Unexpected Negotiations ~ Life as a (proud) union activist

 

©Photo by Oma Liz 
Note “halo” over Cheryl’s head – my camera chain – in the mirror!

[Pic taken in 2010: Liz, Union Secy – Cheryl, Union President]

Words and music by Woody Gutherie
There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and company finks
And the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
And when the company boys come ’round,
She always stood her ground.
CHORUS: Oh you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union.
Oh you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union
‘Til the day I die!

From working in the sweatshops of Lower Manhattan to the much worse sweatshops of Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia, my parents and I believed in and fought for the rights of the unions and the workers who supported them.

Unless you, yourself, lived through the death-dealing turmoil foisted on the workers of the forties through the seventies, don’t automatically pick on unions. Although the Industrial Revolution brought wealth to the owners of businesses, mines, and factories, the workers were chewed up and spit out onto the cemetery grounds. Don’t denigrate the unions. Without them, we old-time union members would still be dying in early middle age or sooner, have no health care, equal rights for minorities and women, and would still be living in pre-Industrial Revolution poverty and fear.

I am, unabashedly, a Union Maid.

For many years I was a union activist. Oh! The stories I could tell! In my thirties, I went to night school to become a teacher. Then, I proudly served in the NJEA, the state teachers’ union. Whatever is said today about teachers, in the 70’s through late 90’s, teachers were treated worse than badly, their lives ruled by seventeenth century points of view.

My philosophy is, that as a teacher, I am responsible to the children, the principal, the parents, the community, and this nation. Period.

Ultimately, I became an officer in the union, and was honored to be chosen to be trained as a negotiator. 

When a half dozen times, we officers and negotiators faced prison, one daughter, then in her teens, joked that, if it weren’t for my union commitments she and her siblings probably would never have learned so quickly to cook, clean, and be actively responsible family members.

Oh, those were the “good old days!”

Why jail? Most teachers had two jobs and no medical insurance. The children were being taught by unqualified, uncaring “teachers” who had little training and were willing to be paid a pittance. But we wanted better. So our answer to the boards of education was: “I will go to jail. And then I will sue you in court for abdicating your responsibility to students and teachers. We want decent teachers being paid decent salaries. We want health benefits so we and our own children are protected.”

We won hard earned victory after victory between the late seventies into the middle nineties. We brought education to the pinnacle, and then we were trampled by school districts and states who felt we and the students weren’t worth it.

 Early in the 1990’s, my school district was facing destruction when a company negotiator for US Steel, whose children attended district schools, offered himself as a negotiator to the Board of Education. He promised to destroy the teachers and the union. “I WILL break the back of the union!” he thundered. The press loved it. Media played the conflict to the hilt.

Negotiations entered deadlock over the summer. A week before schools were to open, the entire one hundred sixty teachers in the district were served with a court order to report to work or go to jail for an indefinite time.

Then, at the negotiator’s advice, the Board of Education hired one hundred sixty-plus substitute teachers to report for the first day of school. The substitutes were hired at four times the substitute rate then prevalent and were guaranteed full medical benefits.

The township exploded into controversy almost bordering on violence.

The media was beside itself with joy.

When we officers and negotiators faced prison, and death threats, citizens served notice on the Board of Education that they wanted to have their teachers back and were willing to pay higher taxes to maintain one of the ten best school districts in the state.

Driven by the negotiator, the Board refused to budge.

Picket lines had picket lines surrounded by picket lines.

Early in the evening on the day before the first day of school, we met at a large motel on a main highway in town.  We heard from friends in the media how the substitutes were to be brought in by buses and be locked up in the middle school for orientation, ready to begin work.

We met all night and finally voted unanimously to go to jail at five in the morning.

And then, in the dead silence following that vote, one of our negotiators stood up and said, “I have a brilliant idea,” she said, “Why don’t we just show up for work at seven a.m.? If anyone asks, our president will tell them we are reporting for orientation.”

There was not a sound in the room. Then, the teachers nodded, waved hands in the air, and shouted, “Aye!” 

Our president asked for silence. She said, “Let the officers lead you to the middle school front door. Say nothing. Nothing. I will do all the talking.”

A wave of almost hysterical laughter swept through the auditorium. Another “Aye!” thundered through the room.

Led by us, their union officers, the teachers started marching through the exit doors leading to the motel’s parking lots. The arresting marshals approached us with handcuffs and chains. Chains! They were told we were going to work and we did not want to be late. They dropped back, with confused looks on their faces. Our president was presented with the court order. She glanced at it, then handed it down the line, and each officer glanced at it before passing it on. The last officer ripped it in half and dropped it on the concrete.

The entire state, regional, and local press & tv corps, the police, and the arresting marshals went berserk.

We got into our cars, and followed by the media, slowly drove out of the parking lot toward the middle school, two miles away. We arrived at 6:45 am.

After parking, my five friends and I linked arms and marched to the locked front doors, followed by a silent crowd. The media was running about, not sure of what to cover first. Within half a minute, a pale, agitated superintendent of schools unlocked the doors and stepped out. “What do YOU want?” he snarled. He actually snarled.

“Why, boss,” said our president in a mild tone, “we’re here to report to work. Isn’t orientation and a speech by you what was scheduled?” She waved the first day’s schedule at him.

Heretofore, we had stood silently. Suddenly wave of laughter rumbled through our ranks. People started pointing to the driveway as one hundred and sixty-plus substitutes ran out through back and side doors and frantically boarded the buses, which pulled out as soon as each was full.

The superintendent silently stepped aside, and we teachers marched down the halls into the auditorium for orientation.

After we made ourselves comfortable, we watched silently as he stepped onto the stage to the microphone. The unlucky man picked up a microphone and looked at us. We remained silent.

Then he cleared his throat, and said hoarsely, “Orientation is postponed. Just report to your schools and get your classrooms ready.”

At a signal from the union president, the woman who had suggested we report for work stood up. “Our classrooms have been ready for a week. YOU, you superfluous man, wouldn’t recognize a true teacher if you fell over one.”

In silence we marched out.

            That night, after an afternoon nap, we negotiators returned to negotiations. Within minutes, two women on the Board team and three on the teacher’s side nodded at each other. One Board member announced we ladies had to go to the ladies’ room. The five of us left. When we reached the restroom, each of us sat in a booth and discussed our options. A half hour later, we returned. That night we reached a fair settlement.

            The chief negotiator moved back to Pittsburgh within the next few months.

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