The picket line that it was right to cross

November 21, 2018

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers strikes called by New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in response to attempts by Black community leaders to have a say over hiring practices in neighborhood schools. The strike created animosity between the union and many communities of color in the city. Because many of the union’s leaders and members were Jewish, the strike also led to rifts between Black and Jewish activists.

Marc Pessin was a young teacher who, along with many others, decided to cross the picket line and work with parents and community members to turn his Lower East Side school into a Freedom School during the strike. He later became a longtime leader of opposition caucuses inside the UFT. This article is adapted from a speech Marc recently gave at a forum about the strike.

I STARTED teaching right at the end of 1967. The strike by the reactionary United Federation of Teachers (UFT) against the Black community’s effort to determine their own destinies started one semester after I started teaching. Remember that this teachers’ union continued to support the Vietnam War and refused to support sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa.

I had just been teaching a partial program in two different schools, but then with my first full-time job at JHS 22 on the Lower East Side I had to decide whether I should cross a picket line or whether or not I should stay out on strike.

Coming from a radical background, that was a gut-wrenching and difficult choice, but I decided that with all the involvement I had with the civil rights struggles, I could not go against the community. How could I sing “We Shall Overcome” at meetings of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee meetings and now turn my back on the Black community?

After all, this was not a typical strike for greater pay or better working conditions, but what appeared to me a divisive strike which could only weaken the union in the long run. It was a strike which did the very opposite of the recent strike by the Chicago Teachers Union, which united with the community for mutual benefits.

Supporters of community control for Ocean Hill-Brownsville march across the Brooklyn Bridge
Supporters of community control for Ocean Hill-Brownsville march across the Brooklyn Bridge (Heather Lewis)

So joining the movement for community control was my choice. I was 23 years old and had spent the previous year working for New York City Parks Department because I was being investigated by the Board of Education related to things I had done in the anti-Vietnam War struggle.

WE ARE surrounded by history when it is happening. We don’t think about it but it becomes part of your unconscious. Just as Occupy and the Black Lives Matter Movement and the recent #MeToo movement move us as a society in certain directions, in the 1960s there was a huge civil rights movement that was happening all over the country and in New York City as well.

Progressive white people and the Black community fought together to try to bring about the integration of the New York City school system, and they met tremendous resistance by the reactionary white community.

For example, one suggestion was “Well, look, if we build a new school, why don’t we build it in an area which is on the border of a white and Black district and then we can have both Black and white kids go to the school?” The white community would have nothing to do with this.

First of all, you have to understand the New York City school system. When I started teaching, 8 percent of the school staff at best were people of color, and that was all people of color. Ninety-two percent of the teachers were white and they were predominately Jewish, and this is in a system where maybe 60 or 70 percent of the students were kids of color.

This was true at a time when if you went to Washington, Detroit or Philadelphia more than half of the staff were people of color. So there was a systematic attempt through the licensing exams conducted through the racist New York City Board of Examiners to keep Black people out of education jobs. In addition to that, the schools were controlled by white people — Black people had no control or say over curriculum or over hiring and firing because of the New York City Central Board of Education.

Eventually, the Black Power movement became a factor, and many people of color decided, “if we’re not allowed to live and work and go to school with white people, at least let us control our own schools.” What was important is a quality education and not necessarily integration if that was not possible because of the racist resistance of the white community.

There were Freedom Schools set up in the South at the same time that Freedom Summer took place in 1964. Freedom Summer was an attempt to register people of color on the voter registration files. From what I remember, approximately 40 schools were set up in which the curriculum would be controlled by Black people, and they proved to be very successful.

These successes had an effect on the struggles in the North, and there was a growing campaign for community control of the New York City public schools.

THAT MOVEMENT eventually led to the setting up of three “demonstration” districts to see if community control would work. One was set up in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the area which precipitated the strike. There was also one set up in Harlem at the IS-201 complex, and then there was a third set up in Chinatown, that was called Two Bridges.

The UFT was very upset by this. The union was concerned that New York City would eventually have 32 bargaining units instead of one Central Board of Education to deal with if community control was successfully implemented. The additional danger was that some of these districts would be controlled by people of color, and the predominantly white teachers’ union did not go for it.

Albert Shanker was the president of the UFT (I eventually ran against him for president in 1983 and 1985). Shanker took an adamant, sharp position against community control and fought it every step of the way. Eventually, there was a confrontation: the community control people said “If we truly are in control of our schools, firstly, we should be able to set up our own curriculum, but, secondly, we should be able to hire and fire teachers like every other school district that has real power.”

