Dr. Aragon (played by John McLiam): “Now this is the Central Parallel of the American Federation. This district is what you you’d probably call the Southwestern United States. That was before it was destroyed by the war.”
Miles Monroe (played by Woody Allen): “War?”
Aragon: “Yes. According to history, over 100 years ago, a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.”--Sleeper (1973), screenplay by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman, directed by Woody Allen
In some ways, Sleeper might be the least New York-centric entry in the filmography of Woody Allen (the movies he made on location in Europe reflect a Gothamite’s love of city landscapes such as Paris, London and Rome). But even in his sci-fi spoof, in an environment specifically identified with the Southwest, he couldn’t resist a joke that would sail right over the heads of 95% of moviegoers west of the Hudson.
New Yorkers, on the other hand, would have known United Federation of Teachers head Albert Shanker—born on this date 85 years ago—very well. Even in 1968, a year with tumult everywhere you turned (the Democratic Convention in Chicago, protest at Columbia University), the union leader’s call for walkouts to protest the dismissal (without cause) of teachers in the name of “local control” set many city residents’ nerves on edge. It was the third nasty work stoppage called in the first term of Mayor John Lindsay, and like the other two (the Transit Workers Union strike of his first days in office and the sanitation strike of 1968), it further mussed up the cool, charismatic image of the men who loved to say he was leading “Fun City.”
Shanker’s actions—culminating in a seven-month-long strike by the city’s teachers--shocked many at the time for a couple of reasons. First, New Yorkers might have understood stevedores, transit workers, or carpenters going out on strike, but not white-collar professionals, including many women. Second, when tensions climaxed in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn, it opened fissures between African-American and Hispanic school board activists and the mostly white, often Jewish teachers who served in these communities.
Allen’s wisecrack caused such guffaws, I think, because it inflated a figure of local importance into something larger than life. (If the comedian thought that Shanker was capable of causing havoc, what would he have made of the likes of Donald Trump later?) I’m afraid that, in years to come, a joke with such immediately contemporary resonance is going to require a footnote for cinephiles, something like VH-1’s”Pop Up Videos.”
The union leader deserves to be better known. In certain ways, his stewardship of educational labor unions resembles that of Marvin Miller, the longtime negotiator for baseball players: he took a group small in numbers and influence and built it up to a vital force (the New York Teachers Guild, founded by John Dewey, grew from 2,500 members to approximately 70,000 under Shanker's leadership). He was also, in his way, paradoxical: though he openly admitted to socialist leanings and advocated for affirmative action, his organization came to be at loggerheads with local community boards dominated by minorities. Toward the end of his life, even as politicians were increasingly complaining about how teacher unions were enemies of school reform, he steered his own organization toward ousting incompetent teachers, enhancing public school choice, and raising standards, notes Sara Mosle in a fine 2007 summary of his life in Slate.
(The image accompanying this post, now in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, was taken by that newspaper’s staff photographer Walter Albertin in 1965.)