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Edith Shanker, a force in the teachers union movement, dies at 87

Mrs. Shanker was married to Albert Shanker, who became president of the American Federation of Teachers, but she was a figure in union organizing and education in her own right.

Edith Gerber Shanker
Edith Gerber ShankerRead moreCourtesy of the Shanker Family

Edith Gerber Shanker, 87, an activist in the labor movement in public schools, died Saturday, Sept. 19, of kidney disease at her home in Pennswood Village, Newtown.

Mrs. Shanker, the wife of teachers' union leader Albert Shanker, was born in Philadelphia during the Great Depression. Her mother died when she was 18 months old, her father when she was 7. She and her two siblings were placed in orphanages and then a foster home together.

“It was this experience that ingrained in her the importance of family,” Mrs. Shanker’s relatives said in a statement announcing her death.

She worked her way through City College of New York by waiting on tables, according to a biography provided by the nonprofit Albert Shanker Institute. While doing advanced study in English literature, she decided to become a teacher.

In September 1959, she was teaching English at Junior High School 126 in Queens when she went to hear a speech by Shanker, at the time a budding labor organizer. Later, he would become president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers.

He recruited her to join the New York Teachers Guild, a forerunner of the UFT. She served as a union organizer and as a delegate to the UFT’s founding meeting in March 1960.

In November 1960, she was a picket captain during the UFT’s first strike in the New York City schools. The UFT drew public attention from the labor action, and that in turn paved the way for it to become the first teachers' union in the nation to gain collective bargaining rights, the institute wrote.

Known as “Eadie,” she and Shanker were married in 1961. They lived in New York City and WestchesterCounty, N.Y.

Mrs. Shanker stayed home to raise the couple’s three children. When the children were teenagers, she went back to work.

In 1967, Albert Shanker was jailed in New York for 15 days over the Christmas holidays for leading a September teachers' strike in defiance of a no-strike law for public employees. Mrs. Shanker, her arms full of holiday gifts from the children, was denied entrance to the jail.

She told the Bergen Record that she was disappointed the incarceration came at holiday time. “I try not to be, but I am bitter, especially for the children,” she said. She told a television reporter: “Someone in this city must be a Scrooge.”

In 1978, she helped establish a basic literacy and GED program for union members who worked in New York City agencies. She also helped create the City University of New York’s programs to prevent high school students from dropping out, and a program providing college students as mentors for the high schoolers.

“Those of us in the institute had the privilege of working closely with Eadie for many years,” the Shanker nonprofit wrote, “and we came to know her as a dedicated teacher, committed unionist, and a tireless advocate for social justice. She was a great lady whose voice, intellect, and energy will be sorely missed.”

Mrs. Shanker engaged with union activities as a retiree until moving in 2016 from New York to Pennswood Village due to declining health.

In 2012, the New York State United Teachers honored her with the Sandy Feldman Outstanding Leadership Award, which recognizes women’s contributions to the education labor movement.

When not working, she volunteered for the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, the Union Square Park Community Coalition in New York, the Samuel J. Tilden Democratic Club in New York, and Fair Districts PA, which opposes gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. She also enjoyed travel, art, music, gardening, cooking, genealogy, poetry, and theater.

Her husband died in 1997 at age 68.

She is survived by children Adam, Jennie, and Michael; four grandchildren; a stepson, Carl Sabbath; a step-grandson; and two nephews.

Funeral services will be private.

Memorial donations may be made to the National Kidney Foundation, 1500 Walnut St., Suite 301, Philadelphia, Pa. 19102.