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Clarence Taylor: Professor of History at Baruch College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He is the author of Reds on the Blackboard: Communism, Academic Freedom, Civil Rights and the New York City Teachers Union, a forthcoming book on the TU.


    Clarence Taylor

Clarence Taylor

The New York City Teachers Union advocated what would later be labeled as social movement unionism, making strong alliances with unions, black and Latino parents, civil rights and civil organizations, and political parties in order to gain greater resources for the schools and the communities in which they worked. In particular, the TU fought to end racial discrimination, poverty and other barriers to success for children. It worked to increase teachers’ salaries and improve working conditions. However, it went beyond professional unionism and advocated a unionism that would help transform the larger society.

The TU’s history is in large part a story of the American left. It was deeply involved in some of the most tumultuous battles of the left, including the fight between the Communist Party and Jay Lovestone’s Communist Party Opposition, the Communists’ struggle against anti-Communist forces from the 1930s to the McCarthy period of the 1950s, and the battle for civil rights. And, ultimately, its uncritical support for the Soviet Union and the American Communist Party was a detriment to its objectives.

The TU’s history is in large part a story of the American left. It was deeply involved in some of the most tumultuous battles of the left, including the fight between the Communist Party and Jay Lovestone’s Communist Party Opposition, the Communists’ struggle against anti-Communist forces from the 1930s to the McCarthy period of the 1950s, and the battle for civil rights. And, ultimately, its uncritical support for the Soviet Union and the American Communist Party was a detriment to its objectives.

Arthur Miller addresses the Teachers Union December 18, 1948
Arthur Miller addresses the
Teachers Union Dec. 18, 1948.

Nevertheless, the Party’s analysis of racism, class exploitation, and its professed objectives of working to build a society where these social impediments no longer existed, attracted these teachers and explains why they saw the Communist Party as an important tool in building a just society. Leaders of the Teachers Union contended that higher wages and better working conditions did not take priority over social justice. Building strong ties with parents to improve schools and communities, they maintained, benefitted teachers as well as it did children.

The TU’s brand of unionism failed. By the late 1940s, it faced a well-organized campaign to destroy it, one that traced to its expulsion from the from the American Federation of Teachers and the 1940-1942 Rapp-Coudert hearings in the New York State Senate. Some 50 or 60 college professors and public school teachers lost their jobs through the 1940s as a result of Rapp-Coudert. As the Cold War tightened its grip, the drive against the union became broader, involving national, state and local governmental agencies, and labor, fraternal, civil rights and religious organizations.

The New York Board of Education’s investigations that are the focus of Dreamers and Fighters helped make the city a major battleground as post-war fears of Communism took hold in the U.S. Over 1,100 teachers and other school employees were called in for questioning, and ultimately over 400 resigned, retired, or were fired outright as the Board sought to rout Communists and other left-leaning teachers out of its classrooms.

Teachers protesting Board of Education member George Timone in April 1950
Teachers protesting Board of Education member George Timone in April 1950.

In 1950, Board of Education member George Timone succeeded in having the Board adopt what came to be known as the Timone Resolution, which banned the TU from operating in the schools.

The battle over the resolution was far more than a simple confrontation between the Board and the TU. It demonstrated the division in the city created by the Cold War.

Support for the resolution did not just involve Board officials, but also included supporters at the grassroots level such as Catholic Lay organizations and other fraternal and civic groups. The resolution's supporters argued that the TU was part of a world-wide conspiracy.

The civic, religious, and labor organizations and individuals opposing the Timone Resolution contended that teachers had a right to select a union of their choice. They argued that the resolution was undemocratic and would take away the union’s ability to operate as a representative of teachers in grievances and contract talks, and deny it the right to hold meetings in the schools, thus ending its long history as a legitimate trade union. The fight over Timone became a major contest in the city determining which type of teacher unionism would be able to operate in the schools.

The TU lost its right to represent teachers before the Board of Education with the Board’s adoption of the Timone Resolution, and the Board’s ongoing investigation led to the loss thousands of members. Despite its situation, the Teachers Union did not immediately disband. Instead, it launched campaigns to eliminate racist and bigoted textbooks from classrooms, hire more black teachers and promote black history month. The TU remade itself into a leading voice in the New York City civil rights movement by challenging racially discriminatory polices of the Board of Education.

TU members Lucile Spence, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, Rose Russell and Abe Lederman
TU members Lucile Spence, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, Rose Russell and Abe Lederman

The story of the New York City Teachers Union is the story of how one union helped create a unique type of unionism, one that placed it in the forefront of the struggle for civil rights, academic freedom, and attempts to organize teachers and black and Latino communities to empower them to confront those in authority. The TU created a model of parent and teacher relations that has never been duplicated. It also militantly fought to improve working conditions for teachers at the same time it championed broader social concerns.


TIMELINE:  Click here for a Timeline of the political impact of the blacklist era on the Teachers Union and New York's teachers



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