I learned of the death of Eli Wallach on the way to grade Regents last week in someone else's school. The star of stage and screen had died at the age of 98. I will always best remember him as Tuco, "the Ugly," part-time sidekick to Blondie, in Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."
Eli Wallach was a New Yorker; while Wallach was building a career in film, his brother, Sam, faced some pretty big challenges of his own. He served as president of the Teachers Union, 1945-1948, a more radical precursor of the UFT. He was instrumental in pushing the Teachers Union to include substitutes. He, ultimately, suffered in 1948 under the post-WWII anti-communist hysteria that led to the passage of the Feinberg Law, requiring the firing of anyone advocating the overthrow of government, and the imposition of loyalty oaths. Teachers were asked to renounce all past associations with Communists as well as to inform upon other teachers. There were even undercover informants, including one "Blondie" or "Operator 51." Wallach penned a statement published in The New York Times, co-signed by sixty others, including Albert Einstein, arguing for a teacher's right to his or her own personal and political beliefs.
This period was documented in a film entitled, "Dreamers and Fighters: The NYC Teacher Pages," narrated by Eli Wallach. Although in 1967 the Supreme Court found the firing of teachers amid this Red-Scare hysteria unconstitutional, Sam Wallach never taught again. He went on to help mentally-retarded children at Maimonides Developmental Center. As he was about to retire in December 1976, the NYC Board of Education reinstated him with nine others. They regained their pensions. Sam Wallach died in February of 2001.
In retrospect, Sam Wallach stated that the radical Teachers Union (replaced by the UFT in 1964), "frightened large chunks of teachers, especially the obvious red positions. We should have steered clear of controversial issues and concentrated on the practical, day-to-day concerns that all teachers have."
It seems to me that the issues facing our AFT as it gathers to meet in two weeks' time (July 9-10), are far from controversial. We must stop the privatization of public education which further lines the pockets of the already wealthy at the expense of democracy. We must stop those who would demolish the rights of a unionized teaching force and deprive us of the due-process rights of tenure. We must motivate our teachers to stand against a media image that largely uses us as scapegoats for poverty.
We must oppose the Common-Core, despite Gates' "Fistful of Dollars" and Weingarten's hesitancy to listen to the popular uproar against it. We must oppose its test-based view of teacher accountability, standardization that enriches the likes of Pearson, as well as those who would reduce our children to data points. I do not view these goals as extreme or "red." I view them as common sense.
Many will be watching the convention very carefully, including the actions of the reflex-hand-raising, loyalty-oath swearing Unity faithful, the UFT tail that wags the AFT dog. In the immortal words of Tuco, "There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend: Those with a rope around the neck, and the people who have the job of doing the cutting." I would hope the AFT does some serious cutting at the convention. If it doesn't, dissension will only grow.
Stories herein containing unnamed or invented characters are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.