So in 1968, there was a confrontation when Rhody McCoy, the head of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville experimental school district, transferred about 50 UFT teachers. Even though this had been going on in the city in other districts all the time, because Rhody McCoy (a Black man) did it, it became an issue of confrontation.

Ultimately, the teachers’ union went out for two months to fight this. The odd thing was that not only did the teachers’ union go out, but the administrators’ union, the CSA, also went out. When have you ever heard of a situation where the bosses and the workers went out at the same time? They were both on the picket lines and they both refused to come in to work: principals, assistant principals and teachers.

The UFT leadership said that Rhody McCoy and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville people should not have “fired” (their word) the teachers. And they also suggested that there were political motives in firing the teachers. So for them, it was an issue of job security, at least the honest ones.

For the ones that were really running the show (Shanker and his Unity Caucus in the union), it really was an issue of who was going to control the schools. They wanted a predominantly white group controlling the schools.

NOT EVERYONE in the union agreed with Shanker. There were quite a few teachers who came from a left tradition who organized the Teachers for Community Control. That group was established by people who were formerly members of the communist-led Teachers Union (TU). They joined forces with the Black community and formed a coalition to fight for community control against the strike.

So the demonstration districts that were community-controlled continued to operate, and in those districts like Ocean Hill-Brownsville and Harlem, they established a new curriculum, a new way of doing things. They hired and fired their own teachers, and, essentially, they ran the schools the way they wanted them. But they were in confrontation with the union.

The curriculum in the community-controlled districts had a Black nationalist tinge, emphasizing Black history and Black struggles and educating people as to how to become activists, to fight for your rights and so-forth, as well as to develop curriculum which emphasized Black pride and a restoration of history that had not been told in the white schools.

When I was young, there were no Black people in the history books except Booker T. Washington and maybe a slave or two. The curriculum that was developed in these schools gave light to the contribution of Africa and the contribution of African Americans throughout our history. The idea was to give kids pride in themselves, and there was a whole reawakening of Black pride, Black history, Black identity. It was a pretty amazing movement.

At the time that this was going on in Ocean Hill-Brownsville and Harlem, there were a number of other places, like the one I participated in, where teachers actually broke open their schools.

I had joined the Teachers for Community Control, so there was a collective decision made to cross the picket line — it wasn’t a decision that I made alone. But I did make the decision that this was a racist strike — that the teachers’ union was not fighting for salaries and working conditions or a health plan, but to keep Black people from running their own schools.

And I felt that even though it was a very difficult decision — because I never in my life thought I’d ever cross a picket line and because I support workers’ struggles — I did because the fact that this was a racist strike made it, in my mind, an illegal strike.

And so we crossed: I and 19 other teachers broke into the school, went in through the window, opened the doors and established a Freedom School there. We took it over. Then, many of the kids from the neighborhood supported by their parents came in and we established a new type of school.

THE SCHOOLS that I taught in for 35 years teach democracy, and yet are the most authoritarian places on earth. Schools were horrible places with no resources and no up-to-date information. The textbooks in the 1960s were textbooks that were probably used in the 1940s and ’50s.

And so, when we went into these schools, we established true democracy: the parents, the students and the teachers all had a role in determining curriculum and in determining what would happen. We used to have meetings with everybody in which we discussed how things were going, what we wanted to do, what was working right and what wasn’t working.

The new elected principal, Bobby Greenberg, was elected by the parents and the teachers. I remember one day that he was under criticism because he was going around the classroom straightening out chairs and desks, and people let him have it. As quickly as he was hired, he could have been fired if he didn’t fall into line.

We set up a community which was responsive to the people in the community, and it was like the revolution had come. We didn’t just work from 9 to 3; the teachers stayed 5, 6, 7, 8 hours after school, every day, working to develop curriculum and to give special attention to the kids.

We studied and developed new teaching techniques, new curriculum and a new way of managing our affairs, which was democratic and collective. It was an exciting period. And then, after two months, unfortunately, it was over.

This school on the Lower East Side happened to be 95 percent Latino, with a smattering of African American students. I don’t remember if there were any white students. The teachers involved in the Freedom School were predominantly white progressives, but there were a smattering of Latino and Black teachers, more than under normal circumstances.

AS A white person in the movement, there was always a question of, “Where do you stand, what is your real position?” I think there is always a little bit of awkwardness, but I think that over time you prove yourself to be part of a movement and taking risks just like everybody else was. I began to be accepted by the community and respected for the risks that I was taking.

