Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Fifty Years Later

On the fiftieth anniversary of the “strike that changed New York,” the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers strikes have much to teach us about building a strong anti-racist labor movement made up of both workers and community members.

Police block teachers and students from entering JHS 271 in Ocean Hill-Brownsville on December 3, 1968. CUNY

On the first day of school in September 1968, New York City’s teachers, represented by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), began a series of three citywide strikes that would transform the city’s politics for decades to come.

The immediate grievance was the dismissal of teachers without due process from an experimental school district in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, an overwhelmingly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn.

But the firing of teachers became a stand-in for much larger issues. What was really at stake in the 1968 strike was control over New York City’s public school system.

In only eight years since its founding in 1960, the UFT had essentially become a co-manager of the city’s schools alongside the City Board of Education. Under the leadership of Albert Shanker, a former teacher who grew the union into a political force in NYC through hard-nosed tactics, including multiple jail stints for leading strikes, the union grew in strength and numbers, with impressive gains in teachers’ working conditions. But New York’s working-class communities, particularly black and Puerto Rican ones, still had barely any influence over the schools in their neighborhoods.

After NYC failed to integrate its schools following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the idea of community control, or “decentralization,” became increasingly prominent among grassroots groups. Rhetoric from black and Puerto Rican communities shifted away from integration and towards local self-determination, as did much of the Civil Rights Movement nationally.

Thus the Ocean Hill-Brownsville episode was a result of both the failure of liberalism to address working-class people of color’s needs, as well as a union whose organizing was narrow in political scope and whose members identified strongly as professionals. The union fought for the public to see their members as workers with educational expertise (unlike students and parents) who deserved to have control not just over working conditions, but policy.

While the UFT won most of its immediate demands in the strikes — guaranteed positions for their members in the district, a preservation of the centralized system of hiring and firing, and ultimately an end to the community-control experiment — both groups lost out in the long term. Instead of fighting alongside each other, working-class communities of color became divorced from a key white working-class institution. And the UFT was alienated from and even detested by the constituencies whose support they would need in order to meaningfully transform the working conditions of their members, as well as the politics of the city at large.

If the two had managed to build and maintain an alliance, New York City’s working class might have had a coalition strong enough to resist the worst of the onslaught of austerity that was to come.

The Lead Up

While the Ocean-Hill Brownsville strike drove a deep wedge between the UFT and the city’s working-class communities of color, that relationship was strained even before 1968. The UFT failed to meaningfully support the grassroots movement for school integration in NYC, including the massive 1964 school boycott organized by parent and community groups, though the union did vow to defend teachers who supported it.

In its 1967 contract fight and eventual strike, the union proposed as one of its three main demands the right of teachers to remove “disruptive” students from their classrooms. Many black and Latino parent groups saw this as a thinly veiled reference to their children, as teachers attributed the social and economic challenges students confronted to intrinsic behavioral problems.

Both of these moves alienated the union from communities in which its members taught (by 1968, black and Puerto Ricans represented half of the student population, but only 10 percent of teachers). The UFT’s gains in working conditions won in its early years didn’t seem very relevant to working-class New Yorkers outside the union.

The catalyst for the community-control movement came on the heels of a failed struggle for an integrated school at I.S. 201 in East Harlem, in which white parents refused to enroll their children and the New York City Board of Education appointed a white principal nonetheless. After intense opposition from parents and community groups, the Board responded by establishing, with the support of the New York State government, three experimental districts for “community control” in East Harlem, Two Bridges (near Chinatown and the Lower East Side), and Ocean Hill-Brownsville. The districts were given greater (but ultimately quite limited) power to set school policy, determine curriculum, and choose their own administrators.

Despite its rocky history in community affairs, the UFT initially supported the experimental district in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, though this support was largely tied to the expansion of the More Effective Schools (MES) program, a pilot program begun in 1964 that offered programmatic changes to school curricula, organization, and community relations, as well as increased funding for personnel to “high-need” schools. The UFT believed the MES program would lead to more union members while also aligning with the needs of poor students of color. But the program was criticized for embracing a “culture of poverty” philosophy. When a planning council for the experimental district in Ocean Hill-Brownsville was established in 1967, the union had representative seats.

Aside from the UFT, which would eventually turn against the project, the coalition supporting community control was not just diverse, but contradictory. On one side were black and Puerto Rican community groups, including revolutionary and nationalist elements that grew out of the Civil Rights Movement. These groups found themselves aligned, if not quite allied, with virtually the entire political establishment in NYC and beyond, including Republican Mayor John Lindsay, the citywide School Board, the Ford Foundation, much of academia (especially its left-wing elements), and almost the entire mainstream press.

While the more grassroots and politically left elements of the community-control movement had good reason to support it, the more elite factions also had theirs. Community groups sought autonomy in their schools: control over personnel, finances, and curriculum. This made sense given the failure of the city to integrate its schools, the drastic underrepresentation of blacks and Puerto Ricans in teaching and administrative positions, and the near total absence of black and Puerto Rican culture and history in the classroom.

