Teachers strikes roiled schools for decades

Chicago Tribune reporter

Chicago has experienced such a remarkable streak of strike-free school years, it is easy to forget how rancorous teacher-school board relations once were in the city.

The last time Chicago teachers walked out was 25 years ago. Yet before that 1987 strike, the threat was a near-annual event; from 1969 through 1987, there were nine work stoppages, ranging from two days in 1985 to the 19-day marathon in 1987. Classes didn't resume until Oct. 5. Teachers generally fought for higher pay, better benefits, smaller class sizes and sometimes a school holiday. In the 1985 stoppage, the teachers won a 6 percent raise — and Casimir Pulaski Day.

Labor disputes weren't unique to Chicago. Elgin's Unit District 46 was racked by five strikes between 1971 and 1981, when a bitter strike saw four teachers jailed.

Even when school started on time, students, teachers and administrators were bedeviled by uncertainty. It seemed like a strike vote was the necessary prerequisite to a contract agreement. In July 1986, the Chicago school board president felt called upon to guarantee that school would start on time that September. It was the first time since before 1978 that parents could be certain their kid would be in a classroom come the fall.

Parents have inevitably felt caught in the middle — just as they presently do, the Chicago Teachers Union having set Monday as a strike date if a last-minute settlement isn't hammered out. Working parents worry about kids going unsupervised when classrooms are closed. Families with high schoolers fret about teacher recommendations for college-bound students.

Ever since the CTU's first strike in 1969, the rhetoric of past strikes is often recycled. All parties involved claim the moral high ground, saying they only want what's best for the students. During that first strike, a teacher in an inner-city school pioneered an explanation destined to have a long shelf life: "We are striking to improve the conditions in the school. Right now the children are getting a raw deal."

When teachers picketed the Board of Education's offices in 1975, union President Robert Healey told them: "Most of us don't really like to put on a sign and walk up and down. We'd prefer to be in the classroom." School Superintendent Joseph Hannon counterpunched by showing a Tribune reporter a letter of support he had received from an anti-union teacher: "Healey deprived me of the privilege of meeting my students for a week."

Sometimes parents have supported striking teachers, while in other instances they've backed the Board of Education.

In the spring of 1969, as a chill made walking a picket line uncomfortable, the Tribune reported at one high school, "the parent-teachers association vice president drove up in her car, then unloaded boxes of sweet rolls to pass out to striking teachers." At another school, "mothers and pupils brought vacuum bottles of coffee to picketing teachers."

But during a 1973 strike, one PTA president took a harder line in a letter to the Tribune: "Are the schools being run for the benefit of the Chicago Teachers Union or for the children of Chicago? Our organization, dedicated to the welfare of children, intends to work diligently for legislation outlawing all strikes in the public sector."

That's a common theme these days, with fiscal conservatives in Wisconsin, Indiana and elsewhere drawing a bead on public-employee unions. Yet militancy and even talk of striking were long in coming to the teaching profession. Teachers were primarily women, of whom ladylike behavior was expected — even sometimes by teachers themselves.

When teachers were admitted to the Chicago Federation of Labor in 1902, the Tribune greeted them with a hearty headline and a patronizing description: "Teachers join ranks of labor," the paper announced, predicting: "a new division may be seen in the Labor Day parades, marching with the girl box makers, the cooks and laundresses, the cash girls, and the clerks."

The teachers union president felt obliged to issue a statement: "To the public: There will be no strike by the teachers of Chicago. The teachers are too deeply concerned for the welfare of the children of the city to tie up the schools by a strike."

For decades, Chicago teachers avoided confrontation in favor of lobbying for school reform.

But in the 1960s, the times they were a-changing, as even the head of Chicago's schools recognized. "For years, administrators have pursued a 'father knows best' attitude, admitted James Redmond, Chicago school superintendent," the Tribune reported in 1967. The paper added: "There is a 'new breed' of teacher in the nation's schools — young intellectuals who want to help shape, if not control, education policy."

That year, the CTU got the city's teachers their first contract after voting for a strike if a pact wasn't forthcoming. A new era of militancy for Chicago teachers had opened, with the Tribune present to witness the May 14, 1967, turning point, when teachers rolled the dice:

"A Chicago public school teacher leaped to his feet in the packed union hall and shouted: 'Let's shut down the schools and show the people of Chicago that we mean business!' "

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