Nationwide teacher strikes echo Bridgeport strikes in 1978
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) – When some 20,000 West Virginia teachers walked off the job in February, some educators were sympathetic, others inspired.
For Phil Levine, a retired city art teacher, the job action took him back 40 years to when he walked a picket line outside Warren Harding High School before being carted off to jail for two weeks.
“I emailed the West Virginia Education Association and said ‘Go for it,’ said Levine, now 71 years old. “Their pay is pathetic.”
Former Bridgeport Schools Superintendent Jim Connelly said the Bridgeport strike became the catalyst for not only binding arbitration laws but stronger union and teacher rights.
Some class sizes shrunk. Specialists were hired. Teachers walked away with raises of 6 and 7.5 percent over two years.
“It didn’t bankrupt the city and didn’t make salaries terribly higher,” Connelly said. “It was CEA flexing its muscles.”
West Virginia: Without a raise since 2014, teachers went on strike for nearly two weeks starting in February, until the state’s legislature approved a 5 percent salary boost.
Oklahoma: In March, Oklahoma’s teachers’ union demands for higher salaries were not met. The Legislature responded but not enough. Teachers struck for nine days before returning to class. They say their attention will turn to the ballot box.
Kentucky: At the urging of the statewide teachers union, teachers walked off the job to march on the Capitol in Frankfort after the governor vetoed a bill to boost per-pupil funding. He also signed a pension reform bill that was unpopular with teachers.
Arizona: After holding “walk-ins,” where they held preschool rallies over the need for raises, Arizona teachers began voting this week on whether to walk out.
Colorado: Teachers rallying for more pay walked out of class this week.
In those two weeks in September 1978, some 20 percent of the teaching workforce were hauled off in waves to Camp Hartell, a National Guard facility in Windsor Locks. Many in school buses.
Forty years ago, Connecticut’s collective bargaining law did not include a timeline for a contract settlement. Teacher strikes – though illegal – were common. Over that decade, there had been more than 50 teacher strikes across the state. In Shelton, New Haven and Bridgeport it led to jailings.
Bridgeport’s strike was different. It lasted 19 bitter days, attracting worldwide attention. Most say it was what led to the state’s 1979 binding arbitration law which help put teeth into collective bargaining.
Under binding arbitration, when two sides cannot reach a contract settlement within a set time, a panel chooses between the final offer of both parties.
Although the law has been frequently revised, there has not been a teachers strike in Connecticut since then.
“The Bridgeport strike put the teachers’ plight so much in the public eye that we never wanted to see it happen again,” said Sheila Cohen, president of the Connecticut Education Association – the parent bargaining agent for the Bridgeport local. “As we see what is now going on in the country, I just think it is so strange to be occurring around the 40th anniversary of the Bridgeport strike.”
Bernice Freeman – then Bernice Jackowski – was hired in 1972 with a starting salary of $8,100, which she considered comfortable for someone who was 22 and living at home.
Classroom conditions were another matter. There could be as many as 35 kids in her fourth-grade Winthrop School classroom, forcing her to scrounge for desks, chairs and supplies. There were no specialists – art, music and gym teachers – who could enrich the curriculum and provide classroom teachers with much needed planning and bathroom breaks.
The teachers contract had expired and negotiations were ongoing. Pay was one of the major sticking points, with the city offering 5 percent increases. The union had proposed raises of more than twice that.
Things came to a head in 1978. After months of failed talks between teachers and the city, led by then-mayor John Mandanici, the union threatened a walkout and voted to strike.
Freeman had just become part of the local union’s executive board as recording secretary. She had been teaching six years and was admittedly naive.
“Other people knew something big was coming down the line,” said Freeman. Not she.
When the new school year started, only 36 – a sliver of the city’s more than 1,200 teachers – showed up for work. The school board was forced to close most of its schools.
City officials secured a Superior Court injunction. It was in defiance of that court order that teachers started being jailed on contempt charges beginning Sept, 12, 1978.
By then, Freeman, who was walking the line, had already received a certified letter, mailed to her parents’ home with a dozen stamps on it, telling her she would be fired and included a summons to appear in court.
Her parents, she said, were shocked that Mandanici, their next door neighbor, was going to put their little Bernice in jail.
Freeman couldn’t believe it either. She was in the first wave of teacher arrests. By the time the strike was settled, 274 teachers would be jailed.
Freeman, sitting in a jury box with 12 other teachers that day, only half listened as a judge belittled them, she recalled.
“They dragged us down the back of the courthouse handcuffed to take us to the van,” Freeman said. “I remember crying and one of the teachers, Jack Curry, saying: ‘Don’t let them see you cry.”
The five male teachers were sent to New Haven Correctional Center. The females went to Niantic Correctional Institution where they were strip searched and deloused in what one teacher described later as a moldy, spider-infested shower.
At her retirement party in 2004, Freeman would joke that because of the union she never had lice. On that morning in 1978, she said she felt defiled, scared and humiliated.
“But we all stuck together,” Freeman said. “I think it opened a lot of eyes.”
The next day, the educators were sent to Camp Hartell. They would be joined by busloads of other striking teachers on a daily basis.
At Camp Hartell there were no bars on the windows, but there were bed checks, a regimented schedule and lights out at 10 p.m.
“It had a barbed wire perimeter. If you broke rules or walked out, they said you’d be sent to real prison,” recalls Levine, who chronicled his time in watercolor drawings.
Teachers from other districts descended on Hartell to support the incarcerated educators whose numbers swelled the camp to capacity.
Some say the city finally settled the contract because there was no other place to put the striking teachers. Others speculate it was because Mandanci’s daughter, a teacher, was on the next list of teachers to be imprisoned.
A year after the strike, binding arbitration laws were passed.
Gary Peluchette, now president of the Bridgeport Education Association, said other states striking over low pay, rising health costs and pensions would benefit from the binding arbitration laws established in Connecticut.
“Our schools have been open and running 40 years (without a strike),” Peluchette said.
There are 34 states that have binding arbitration in negotiating teacher contracts but to varying degrees. Some states where teachers have had strikes, like West Virginia and Arizona, have no collective bargaining statutes for public employees.
States like Kentucky are right-to-work states, said Cohen, where states can decide if workers can be required to join a labor union or keep a job.
“Some teachers in those states are juggling six jobs to make ends meet,” said Cohen. It reminds her of her first year in teaching in 1971, when she made more money bartending two nights a week in New Haven than her day job teaching in Orange.
While strong labor laws may curb strikes, some question if they lead to higher salaries.
“Teachers in red states are striking because of their low pay, but that is not because their labor rights are weak,” said Agustina Paglayan, whose studies include labor politics at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. “It is because those states have historically paid teachers poorly.”
Striking is another matter. Paglayan said a study by Janet Currie of UCLA found that compulsory arbitration leads to a significant reduction in the probability of public-sector strikes.
“I think if you really believe in something, and have people behind you, it’s really worth taking the risk,” Levine said he would tell any teacher striking today.
No West Virginian teachers ended up in jail over their two-week strike which resulted in a 5 percent pay boost and provided the impetus for similar job actions in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and potentially Colorado.