When Teachers Strike: A Memoir

In the early fall of 1980, our family was stationed at an Army Post named Ft. Huachuca, Arizona.  The town next to the base was Sierra Vista, Arizona.  The teachers of Sierra Vista schools became a testing ground for collective bargaining by the NEA, in one of their early excursions into union control vs taxpayers.  But a strange turn of events happened that fall that bear revisiting, since the strikes in Wisconsin center around collective bargaining, and as a consequence, local taxes.

In 1980, teachers at all the schools in the town of Sierra Vista decided to go on strike.  They were encouraged by the NEA to do so, since the NEA was powering up to unionize in other states and to try to control local issues usually decided by local tax districts and local taxpayers.  The teachers called the strike and schools closed, but the Mayor and Superintendent of schools in the town of Sierra Vista conferred with each other and agreed that collective bargaining would take away from local taxpayers the ability to control local taxes.  Collective bargaining may work in a private institutional setting, but when local taxes are involved, collective bargaining essentially means loss of local control, or taxation without representation. 

After the two men conferred, they called upon the Commander of Ft. Huachuca.  The men came with a simple idea and it was this: many officers worked at the post and many lived in town, so this was affecting their children who were missing school.  The men asked the Commander of the Fort if he would ask the officer's wives to commit to come in and cross the picket lines and keep the local schools open, for the betterment of the community.  The idea was a sound one because many officer wives held college degrees.  In fact so many volunteers stepped up to become a working substitute until the strike was over that there were enough to fill all the classrooms of the schools involved.

I was one of the volunteers.  I was a mother of three, the youngest being an eighteen month old.  I had a friend who offered to sit my children, but the Commander of the Base had also hired extra workers in the Post childcare facility to provide enough care for all those who went to teach.  What happened next was my introduction to the really ugly world of unions, picketing, and terrorizing brought at the hands of hired strike agitators from back East, who were brought on to agitate and to win the concessions. It became really ugly in the town of Sierra Vista for the next six weeks. 

We were not briefed about what to expect; instead, some of us met in living rooms of other wives who had seen NEA strikes, so they would be able to give us some idea of how ugly things can be.  The first day came, and innocently I drove to school with lesson plans, and a prayed up heart, because I knew that the children would have divided hearts and minds.  I arrived at my assigned school and parked, said a quick prayer, and stepped out into a line of protesters, agitators, teachers, and others who shouted hideous things and called us by name.  It seemed the union bosses had pretty good information channels themselves, as my friends teaching at other schools, encountered the same things at their schools.  I wouldn't have expected the picketers to know my name the first day I drove up to teach, but indeed they did.

I learned that the students were being coached outside school by their teachers to be disrespectful and uncooperative with the substitute teachers.  My students did not continue to hassle me past the first few days.  I let them know I meant business and they needed to learn.  They seemed to respect this and they told their teacher who was picketing, and after the first week, I believe she was sorry she ever went on strike.  I know the students reported to me that after the first week, when she saw what I was teaching and my effectiveness, she urged her students to cooperate with me and to get on with learning.

After school was out for each day, we substitutes found a huge lump of dread enter our hearts.  We knew some of the union agitators who were brought in were dock workers and they were known for physical confrontation, violence, and intimidation.  We were also followed by these agitators, until those of us who lived on post reached the safety of the front gate where MP's stood guard.  And those dear men and women really stepped up and made sure no agitators found a way to enter the Army Post. 

After the first week the phone calls in the evening began.  After the first call, I had to not allow my children to answer the phone, as when the first call came, my seven year old answered and she heard an earful of cursing and threats that put her into tears.  From that point on, we did not answer the phone in the evening unless I designated my husband to the task.  The intimidation was fierce each day, but I kept thinking about what taxpayers would lose if collective bargaining was ratified in this first test case and that kept me resilient.  I come from a long line of teachers, school board members, and school administrators, and we consider the field of education as a holy one that is a special and unique calling requiring fidelity to students and to the profession. 

The strike lasted roughly six weeks.  It became apparent to the striking teachers of Sierra Vista that learning was going on without them.  In fact the Superintendent of schools forced a showdown when he held a meeting of the board of school trustees and was ready to recommend hiring all of the substitutes who were filling the classrooms and teaching children.  Finally the strike ended and I went back to being a stay-at-home mama and loving it.  I had the compliment of the Superintendent calling me at home and offering me any job I wanted in the district, and I thanked him for his offer but declined.

I also had one more small surprise.  A few weeks after the strike ended I answered the phone one evening.  On the line was the teacher whose class I had taught for all those weeks.  She wanted to thank me for teaching her children so well, and it was then she admitted that she must have taken leave of her senses to do something as foolish as agree to a strike in the first place.  She told me that she would hold that as the worst decision she had ever made and she fully regretted it.  She also said her students had less regard for her since she had, in their eyes, abandoned them.  I told her simply that I was praying for her and for her class, as I loved each and every minute of teaching those special students

As I watch the striking teachers in Wisconsin shut down schools, I am thankful that the history of Texas has been that teachers in this state are not unionized.  We do not go on strike in this state.  We do not ask the taxpayers to give any more than local taxes will bear.  It may keep teachers' salaries lower than we think they should be, but it also separates teaching into a special calling, one that values the students over self.  States that are running out of funds are meeting hard truths, but I learned many years ago that local taxpayers have a say as well. Now that the till has gone dry in many states, teachers and other unionized workers are learning hard truths, that when the well goes dry and there is no more money, the striking workers will be met by angry taxpayers sick of having lost local control of climbing taxes.  The shell game of labor of using generous taxpayer funds is coming to an end.