A foot soldier's view of past teacher strikes

September 10, 2012

I taught in the Chicago Public Schools for 31 years. I also belonged to the Chicago Teachers Union. I walked the picket lines in at least five strikes. I honestly don’t remember how many.

The lack of precise memory probably has something to do with my getting older. Another reason the details blend together is that I was not any sort of organizer or union officer or rep. I was just a member. So any memories I have of those long-ago events will be like the memories a common private has of a great war — very parochial and limited.

In the fall of 1979 I was teaching at Kozminski School in Hyde Park. This was convenient because I was also working on my doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago. Just before our winter break the Board of Education announced it had run out of money and couldn’t pay us. Merry Christmas!

Even with the payless payday, we didn't walk out right away. I believe we waited to February. I do remember that while we were on strike, the Board found enough money for one payday. So that particular evening, we traveled to our district office, and our principal handed us our checks.

The Board said that if the union’s demands were met, teachers would have to be laid off. The strike was settled, and the Board was as good as its word. I was laid off.

I eventually landed at Howe School on the West Side. During the 1980s we went out a few more times. One of the strikes lasted only a couple of days. The others were more like two or three weeks.

Our principal was very sympathetic. Even though she wasn’t supposed to, she allowed us into the building to get a drink of water, or to use the washroom. We got the impression she wanted to be out on the picket line with us.

The 1987 strike was the killer. I’d just bought a house and had two small kids. My wife was just launching her business. The strike lasted all September. Nineteen days.

On the line we kept up our spirits by singing pro-union songs we'd make up. One day we joined picketers from all the District Four schools and descended on the district office — hundreds of us. Jackie Vaughn, our president, came out to rally the troops. That night I wound up on the 10 o’clock TV news, standing behind Jackie, looking resolute.

As it always does, the strike ended. First day back to work, I got stopped for speeding in Oak Park. I asked the officer to give me a break, since I was just coming off a month without pay. His response was, “I never go on strike.”

To make up the missed days, the 1987-88 school year lasted until the end of June. We even had to come in on a Saturday, though many of the kids didn’t show up.

That was my last strike. And though I was only a private, I’ll paraphrase a general here — “Strikes are hell.”