay administration. Wobbling in the middle stood Progressive Labor.1 PL's dilemma was simple: its propaganda frequently echoed Labor Committee arguments in favor of the UFT, but if PL supported the strike, it would be denounced as racist by other leftists and challenged internally by members who wanted the group to adopt an even more "race-centered" approach. To paper over these contradictions, PL claimed that UFT leader Albert Shanker was secretly working with John Lindsay to destroy his own union!
PL had been wrestling with what its policy should be towards the strike since at least May 1968.2 In their book Five Retreats, ex-PL cadre Jim Dann and Hari Dillon write about PL's May 1968 National Convention:
The Convention did not debate the two main issues presented during the pre-Convention discussion: (1) Alice Jerome's proposals for more democracy within the Party or (2) the proposals by the Lyn Marcus-Labor Committee Faction [the Fraser/Papert Economism vs. Socialism text – HH]. (Two Labor Committee-ites were elected as delegates; one had his credentials summarily revoked by the New York City Committee, while the other [Papert] was expelled by the Convention.) Instead the only debate was over community control and the impending racist teacher walk-out against community control in New York.3
If Dann and Dillon are correct, one PL current was obviously pro-union and one wanted PL to oppose the union and support community control. When the Labor Committee backed the UFT that fall, it clearly hoped to win over PL members who viewed community control as a ruling-class plot. The threat of losing members to the Marcusites may help explain PL's haste to "expel" the Labor Committee from NY SDS that November.
PL had taken an enormous political hit during the Columbia strike. In the strike's most critical days, Tony Papert begged PLP Vice President Bill Epton to mobilize his considerable Harlem network to spread the strike. From the history of the Columbia strike published in the 20 January 1971 issue of New Solidarity:
although strike-leader Papert retained his membership in Progressive Labor, PL policies played no role in the leadership of the Columbia strike. Papert asked PLP Vice-President and top black leader William Epton to help organize strike support in Harlem. Epton replied with two revealing excuses: first, "It sounds like white students want to use black people as battering rams again"; second, "No one in Harlem is interested in Columbia."
Yet the struggle at Columbia largely revolved around the planned gym expansion into Harlem.
PL's reaction to the UFT strike proved equally strange. PL's paper Challenge, for example, echoed the Marcusite take on community control as a ruling-class ploy. In a September 1968 Challenge article, PL attacked a fiery black preacher, the Reverend Milton Galamison, who had received $160,000 from the Ford Foundation's coffers for his School and Community Organized for Partnership in Education (SCOPE). Mayor Lindsay appointed Galamison, who ran the prestigious Bedford Stuyvesant-based Siloam Presbyterian Church, to the Board of Education in August 1968, and that October the frequently dashiki-clad cleric became the Board's new vice president. Challenge, however, pilloried Galamison as a black lackey of the Ford Foundation:
The Ford Foundation was set up as a supposed "independent and neutral" source of funds for "worthy" educational activities. However, it "just so happens" that this foundation is run by some of the biggest bankers and industrialists in the U.S., and it gets its funds from the same sources. These leaders of American capitalism are not giving away their money in order to help people overcome the oppressive conditions which the American ruling class created in the first place . . . . They know what they're paying for: they want these funds used to water-down and dissipate the people's struggles.
Yet during the strike PL attacked the UFT and allied with the Praxis and Action Faction groups in SDS in the vote to disband the Marcusite-led SDS Regional Labor Committee because of its support for the UFT.
PL FUMBLES THE STRIKE
As the crisis deepened, PL claimed that UFT President Albert Shanker had conspired with John Lindsay to ruin black parents and white teachers. In November 1968, Challenge ran an article headlined "Shanker Helps Lindsay Use Racism to Bust Union, Confuse Parents." The article reprinted the "text of a mass-distributed leaflet on School Shutdown." The leaflet stated that "Shanker's phony 'strike for job security'" was directed "against the interests of both the parents and the teachers, splitting and weakening them instead of their common enemy – Lindsay and the Board of Education." The statement went on to argue:
For the past twenty years, the NYC school system has been deteriorating. It has now hit rock bottom. This happened because the City, State, and Federal government have followed a vigorous anti-communist policy at home and abroad. . . . Lindsay wants the educational program in NYC geared to keep the Black and Puerto Rican youth at sub-standard levels . . . . Shanker has never fought these key evils. Thousands of parents in the city, especially Black and Puerto Rican, have wised up. They have begun to see the real enemy, the ruling class Board of Ed. and Lindsay. They are boiling mad. They want real change.