Elite groups on the other hand, sought to co-opt an increasingly militant strain of the Civil Rights Movement. They wanted to grant working-class communities some semblance of control without fundamentally altering the structure of power in the city or state.

One criticism of community control, raised by social democrats like Bayard Rustin, was that it failed to emphasize a program of wealth redistribution. Rather than contest city and state government for resources, community-control advocates largely abstained from that fight, arguing for local and in many ways separatist self-determination instead.

As the local planning council continued to meet, it became clear that the union’s version of community control was not compatible with that of the local board. When school let out for the summer in 1967, and many teachers were out of the district, the council forged ahead without union input. They released a proposal for community control that essentially gave the local board powers that were then held by the City Board of Ed: control over personnel, finances, and curriculum. In a direct affront to the UFT, it made no mention of the MES program.

By this point, the division was stark. The local board would govern according to its own prerogatives — not those of the UFT nor the City Board of Ed.

The Strikes

On May 9, 1968, Ocean Hill unit administrator Rhody McCoy wrote letters to twelve teachers (members of the UFT) and seven supervisors (members of the principals’ union, the Council of Supervisory Associations), most of whom had been identified as opponents of the community-control project. McCoy informed them of their “termination of employment.” They were directed to report to BoE headquarters immediately for reassignment.

While tensions had long been simmering, these letters blew the conflict wide open.

The stated objection of the UFT to these actions was that they constituted a violation of due process. Their collective bargaining agreement, like virtually all other union contracts, laid out a formal process for firing teachers. The union saw that agreement as valid despite the local board’s new autonomy; thus, McCoy’s move was a violation of the contract.

McCoy, on the other hand, and the local board that supported him, believed their control was more important than a contract between the UFT and the City Board of Ed — one they did not shape and did not feel part of. McCoy’s perspective was perfectly in line with the idea that community members should control community schools. But this perspective clashed with a collective bargaining agreement built around a system of centralized governance that the UFT had become deeply invested in.

When the UFT ordered the teachers back to school, they were confronted by “a wall of neighborhood residents and black teachers” (the latter of which were UFT members) blocking their entrance, writes Jerald Podair, historian and writer of the definitive book on the moment, The Strike That Changed New York. The white UFT teachers eventually returned under police escort.

Formal charges were eventually brought against the nineteen, with McCoy claiming they were professionally incompetent — an obvious excuse for what was really a political conflict. The courts promised a decision on the teachers’ cases before the start of the 1968–69 school year.

On May 22, almost all 350 UFT members in Ocean-Hill walked out in support of their colleagues. They stayed out the rest of the academic year.

In response, Board of Education President John Doar waived licensing requirements for teachers, which allowed McCoy to hire replacements, most of whom were young, white members of the New Left and nearly all supportive of community control.

Two events over the summer further heightened tensions and according to Podair, “made a citywide teachers strike almost inevitable.” First, following the passage of the statewide Marchi Law, which granted the city authority to delegate powers to local districts, the NYC Board of Education announced a decentralization plan for the 1968 school year that “permitted local school boards to hire teachers directly … and to transfer teachers out of their districts involuntarily.” Podair notes that Shanker “immediately denounced the plan as a ‘violation of the collective bargaining agreement between the UFT and the Board of Education.’”

The second development was a ruling in the case of the dismissed UFT teachers in Ocean-Hill. The court ruled that “all the teachers were entitled to return to their jobs.” According to Podair, the court “held that McCoy’s charges of incompetence were unfounded, and that those relating to criticism of community control were protected by constitutional free speech guarantees.”

But the local board ignored the decision.

On the day before the start of the 1968 school year, the board wrote to Mayor Lindsay, “We will no longer act as a buffer between this community and the establishment …. This community will control its schools and who teaches in them. We do not want the teachers to return to this district.”

There was no resolution in sight. That same day, the union’s delegate assembly voted 12,021 to 1,716 to authorize a citywide strike beginning the next day.

Fifty-four thousand out of fifty-seven thousand public school teachers stayed out on strike. While the vast majority of teachers honored the picket line, a minority of teachers, many aligned with the former Communist-led Teachers Union, a predecessor to the UFT, crossed the picket and set up “freedom schools” inspired by similar efforts in the South. What was especially significant was that most principals represented by the CSA honored the strike and closed their schools in support.

The CSA had long been the enemy of the UFT. When teachers were fighting for increased agency and dignity on the job, principals were often their adversaries. But on this issue, they became allies.

After two days on strike, a settlement was reached between the NYC Board and the UFT but crucially without any input from the local board. Board President Doar and Shanker agreed that the dismissed UFT members would return to the district in teaching positions, along with their colleagues who walked out in sympathy. The UFT membership then authorized Shanker to call a second strike if these terms were violated. Unsurprisingly, the local board in Ocean Hill did not comply.

When the UFT members returned, they were denied teaching assignments and Shanker called a second strike.

