My mother started teaching in the Ohio public school system in the early 1970s. At the time, the national median salary for elementary school teachers was $6,439 for women and $8,013 for men.
Her school district didn’t have money to boost teacher salaries or buy supplies. Administrators handed out chalk three pieces at a time. But it seemed to the teachers that there was always enough money for sports facilities, administrative salaries, and other expenditures. The teachers had a union but were told they weren’t allowed to strike. Salaries stagnated.
Then the school board announced it was cutting 11 teachers, increasing class sizes for the remaining teachers, and extending the school day.
“Somebody had to do something,” my mom said.
So in February of 1976, the teachers decided to strike.
“It was a scary thing because we knew that some administrations would send in people to make sure there’s a lot of harassment to intimidate the strikers,” she said. “We had no idea what they would do to us or if the public would be hostile.”
It turned out that the public was generally supportive, with local parents bringing coffee and doughnuts to the picket lines or honking their horns as they passed in their cars. Some parents brought their children to visit their favorite teachers. No one targeted the teachers with violence.
But after a week the school board obtained a court order to force the teachers to return to work. The teachers didn’t. The next day, patrol cars from the sheriff’s office rolled up to the picket lines.
“This is illegal,” the teachers were told. “You’ll be arrested if you stay here.”
This standoff was not what my mom signed up for.
My mom had always wanted to be a teacher. As a child, she’d gather up neighborhood kids, sit them on a porch stoop, and pretend to be their teacher.
No one in her family had gone to college, so as a teenager she didn’t know what to expect when she told her father she wanted to be a teacher. My grandfather, a steel worker, borrowed money so she could get her degree. She eventually started her chosen career in public service.
But now she wasn’t teaching. She wasn’t even in a classroom. She and her colleagues were facing down the sheriff’s deputies.
She and the other teachers stood their ground. The sheriff looked around. He could do the math (probably thanks to a teacher): A few squad cars. Roughly 70 teachers.
But then the civic-minded teachers volunteered to drive themselves to jail. They formed a caravan to the sheriff’s department, where they waited several hours before being released.
After court hearings regarding issues on both sides, the school district and the teachers reached an agreement. The school year continued. But the divisive issue had taken its toll.
“The hard feelings between members of the staff lasted for years and years,” my mom said.
“When a coworker crossed the picket line, friendships were lost that never healed. There were a few scuffles when male coworkers tried to convince a friend not to cross the picket line.”
“The administration was really angry, and we didn’t know how they might try to reprimand us when it was over,” she said. “Friendships were lost between friends of the administration and friends of the teaching staff.”
Contrary to popular belief, teachers don’t enter into strikes lightly. Work stoppages can be emotionally, physically, and financially grueling. But managers of public workers have no reason to entertain the workers’ requests if there are no consequences for ignoring them. The public sector has, in a sense, a monopoly over teachers who want to devote their lives to helping children because most of those children are in the public schools. Unions are a way of balancing the power.
Are there school districts that would pay a good wage without a union? Of course. Are there districts that would take advantage of teachers without collective bargaining? Of course.
Currently, many teachers in Wisconsin are protesting Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill that would end collective bargaining for state workers. The proposed budget would also slash the education budget and prohibit school districts from raising taxes to meet the shortfall.
Each protester in Madison is someone’s mother or father, son or daughter, and each protester has a story. Other people have the right to disagree with the protesters on the issues. But to make sweeping declarations about “all teachers” or “all unions” or to criticize all the protesters for the actions of a few is to ignore the individual choices involved.
My mom is now retired after 35 years in education and has a suggestion for people who criticize the protesting teachers:
“If they cared about the students, they would participate in a group – a union or something – to keep teachers in the profession,” she said. “If they want good teachers, they have to have teachers who can live on $50,000 when they know they can be a doctor or a lawyer.”
To work for the public good, to join a union or not to join, to strike or not to strike, to protest against lawmakers or remain silent – these are all personal choices. Everyone has his or her reasons for making them.
Tough choices. Real people. Let’s treat them that way.
History of teacher salaries from the National Center for Educational Statistics, part of the U.S Department of Education:
“Teachers’ Hearing Drags Into Night.” Steubenville Herald Star 22 Feb. 1976: 1. Access Newspaper Archive. Web. 6 Mar. 2011.