Thursday, September 13, 2012

My First Labor Action was a Teacher’s Strike

Niles West High School as it looked in 1966

Note:  The Chicago Teacher’s Strike brings to mind my first experience with a labor action—the strike in the fall of 1966 by teachers in my high school district.  This is what I remember.  As always, memory is a tricky thing and I do not have references at hand to correct me.
I was a senior that year at Niles Township West High School.  It was a good year for me.  I was finding myself.  After arriving from Cheyenne, where I was something of a pariah as a bookish kid, the year before, I had discovered that at least in some circles my interests were valued and shared.  I had friends.  I was active in drama and was cast in good parts.  I had my own allegedly humorous column The Wind from the West in the school newspaper and my short stories and poems had been published in the literary journal.  I competed in Forensics.
Outside of school I was part of a circle of kids from all three schools in the district who were interested in things like civil rights, the fledgling anti-war movement, and liberal politics.  We even had an organization the Liberal Youth of Niles Township (LYNT)—which I have said before was the wimpiest acronym ever.  I even edited an “underground” newsletter pompously named The Promethian which was laboriously produced in the dozens of copies on an ancient and obsolete chemical bath Photostat my dad had in the basement and then smuggled into the schools for distribution like Soviet era samizdats.
I was the only goy in that group.  Like the majority of the students in the district, the others were Jews, mostly very secular.  In fact it was the Jewish culture which valued books and inquiry that had made me feel so at home in my new surroundings far from the Wyoming plains and mountains.
I was also extremely close to some of my teachers who had encouraged me in ways I had never experienced before, particularly the drama teacher and theater director Ilene Zelznick, and the gentle English teacher and writing mentor, Richard Gragg.
It was with some dismay that I learned that a long impasse was leading to a teacher’s strike.
The Niles Township District included three large schools, Niles East—the original campus—West, and the newest building North. The district stretched north from Chicago and west of Evanston and encompassed wealthy enclaves like Lincolnwood, working class areas like Morton Grove and portions of Skokie where the Chicago bungalow belt and duplexes bled into the suburbs.  New subdivisions had sprung up along the Edens Expressway and around the Old Orchard Shopping Center.  On the whole, it was solidly middle-class.  The district was noted for academic excellence.  It compared favorably to the much wealthier North Shore districts like New Trier.  Parents valued education.  Teachers were respected and admired.
Despite this, salaries in the district lagged behind surrounding areas and there were major clashes with the board on non-economic issues, especially what was described as “academic freedom” issues. Traditionally contracts had been settled without a strike.  But a new board was interested in “curbing the power of the union.”  After negotiations dragged on all summer and stalemated, the teachers voted to strike.  I believe it was in early October.
My friends and I—indeed most of the students and parents—were solidly behind the teachers.  The day before the strike we asked union members if we should honor the picket line, or perhaps lead a student walk-out.  We were advised that the best thing we could do was to go to school.  “The administration has no way to handle you.”
We decided that we needed to make a more overt display of our support for the teachers and the union.  The night before the strike, we gathered in my basement.  Someone had a bunch of old 2” printed campaign buttons and I had, thanks to one of my mother’s charitable projects, a big bagful of little ½” Red Cross Blood Drive buttons, the kind with a little metal flange that you bent over to hold them in place on your pocket or lapel.  We got jars of green enamel paint and set up a kind of assembly line painting each button by hand.  The large buttons were lettered, “We support our Teachers.”  The small ones were just plain green but would be recognized as solidarity. 
We also ginned out a fast issue of The Promethean covering the strike and urging students to show support.  After working most of the night our members fanned out to the three schools.
We made sure to get to school early and joined the picket lines, passing out our buttons to students as they arrived.  The teachers were surprised and delighted.
When the last bell rang, we went into school.  A lot of students had skipped and some parents kept their kids home, but there were plenty of us.  As the teachers had predicted, the administrators and clerical staff were overwhelmed.  Repeated instructions to go to our homerooms were pretty much ignored.  All day long we roamed the halls pretty much at will.  Many congregated for a while in the cafeteria where we conducted what might have later been called a Teach-in in support of the teachers.  We also discouraged rowdyism or vandalism which might result—as the administration threatened—in the police being called. 
Of course, that was the last thing the administration wanted.  They wanted the community to think that they had the situation well in hand and that students were somehow magically continuing to get an education.  In fact, they were willing to retreat into their offices and let us roam at will as long as we did not actively riot.
At the end of the school day, we re-joined the teachers on the picket line, which had also been beefed up by quite a few parents.  They were glad to see students leaving the building with those green buttons.  So glad that over night the union obtained more buttons and had them painted for us to pass out as the strike entered its second day.
The administration had badly miscalculated.  They thought the community would flock to their side.  The opposite was true.  But they were not yet ready to back down.
Two or three days into the strike, I nonchalantly ambled into the District Administration office, which was located at West and plucked a Board packet off the counter with materials for a meeting that night.  That’s how I discovered that the Board was going to move to fire all the strikers.  I got the word out to the picket line at lunch.  They had heard rumors, but had no proof.  Now they had the documents in hand.
That night the Board meeting was overwhelmed with not only Teachers, but parents and students.  Under the law the name of each teacher to be fired had to be read aloud.  They did not get very far.  The meeting had to be adjourned and the board and administration evacuated under police protection.
The tactic backfired.  More parents joined the picket line.  Support for the board collapsed.  By the end of the week the strike was settled—on the teachers’ terms.  Labor peace in the district prevailed until another bone-headed administration triggered another strike 40 years later in 2006 which played out much the same way.
On a personal note, not only had I found my first connection to the labor movement, but I discovered that actions have consequences.  At the end of the school year I was nominated for a few small scholarships, $100 or $200 each, for drama, Forensics, and creative writing.  The awards were routinely given and administered by department chairs.  But the principal, Nicholas T. Manos vetoed them.  Citing my role in the strike, some critical articles in The Promethian and the school paper, and my open opposition to the Vietnam War, he said that I didn’t deserve to go to college.  “He needs to be drafted and go into the Army.”
I took my revenge after graduation.  I was a delegate to the New Politics Convention from LYNT that met in Chicago that office.  Every liberal, left, and socialist organization in the country was there.  And they all had tables where I signed Manos up to receive their literature at his home address.  I knew that mail from some of those outfits just might interest the FBI.
I know.  I was a rotten kid.

No comments:

Post a Comment