But real change couldn't come through decentralization:
Local boards, whether a hundred or a dozen, whether they be made up of all honest parents or the mixed bag of parents and Lindsay agents now proposed or in existence, can't solve the school crisis. THEY CAN'T ADD A DIME to the school budget. . . .Thus the basis for a much-strengthened UFT exists in an alliance of working-class parents and teachers against the Board. Then the teachers would strike for increased funds – for higher salaries, new and better schools, smaller classes, etc. – and they would have the complete support of the parents.
Here PL clearly echoed the NY SDS Labor Committee. But then the leaflet suddenly shifted all its ire to Shanker, who, it said, "is directing all the wrath he can muster against the working-class Black and Puerto Rican parents of Ocean-Hill-Brownsville." Therefore:
WE SAY THAT THIS IS A RACIST, UNION-BUSTING ACTIVITY BY THE SHANKER LEADERSHIP AND THAT THE ONLY WAY TO BUILD THE UNION'S STRENGTH IS TO ALLY WITH THE WORKING-CLASS PARENTS.
In other words, Shanker was trying to "union-bust" his own union! And the way to fight this union-busting was to line up against the UFT!
In the next paragraph – under the headline "'COMMUNITY CONTROL' A FRAUD" – PL argued:
To prevent this strategy from developing a parent-teacher alliance, Lindsay and the Board created a buffer between themselves and the parents and teachers. Local community "control" boards are a cover-up to deflect the anger of the parents and teachers. . . . So, instead of parents and teachers fighting Lindsay and the (big) Board, they are cleverly pitted against one another.
Trapped between the Marcusites on the one hand and Praxis/Action Faction on the other, PL gamely stuck to its convoluted conspiracy theory:
Shanker is deliberately playing this game [of the ruling class – HH]. On the one hand he calls on Lindsay to enforce the "law" in the ghetto. This means calling out the cops and National Guard. . . . On the other hand, Shanker sets Lindsay up as the great "impartial" [missing text in my copy] who will eventually be able to unravel this sticky matter. Instead of Lindsay and the Board being exposed as the mis-educators, Shanker puts the rank-and-file teachers into this category. This kind of "leadership" should be reserved for the KKK. So, the suspended teachers in Ocean Hill-Brownsville are merely pawns in the Shanker-Lindsay plan to screw the parents and teachers.
PL concluded its statement: "During Shanker's provocation, many have sought out teachers on picket lines and discussed these issues with them. . . . Only a few are picketing."4
AUSTIN SHOW DOWN
PL's posturing satisfied no one. Reacting to its failure, PL now overcompensated and declared that all manifestations of black nationalism were inherently reactionary and anti-internationalist. PL further reversed its general views on "Open Admissions" if an editorial in the September-October 1969 issue of the Campaigner is correct:
Up to the point that Milton Rosen left for the hospital, PL was supporting "Open Admissions" for blacks; then Rosen, out of pure idiotic social prejudices, turned the PL line around one-hundred-eighty degrees to opposing "Open Admissions" in general. The PL'ers in SDS now had to shout as loudly against "Open Admissions" as they had phrase-mongered in many decibels for "Open Admissions" the very day before.
At a March 1969 SDS National Council meeting in Austin, Texas, PL's attack on black nationalism triggered fistfights on the convention floor. In his 15 June 1969 New York Times analysis of SDS, Tom Brooks noted:
Their factional fight peaked at the SDS national conference in Austin, Texas, last March. Progressive Labor pushed its Worker-Student Alliance line, ridiculed "student power," and criticized Black Power as black bourgeois nationalism, which like all nationalism is fundamentally opposed to proletarian internationalism. The National Office faction called for an all-out fight against "white skin privileges" and generally held, on the race question, that the blacks were not only a super-exploited section of the working class but also an oppressed colony within the mother country.
After SDS Education Secretary Fred Gordon – now allied with PL – asked why German Jews weren't then considered a colony as well, a National Office advocate shot back: "How dare you tell me that the Jews in Germany are the same as blacks in America. The fucking Jews in Germany had money."