And it was a risk. The other teachers were outside on the picket line, threatening our very physical safety. We could have been hurt. It’s possible that somebody might have gotten pushed or shoved, I don’t remember anybody actually going to the hospital, but it was a risk. And there was a lot of anger. And I understood the anger on the other side, too, because when you’re on strike, you don’t want people crossing a picket line. We were considered scabs.

My feeling is that a lot of students were radicalized as a result of the struggle. There was tremendous uproar in the city — you can imagine 55,000 teachers out on strike and the Black community trying to defend itself against this kind of racism.

Also, in the 1960s, the cities burned. You have to understand this strike in the context of a social crisis that was going on all over the country. It was pretty exciting times.

For example, standard education was on the defensive. I remember one of the teachers raising the issue of whether we should be teaching Ebonics in the school. Ebonics claimed that American Black English should be regarded as a language in its own right rather than as a dialect of standard English. It claimed that students would learn other subjects like math and science if taught in a language that the student spoke.

In our school similar ideas revolved around bilingual bi-cultural education; we made sure that our classes were taught in both Spanish and English very often. The Vietnam War was an issue that was brought up at the time that we were getting deeply into the war. So we were dealing with all kinds of issues that may not have been brought up before. I remember many people became more radical and in some cases were influenced by Black Nationalism. People really put themselves on the line.

WHEN THE strike was over, the administrators and other teachers came back, and the 19 of us who had crossed the line were targets. The very first semester that I was there as a regular substitute teacher, I was fired and so were all the others who first year teachers or regular substitutes.

Here’s a strike over the issue of hiring and firing, and many of us were fired without cause. And since the union was on the other side, they didn’t defend us. So you can see the hypocrisy.

On the other hand, the parents demonstrated near Houston Street and Columbia for over five days. It was a parent movement, too — it wasn’t just the teachers who broke the line, but a coalition of parents and teachers who walked in, some very radical and some who just wanted their kids to go to school.

The parents were willing to block the streets. And, guess what? We were all hired back! Everyone who was let go was rehired because of the strong support of the parents and the students.

How did the strike end? Basically, the community control people lost. The Board of Ed did away with community control and brought in a kind of fake community control called Decentralization, all in collaboration with the Ford Foundation.

They set up 32 school districts in the city, but they were really pseudo-democracies. It was an attempt at trying to save face for the community control people and, at the same time, the teachers’ union really won.

When the teachers came back, they were allowed to teach an hour and a half extra every day to make up for the penalties of the Taylor Law [a New York State law against public employee strikes].

The teachers who went out on strike lost two days’ pay for every day they were out, but when they came back, to show the strength of the union and the fact that they won, they actually were paid to teach after school — ostensibly to give the students extra work and make up for the lost education.

So the teachers did not lose anything for going out on strike, at least not two for one. And it just shows that “illegal” only matters when you don’t have the strength. Since the UFT had the strength, they were able to find a way to give the teachers back their money.

This is a lesson to all of us concerning the Taylor Law, which makes the right to strike illegal. If we are united it doesn’t matter what laws are in effect the ruling class will back down because of our collective power to shut things down.

THE WORST thing that happened as a result of the conflict in 1968 was the fissure that was created between Jews and Blacks, who had traditionally fought together for civil rights and against racism and anti-Semitism. In the end all working people in New York lost as a result of the strike.

The UFT won a contract which was the best ever in 1972. After that, because of the lack of unity, every contract following 1972 was a losing contract for me until I retired in 2001. In addition to losing contracts, labor was weakened and I saw the pension system on the defensive for the future with the creation of different tiers for new employees, which were always worse than workers had before.

After three years of defending myself at JHS 22, I realized that the writing was on the wall and that if I didn’t go somewhere else I would lose my job.

So I applied for a job at IS 201 in Harlem, which was unique in that 95 percent of the staff were people of color and all of the administration were people of color. When I got there, it was made quite clear to me who was in charge and that I would be welcome as long as I respected the new way things were being done and that Black people were in charge in this school.

I remained, was eventually elected UFT Chapter leader and led my Chapter out on strike in 1975. Unlike 1968, this strike was fought over legitimate union issues like wages, working conditions and job benefits. Unfortunately, on these issues Shanker and the Unity Caucus sold us out by ending the strike prematurely in five days, and the UFT has not been on strike since.

Finally I would like to say teaching was the career that I chose and would have chosen no other one. There is something about relating to children, whether Black or white, which is just an exceptional thing to do.

I consider teaching a revolutionary act. It is the point at which you can really help to empower people, change people’s way of looking at things and make change in society. And if we had more control over the curriculum and the bureaucracy or administration of schools — in short if schools worked democratically — I think we could make great advancements for the working class.

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