Faculty on Strike Against Racism: Lessons from the San Francisco State Strike, 1968-1969

The faculty at San Francisco State took up an approach that was race conscious rather than color-blind, prioritized anti-racist struggle in the schools even as they made class-based demands, took the lead from people of color, and promoted militant actions in support of racial justice.

by Sara Smith-Silverman

Beginning in September of 1968 the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the union representing teachers’ in New York City’s public schools, led three strikes with over 50,000 teachers. What motivated tens of thousands of teachers to defy the law, risk their jobs, and strike not just once, but three times?  They did not go on strike to demand a wage increase or to reduce class sizes. Instead, the predominantly white teaching workforce struck to protest efforts by the Black community to assert control over their schools in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district, a project promoted by Black Power advocates. The teachers’ union ultimately won, defeating the attempt to transfer white faculty out of a school district that was 95% students of color. As a consequence, the African American community in Brownsville became alienated from the teachers’ union, which had demonstrated that it was more concerned with the narrow self-interest of white teachers above efforts to eradicate racial inequality in schools serving Black children.[1]

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, in January of 1969 the American Federation of Teachers Local 1352 (AFT 1352), the union representing the largely white faculty at San Francisco State College, declared the first strike by faculty in higher education in California. This time, rather than arraying itself against communities of color the union struck to protest against racism at the college. Students—including advocates of Black Power—inaugurated the strike the previous November to demand the establishment of Black and Third World Studies departments, the admission of hundreds more students of color, and the hiring of more faculty of color, among other demands. The strike ended in a partial but significant victory: the establishment of one of the first Black Studies departments and the first College of Ethnic Studies in the nation. Equally as important, it also inspired countless campaigns to establish Black and ethnic studies departments across the country including just across the bay at UC Berkeley, which started its own strike in January of 1969.[2]

The teachers’ strikes in New York City illustrate the perils of a version of teacher unionism rooted in racial liberalism, whereas the faculty strike at San Francisco State demonstrates the promise of a teacher unionism rooted in a radical racial politics.  As Daniel Perlstein points out in Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism, New York’s UFT leadership supported a liberal racial politics based on integration and assimilation, one supportive of the demands of civil rights activism (particularly in the South, less so in the North[3]) but was unwilling to support the turn toward Black Power politics in the late 1960s. This was especially the case as Black Power activists critiqued racial inequities closer to home in New York’s schools and offered solutions that threatened the privileges of white teachers.[4] The UFT’s politics of racial liberalism, moreover, promoted a color-blind anti-racism. White teachers proved unwilling to comprehend that Black children might benefit from hiring Black teachers who better understood the needs of their community.  White union leaders, and the thousands of striking white teachers, were unwilling to interrogate how their white racial identity could blur their vision, preventing them from seeing the depth of racial inequity in the school system and interfering with their commitment to anti-racist struggle.

On the other hand, the AFT strike in San Francisco illustrates the advantages of a version of social justice unionism[5] that eschews racial liberalism in favor of a more radical anti-racist politics. The faculty at San Francisco State took up an approach that was race conscious rather than color-blind, prioritized anti-racist struggle in the schools even as they made class-based demands, took the lead from people of color, and promoted militant actions in support of racial justice. In other words, their example shows that as educators it is not enough to push our unions to nominally support racial equity in our schools, though even this can be an uphill battle in the white-dominated teaching profession.[6] In this article I outline the history of the faculty strike at San Francisco State in 1969 in order to provide a model for those of us who are interested in promoting effective anti-racist teacher unionism today.

What did it take to convince AFT 1352 to strike in support of the demands made by students of color—an unprecedented act for teacher’s unions, and especially for faculty in higher education? The answer is multi-faceted, but I argue that the most important lesson from the strike is the role that a militant minority can play in pushing unions to the left. A group of radical faculty was instrumental in influencing AFT 1352 to strike. Faculty of color were a tiny percentage overall, but as is often the case played a central role in anti-racist struggles at the college. Hari Dillon, an undergraduate activist in the Third World Liberation Front, recalled that two faculty members of color, in particular, played a leading role in activism at the college in the lead-up to and during the strike. Juan Martinez, a Mexican-American professor in the History department who had been fired the year before the strike for holding radical political beliefs, encouraged students to form the Third World Liberation Front. Nathan Hare, an African American professor hired in January of 1968 to establish a Black Studies program, organized and struck alongside the Black Students Union in support of their demands.[7] Dillon recalled that both “were practically a part of our organizations, and were in our meetings and demonstrations and spoke on the speakers’ platform.”[8] Martinez, Hare and other faculty of color provided an example of truly engaged anti-racist activism for their white colleagues.[9]

San Francisco ca. 1971. Photo by rockcreek.

