Meeting Albert Shanker
by Christina Paino

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I began my teaching career in the territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands on the island of St. Croix. Since the Virgin Islands are a U.S. territory, we were government employees. I taught at a large junior high school in the town of Christiansted, on the eastern end of the island. In my second year there, the teachers contract had expired and the government was unwilling to negotiate. There were 2 unions at the time: the St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers and the St. Croix Federation of Teachers. Both unions worked closely together advocating for the rights of teachers even though there were 40 miles of Caribbean Sea separating the islands.

Since the contract had expired, the government payroll office was not offering any step increments to teachers, yet they were bringing in new teachers “on step”. So you could have been there for 3 years and still be on step one, yet a new teacher just hired was brought in on step three. Due to these gross inequities and the government’s unwillingness to negotiate, both unions called for a strike that began on Feb. 1st of 1976.

Both unions were affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (the AFT), whose president at the time was the well-known Albert Shanker. Shanker had been instrumental in the NYC teacher strikes of the late 1960’s and was instrumental in securing many rights and benefits for teachers in the United Federation of Teachers (NYC). After 3 long weeks of a very acrimonious strike with no end in sight, Shanker flew down to St. Croix and St. Thomas to meet with the membership to show his support and to urge us to remain strong in spite of the government’s efforts to “break” the unions.

The meeting was held on a Sunday morning at a local movie theater with Al Shanker being the keynote speaker. As we gathered in the parking lot before the meeting, he came right into the groups of teacher and not only shook hands with each and everyone of us, but personally encouraged each of us to be the best teachers we could be while also working for teachers and student’s rights. As the meeting began inside the theater, his speech was so moving and uplifting that you knew immediately why we became teachers in the first place and also understood the need to organize for equity in the workplace.

The next day was a Monday and there, bright and early, on the picket lines with us for the entire day was Al Shanker, holding a huge AFT sign and showing his support and solidarity with our cause. The strike dragged on for 6 weeks eventually going into binding arbitration with the arbitrator being sent from the federal government. The arbitrator ruled that every member should be placed on their correct step, which was a huge victory for the unions at that time.

However, we were federal employees who are not eligible to strike. So once we went back to work, we paid fines of 2 days pay for everyday we were on strike. That was a hefty sum considering we were already out of work for the past 6 weeks.

As a teacher, I saw first hand the influence of Al Shanker, a life-long advocate for teacher’s rights and benefits. Being on strike, especially a teacher’s strike, is a very difficult decision to make. Due to the circumstances at the time and a very dedicated teacher advocate in Albert Shanker, our unions in the Virgin Islands were successful and still exist today with outstanding benefits and rights for teachers. Many teachers in the USVI today still credit the strike of 1976 as the beginning of a better educational system for the children of the 3 islands.
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