Negotiations to end the second strike were similar to the first. On September 29, after two weeks of negotiations, the City Board and the UFT agreed, much like last time, to guarantee teaching assignments to the twelve teachers. The agreement didn’t last long. UFT teachers were again denied assignments by the local board. Yet again, the membership voted to strike, now for the third time.

At five weeks long, the third strike was the longest and most destructive. As the UFT dug in its heels, the conflict became increasingly racialized and hostile.

Accusations of both antisemitism (the majority of New York City teachers were Jewish) and racism grew stronger. Shanker fanned the flames by printing half a million copies of an anonymous, antisemitic letter distributed in Junior High School 271, the central site of the community-control movement in Ocean Hill.

Class antagonism also intensified. UFT members, increasingly aligned with the city’s outer-borough, white-ethnic population, especially those in unions, detested the city’s social and political elite — Mayor John Lindsay, Board President John Doar, the Ford Foundation, the New York Times, the New York Post, the ACLU — who overwhelmingly supported the local board.

The more politically moderate black members of organized labor, who had previously supported the UFT, if only tepidly, now turned against it. Fifty of New York’s most prominent black and Puerto Rican unionists staged a sit-in at the Central Labor Council demanding an end to the Council’s support of the UFT. The contradictions of race and class alliances were summarized by the New York Times: the dissidents“[Declared] they were Negroes and Puerto Ricans first and trade unionists second.”

Yet as November approached, it became clear that the union had the upper hand. Despite some weariness among the membership, teachers were still strongly supportive of the strike, as was the vast majority of the city’s outer-borough, white-ethnic population. The strike was settled when New York State stepped in to place the local board under trusteeship.

Aside from state oversight, the terms of the settlement were similar to the previous two. UFT teachers would return to Ocean Hill with teaching assignments spelled out explicitly by the state. On Monday, November 18, UFT membership voted 17,658 to 2,738 to accept the terms of the settlement. Teachers were going back to work.

The Fallout

Shanker got most, but not all, of what he wanted. On April 30, 1969, New York state passed a new decentralization bill that gave the city thirty elected school boards but didn’t give those boards much control over their schools. As Podair writes, they had the power to choose their administrators, select textbooks from a preapproved list, and spend up to $250,000. That was it. Crucially, these boards could not involuntarily transfer teachers out of district — exactly what McCoy had attempted to do.

As the dust settled and the school year progressed, the terms of the settlement were upheld, and Ocean Hill-Brownsville faded from newspaper headlines. But a tremendous amount of damage was done.

The union did have some important victories after 1968, including a successful 1969 representation election for school paraprofessionals against AFSCME District Council 37. But the residual tensions with working-class communities of color and most of the city’s left-wing elements led the union to further embrace a professional dynamic, advocating for its members rather than acting as part of a working-class movement fighting for larger political demands.

The UFT’s weakness, along with the rest of NYC’s labor movement, was made clear during the 1975 fiscal crisis when the union struck against the city’s austerity policies. Up against massive capitalist power and with little support outside organized labor, the UFT was soundly defeated. The union has not gone on strike since then, more than forty years ago.

By 1968, the community-control movement may have threatened the system of school governance and collective bargaining that the UFT had become deeply invested in. But it’s possible to envision an alternate history in which the union more explicitly aligned its priorities with those of the working class at large, particularly black and Puerto Rican families that made up the majority of public schools at the time.

With less of an emphasis on professional identity and more of a social vision that addressed broadly felt issues — school funding, class size, and yes, some degree of local control — working-class New Yorkers of color could have seen their fate as tied to the unions and vice versa. An alliance between these two groups could have directly fought the real power-holders — capital and its allied elected officials in New York City and New York state — rather than attack each other, and in collaboration attempted to extract material gains while also ensuring a form of local autonomy that preserved workers’ rights to due process.

From its founding up until Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the UFT became separated, both politically and socially, from New York’s working-class communities of color. This led them to align with a union of bosses (the CSA) as well as the most conservative elements of New York’s labor movement and its working-class, white-ethnic communities. If there is blame to be assigned in this period, it has to be with those who had the power to push a different course of action. That was the UFT, not local organizations in Ocean Hill.

Still, the separation between the union and working-class communities of color did allow the demands of black and Puerto Rican groups to be shaped by elite political institutions that were far more interested in the resolution of urban unrest and racial tension than true liberation for people of color. Without a critical analysis of why elite groups were supporting their efforts, it was harder for grassroots groups to craft a program truly of their making and in their interest.

Without these explicit and conscious attempts to build alliances early and meaningfully, both the UFT and the city’s multiracial working class became weaker and far less able to confront the impending neoliberal attacks on the living and working conditions of all New Yorkers.

In the weeks to come, Jacobin will further explore the themes of the strike in a series of essays that addresses the struggle for school integration in New York following Brown v. Board of Education, the early history of the UFT, the role of the (often overlooked) Puerto Rican grassroots elements in the strike, and the Ford Foundation’s influence in the moment. Fifty years later, the Left still has many lessons to learn from Ocean Hill-Brownsville.