Further, a militant minority of faculty joined the strike on November 13, 1969 when it was just a week old, preparing the way for AFT 1352. With the urging of leaders of the Black Students Union and the Third World Liberation Front, radical white faculty who had previously been engaged in activism at the college organized themselves under a new banner, the Ad Hoc Faculty Committee, in order to rush immediate faculty participation in the strike.  Nesbit Crutchfield, a graduate student active in the Black Students Union, recalled years later that to successfully pressure the administration to concede to their demands, “you had to have some white folks saying that was legitimate, because just people of color saying [they were] legitimate, there was so much racism that that wasn’t going to float.”[10] On November 13, seven days after the start of the student strike, the organizing by the militant minority in the Ad Hoc Committee paid off when about 65 leftist faculty members joined the student strikers.[11]

The membership of the Ad Hoc Committee was comprised mainly of radical white faculty who had previously been active on campus, including several AFT 1352 leaders: Gary Hawkins, Peter Radcliff, Eric Solomon, Fred Thailhimer, and Art Bierman. Other radical white faculty included Anatole Anton, a 28-year old faculty member in the Philosophy department who was active in Students for a Democratic Society, and William Stanton, a 45-year old professor of Economics at San Francisco State.[12] Stanton had previously been fired from his faculty position at San Jose State for his civil rights activism—he was trying to get students admitted to the college who had been expelled from Alabama State University for their participation in sit-ins.[13] BSU activist Nesbit Crutchfield recalled, “there were progressive forces within the AFT that were far ahead of the main body of the AFT, and we embraced them, we met with them, we strategized with them.” “And this Ad Hoc Committee,” he continued, “we looked at them as being a real feather in our cap.”[14]

Though the activism of this militant minority was essential in pushing AFT 1352 to declare a strike, two additional factors converged to convince a broader swath of the liberal college faculty to vote in favor of an official union strike: attacks on faculty governance and police brutality against the students. In an attempt to crush the strike, and without any pretense of consulting the Academic Senate, the trustees of the college appointed, S.I. Hayakawa, a deeply conservative English professor and future Republican senator, as Acting President of SF State on November 26, 1968. The appointment of Hayakawa was the last straw for many faculty. Arlene Kaplan Daniels, a faculty striker in the Sociology department remembered, “to the faculty, the selection of Hayakawa was a clear sign that the trustees meant to run our college without campus consent.”[15] Not long afterward, with Hayakawa’s blessing, on December 3, police attacked student protesters in what became known as “Bloody Tuesday.”[16] On that day the students engaged in pitched battles with the police, as the police chased students all over campus and mercilessly beat them. By the end of the day, there were 41 arrests and many injured students.[17] Even before this moment, members of AFT 1352 came to believe that an official strike by faculty would help to decrease police violence. Peter Radcliff recalled that there was a “standard arrangement in San Francisco that police don’t club legitimate AFT/CIO sanctioned picket lines.”[18] Outraged by the attacks     , AFT 1352 called an emergency meeting for the next evening. The question to be decided—whether to strike—was not taken lightly. There was no law giving faculty the legal right to be represented by a union, and faculty strikes were against the law. Nonetheless, at great risk to their careers, union members voted overwhelmingly to call an official union strike, resulting in a large infusion of new members into the union, even as some faculty decided to sever their union membership. [19] 

Though AFT 1352 was prepared to strike immediately in early December, the union had to go through a process to attain strike sanction from San Francisco’s Central Labor Council that involved negotiating with the college administration. It became clear that the local would need to come up with a list of its own “bread and butter” demands in order to convince the Labor Council to sanction the strike, and so they demanded a reduced teaching load and a grievance procedure, among other things. However, these demands were clearly window dressing for a strike first and foremost called to support students.[20] And when negotiations went nowhere, between 200 to 400 faculty went on strike on the first day of school after the winter break, on January 6, 1969, walking picket lines instead of holding classes. [21]

AFT 1352’s participation helped to strengthen the student strike by garnering more media attention and by infusing energy and increased participation, not just by faculty but by the broader Bay Area labor movement. With faculty on strike other unions joined the picket lines and donated money including AFT Local 61, the union that represented public school teachers in San Francisco; the ILWU, which represented longshoremen; the Painters Union, AFSCME; the Social Workers Union, Local 535; and the Teamsters, Local 9.[22] TWLF leader Hari Dillon commented about AFT Local 1352’s involvement in the strike, “I think that it was a huge qualitative boost when the Ad Hoc group was able to get the whole AFT, and the AFT able to get the Labor Council to sanction and go on strike. I mean, it added enormous strength to the strike.”[23]