PL "SHRINKS" ITS MEMBERSHIP
One reason for PL's inability to operate more deftly may have been that the national organization was controlled by a tiny clique around PL National Chairman Milt Rosen. While PL organizationally could turn on a dime and deploy its forces with military precision and tactical finesse, PL's Old Left leadership proved brittle and heavy-handed. To maintain control of its own ranks, Rosen employed coercive psychological tactics not all that uncommon in "Leninist vanguard parties." From Five Retreats:
In early 1966 Fred Jerome wrote a piece for PL magazine entitled "Criticism and Self-Criticism" which typified the PLP approach as to inner-Party struggle. The article was heavily based on Liu-Shao-Chi's writings which emphasized personal self-cultivation as a communist. Like Liu, Jerome proposed what amounted to a psychological struggle for all the weaknesses in members.
Rosen and Jerome were both amateur psychologists and generally had a psychological explanation for every real or supposed weakness in a member. Political opposition was seldom dealt with on its merits but was assumed instead to be the manifestation of alleged psychological problems that the opponent had, which were always diagnosed with great enthusiasm and in great detail by the leadership. "You're tired," "You're afraid," "You don't want to win," were the epithets used when a member raised differences, political or tactical.
Jerome in his tenure as West Coast Party leader from 1968-1972 took his more consistent Freudianism to its logical conclusion and grossly interfered in a number of marriages of PL members in an effort to correct their "weaknesses" or, failing this, to break-up the marriage. Rosen did less of this. He instead was master of the sly behind-the-back joke or police-agent innuendo. [Jared] Israel in Boston used both the Rosen and Jerome methods and some high-powered browbeating of his own invention.
However it varied, the PL method of inner-Party struggle was usually at least two-thirds psychological. This inhibited the political development of the members. Political questions were reduced to "fear" or "guts". . . . Even forces within the leadership who tried to avoid this psychological clap-trap were often victims of it themselves when they disagreed and often picked up some of the rotten methods of Jerome, Rosen and Israel. . . . To the extent this method of inner-Party struggle held sway it was virtually impossible to launch a political challenge to the leadership. And, coincidentally or not, Freudian psychoanalysis was rampant within PLP . . . .
Servility in the members was built up by playing on middle-class ex-students' "guilt" feelings. The leadership made them feel ashamed of their "fear" if they hesitated before a particular anarchist action. Their class backgrounds were the reasons for both lack of success in particular campaigns and the continuing desire of many rank-and-filers to form united fronts with "revisionists, nationalists, or other petty-bourgeois forces."
This constant harping on the "weak" members was designed to lead to guilt feelings and thus to servility and to obedience to the "tough, working class" leadership. Rosen never tired of telling younger members "heroic" stories of his brief experience as a shop steward in Buffalo, always clearly implying that younger PLP members had not yet approached his industrial accomplishments. . . . The members were "weak," so direction of the Party had to be entrusted to the "proven" few, which mainly meant Rosen.
Given PL's internal fissures and manipulative hierarchy, it is not surprising that the Labor Committee recruited some younger PL members and other young radicals who otherwise might have joined PL. While on the surface a seemingly hardened cadre force, PL experienced a series of political twists and turns that ultimately seem to have been largely dependent on Milt Rosen's personal predilections and his formidable ability both to inspire and to browbeat his members. Hence looking back on the group today, PL looks less and less like a steely Leninist vanguard formation and more and more like Chairman Milt's personal Paper Tiger.
1 Unfortunately, very little has been written about PL in the literature of the New Left. When PL is mentioned, it is so reviled that one can almost hear the music from the Jaws soundtrack when the shark approaches. PL particularly mystified and enraged those SDS members who hero-worshiped "Uncle Ho" because PL continually attacked North Vietnamese calls for a "negotiated settlement" of the Vietnam War. PL argued that any negotiated settlement could only result in a "revisionist" betrayal of the Vietnamese Revolution. Without some grasp of the Sino-Soviet split and its impact, PL's views seem even more incomprehensible. For more background, see http://www.marxists.org/history/erol/erol.htm.
2 The first dismissals of teachers in the Ocean-Hill Brownsville School District began in early May; the first UFT walkout over the dismissed teachers took place on 23 May. On 27 May more teachers were removed and the UFT began talking of boycotting the district that September. Hence at the time PL had its National Convention in late May, the possibility of a future crisis that September was already on the agenda.
3 When reading Dann and Dillon, it is important to remember that they backed the turn in PL to a more "race-centered" strategy. Dillon, for example, played a prominent role in the San Francisco State Strike that involved demands for the establishment of ethnic studies departments.
4 PL's strange mixed message on the UFT strike may be partly responsible for the erroneous idea that both PL and the Marcusites supported the UFT when PL clearly did not.