The student strike ended in partial victory on March 20th when the Black Students Union and Third World Liberation Front agreed to settle with the administration. In 1969 a College of Ethnic Studies was established—the first ever in the nation—composed of Black Studies, Asian American Studies, and La Raza Studies departments. But not all strike demands were met. Perhaps most importantly, the striking students did not win an autonomous School of Ethnic Studies, one in which the TWLF obtained “the exclusive authority to determine the direction of the new School of Ethnic Studies and its various departments.”[24] This was not a small loss. Key to the politics of Black Power educational activists was that people of color should have control over their own education. Student activists decided to end the strike rather than insist that all demands be met because of the toll the strike had taken on all involved. There were over 700 arrests of students, and the energies of many strikers were now, by necessity, focused on raising money for bail and legal expenses and preparing for trial.[25] Additionally, the faculty union had decided to end its strike over two weeks earlier on March 2nd, under threat of mass firing by Hayakawa and with the student strike already in month five—the longest student strike in U.S. history—and clearly in decline. [26]

In contrast to the UFT’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike in New York, AFT 1352’s strike at San Francisco State College illustrates the possibilities of a teacher unionism committed to a radical racial politics, one that places racial justice at the very center of union politics. At the community college where I work as an Assistant Professor of History, we are engaged in a lengthy process to foster equitable outcomes for students of color on campus, particularly underserved Black and Brown students who drop and fail their classes at much higher rates than the general student population. The faculty at my college is disproportionately white, just as it was at SF State. To my mind, the faculty strike at San Francisco State shows the potential of pursuing racial equity through the faculty union at educational institutions like my own. In particular, it shows the capacity of a militant minority to powerfully influence their union to adopt a racial politics rooted in radicalism rather than liberalism.  In the words of Black Student Union leader Nesbit Crutchfield: “Here are these white folks, these white professors with letters behind their names, going out on strike, legitimizing the closing down of the school. And that gave it incredible legitimacy in areas that it would have been recognized if they hadn’t gone out.”[27]

Sara R. Smith-Silverman is an Assistant Professor of History at American River College, a community college in Sacramento, California. Her research focus is the history of race, class, gender, and sexuality in labor and social movement history of the U.S., with a particular emphasis on queer labor history.

[1] Daniel Perlstein, Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism (New York: P. Lang, 2004), 5-6. For more on the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike, see Jerald E. Podair, The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, White, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis (Yale University Press, 2002). For other examples of teachers’ unions clashing with Black Power advocates, see Jon Shelton, chapter 2, “Teacher Power, Black Power, and the Fracturing of Labor Liberalism,” in Teacher Strike! Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order (University of Illinois Press, 2017).

[2] Much has been written about the student strike in 1968-1969 at San Francisco State College and its influence, but very little has been written about the faculty’s participation. For a more detailed analysis of the faculty strike, see chapter 2 of my dissertation: “‘On Strike, Shut It Down!’: Faculty and the Black and Third World Student Strike at San Francisco State College, 1968-1969,” in Organizing for Social Justice: Rank-and-File Teachers’ Activism and Social Unionism in California, 1948-1978 (PhD Diss., UC Santa Cruz, 2014). For more on the student strike see, for example, Martha Biondi, The Black Revolution on Campus (University of California Press, 2012), Jason Ferreira, “All Power to the People: A Comparative History of Third World Radicalism in San Francisco, 1968-1974,” (PhD diss., UC Berkeley, 2003), Ibram H. Rogers, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstruction of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[3] For more on the longer history of the New York teachers’ unions and racial justice activism, see Jonna Perillo, Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity (University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[4] Perlstein, Justice, Justice, 24, 5.

[5] Social Justice unionism promotes ambitious social change in the workplace and in society more generally. As Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin argue in their book Solidarity Divided, social justice unionism calls for centering race and gender in labor organizing, because “race and gender are not sideshows to the alleged real story of class.” I would add that advocates of social justice unionism should also address the needs of other marginalized groups, including queer and trans people as well as people with disabilities.  Social justice unionism is a counterweight to a more politically narrow version of unionism promoted by much of the U.S. labor movement today, often referred to as business or service unionism, which favors exclusively negotiating around bread and butter issues of the workplace. By providing a more inspirational politics that addresses the needs of a broader swath of the population, social justice unionists can help revitalize a labor movement in steep decline over the past several decades which in turn can stem the rightward shift in American politics (Gapasin and Fletcher, 179).

[6] According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the Fall of 2016 76% of college faculty were white (https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=61, accessed August 7, 2019);

80% of elementary and secondary school teachers were white. (https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=28, accessed August 7, 2019).

[7] Umemoto, “’On Strike!’ San Francisco State College Strike, 1968-9: The Role of Asian American Students,” Amerasia Journal 15, no. 1 (1989): 20; William Barlow and Peter Shapiro, An End to Silence: The San Francisco State College Student Movement in the ‘60s (Pegasus, 1971), 156-157; Ibram Rogers, “Remembering the Black Campus Movement: An Oral History Interview with James P. Garrett,” Journal of Pan African Studies 2, no. 10 (June 2009): 38.

[8] Hari Dillon, Interview by Author, Berkeley, California, October 13, 2012 (hereafter Dillon Interview).

[9] Other faculty of color at SF State who went out on strike including Dora Tachibana in Biology, Jim Hirabayashi in Anthropology, both Japanese American, and Robert Chrisman, an African American English professor who taught Black Studies courses. Sonia Sanchez, a prolific writer, taught English courses, including a course on Black Literature (Jim Hirabayashi, Interview by Author, Mill Valley, California, June 9, 2011; Robert Chrisman, Interview by Author, San Francisco, California, December 6, 2012; Biondi, The Black Revolution on Campus, 47)

[10] Nesbit Crutchfield, Interview by Author, Berkeley, California, October 21, 2012 (hereafter Crutchfield Interview). Crutchfield ultimately spent two years in prison after strike due to bogus charges leveled against him.

[11] Ferreira, “All Power to the People,” 125; William H. Orrick, College in Crisis: A Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (Nashville: Aurora Publishers, 1970), 48.

[12]  Peter Radcliff, Interview by Harvey Schwartz, Audio Recording, 2000, San Francisco Labor Archives, Leonard Library; Anatole Anton, Interview by Author, San Francisco, California, September 1, 2011 (hereafter Anton Interview).

[13] Anton Interview; Radcliff, Interview by Harvey Schwartz, 50–51.

[14] Crutchfield Interview.

[15] Kaplan Daniels, “From Lecture Hall to Picket Line,” in Kaplan Daniels and Kahn-Hut, eds., Academics on the Line (Jossey-Bass, 1970), 46.

[16] Orrick, College in Crisis, 65; Dillon Interview; Barlow and Shapiro, An End to Silence, 265; Ferreira, “All Power to the People,” 139–140; “Summer of the Longest American Student Strike,” Gater, February 18, 1969, San Francisco State College Strike Collection (hereafter the Strike Collection), Leonard Library.

[17] “Summary of the Longest American Student Strike,” Gater, February 18, 1969, Strike Collection.

[18] Radcliff, Interview by Harvey Schwartz, 42.

[19] Ferreira, “All Power to the People,” 140-141; Radcliff, Interview by Harvey Schwartz, 55; Arthur K. Bierman, Interview by Peter Carroll, Audio Recording, 1992, San Francisco Labor Archives, Leonard Library, 95-6; “Why We Seek Strike Sanction,” Draft, December 4, 1968, Peter Radcliff Collection, San Francisco Labor Archives, Leonard Library, folder 25, box 1; Eric Solomon, Interview by Peter Carroll, Audio Recording, 1992, San Francisco Labor Archives and Research Center, J. Paul Leonard Library, 40–41.

[20] Press Release Gary J. Hawkins, AFT Local 1352 President, December 13, 1968, Radcliff Collection, folder 10, box 2; Solomon Interview; “AFT Explains Reasons Behind Current Strike,” The Gater, January 16, 1969, Strike Collection.

[21] “S.F. State Acts to Dock Striking Teachers,” Los Angeles Times, January 29, 1969; “Court Orders Teachers to End Their Walkout,” Los Angeles Times, February 5, 1969; Chrisman Interview; Solomon Interview; Radcliff Interview.

[22] Radcliff Interview; Ferreira, “All Power to the People,” 148-9.

[23] Dillon Interview.

[24] Ferreira, “All Power to the People,” 172.

[25] Ibid., 167-168.

[26] Ferreira, “All Power to the People,”170; “SF State Teachers Vote to Return to Positions Today,” Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1969.

[27] Crutchfield Interview.

3 comments on “Faculty on Strike Against Racism: Lessons from the San Francisco State Strike, 1968-1969

  1. This article by Sarah Sillverman from her doctoral thesis is one of the better and more accurate accounts of one off thee factors of the historic victory of students, teachers,staff, and community supporters of the the 1968-1969 strike against racism at San Francisco State College. One of the more important points is how a handful of determined activists can positively influence larger bodies of people to move in a positive and constructive direction for social change, and actually bring about concrete winning results.


  2. ALawlessLog

    Reblogged this on Digital learning PD Dr Ann Lawless and commented:


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