Teacher Strike: Gender and Illegality

In his book, Teacher Strike, historian Jon Shelton argues that teacher militancy and strike actions in the 1970s posed a problem for what he calls “Labor Liberalism,” the dominant political ideology of the era, that American politicians were unable to resolve. This inability to grapple with the needs of teachers and other public sector employees, and their unique place in the American political economy, ultimately contributed to the disintegration of Labor Liberalism as Neoliberalism became the prevailing governing philosophy.

Born out of the New Deal era, Labor Liberalism was the axis of American politics until the mid-1970s. At its core was a belief that government intervention was necessary to ensure economic security for the broadest number of people — a necessary check on the power of capital on behalf of working people — and that labor unions were integral in that process. Teacher strikes in the 70s, according to Shelton, played an important role in undermining Labor Liberalism. These strikes illuminated crucial tensions within the doctrine, including racial and gender inequities and the ambiguous position of public sector workers, notably, whether they had the right to strike, especially during times of fiscal crisis. Out of this period of immense labor activity on the part of teachers and the government’s failure to adequately handle multiple crises came a widespread backlash against Labor Liberalism in the form of a more prominent anti-tax, anti-strike, free-market discourse.

Shelton’s work provides much-needed national context for the 1970 Keokuk school strike. In “Citizen/Worker,” the first season of Speaking of Work — the audio documentary series from the Iowa Labor History Oral Project (ILHOP) — the Keokuk strike is the fulcrum for a larger story about the fight for public sector collective bargaining in Iowa. While there are many points of comparison and perhaps interesting moments of contrast between Shelton’s compelling national study and Speaking of Work‘s more regional focus, two themes running through each seem especially worthy of our consideration: gender and (il)legality.

On the gender politics of illegal teacher strikes in the 70s, Shelton writes in his introduction: “Although most of the local and national leadership of teacher unions were men, the challenge represented by breaking the law forced local schools boards — consisting largely of men and gendered male in public discourse — either to arrest scores of female teachers (which still was not likely to end a strike) or to capitulate to the demands of women workers. Either course was subversive and, for many Americans, called into question the trajectory of the nation.” [1]

When women school workers went on illegal strikes, the men atop school boards were in a bind: arrest teachers or “capitulate to the demands of women workers.” Either option would be a transgression against social norms and dominant gender ideology. In the case of the Keokuk strike, an interview of one of the Keokuk teachers in the ILHOP archive suggests that the jailing of an elementary school teacher after Keokuk educators chose to defy an injunction and remain on strike helped to further galvanize the community around the teachers’ cause and against the school board: “I think probably the straw that broke the camel’s back was the fact that Billie Peters was a woman, and they sent her to jail. And people in the community did not like that.” 

Then and still today, American society engenders women as “caring subjects,” whose labor is presumed to be motivated by an innate love and obligation to do the work of care. In such a social and ideological environment, the sight of teachers jailed in Keokuk was jarring for many. However, unlike Keokuk, where community members rallied behind teachers, the spectacle of female teachers participating in illegal strikes in many cities provoked ire. Shelton documented several critics of a Philadelphia teacher strike who “believed the teacher’s illegal behavior threw gender roles into chaos. Eileen Antinnuci, for instance, used the example of a striking female teacher who called a male strikebreaker a ‘scab.’ Questioning the striker’s proper role, she opined, ‘Here was an educated woman, a person supposed to mold young minds. She reduced herself to a cheap, loud-mouthed, sign-carrying law-breaker.'” [2] Instead of systemic inequality, underfunding, or financial crisis, critics in American cities targeted teachers — and their criticism of the strikes fixated on their illegality, accentuating debates about the proper behavior of women who cared for and taught children.

The paradigm that emerged in this period largely remains today. Cultural representations of female teachers as negligent and surly figures undeserving of their professional status (or taxpayer dollars) surfaced in the ensuing years. Think Edna Krabappel, Bart Simpson’s fourth grade teacher. But so did that archetype’s mirror image, for example Tina Fey’s portrayal of high school calculus teacher Ms. Norbury in the movie Mean Girls. In the film, Ms. Norbury’s primary value to the student body is not her pedagogical skill but her empathy, her willingness to provide the affective labor of navigating delicate interpersonal issues between students outside the classroom, and her ability to act as a moral compass. This dualism proved a valuable lens to examine the politics of the Keokuk school strike and the ensuing debate on public sector collective bargaining in Iowa. [3]

While researching the pivotal role of teachers in the lead-up to the 1974 debate on the collective bargaining bill, there appeared two coherent yet, contradictory strands of the opposition. One perspective held that conceding collective bargaining rights to public workers would empower unions or “union bosses” to take complete control over local and state governmental affairs. (Spoiler: collective bargaining passed, and if anything is resembling a puppet government today, the unions are hardly pulling strings). It is difficult to decipher how much of this rhetoric was genuine or simply fear-mongering. However, with a legitimate push for national legislation on public sector collective bargaining in the early to mid-70s, it seems plausible that this was a sincerely held belief, at least among some. At the level of school districts, local hostility toward collective bargaining centered around the issue of “local control” of schools. This antipathy for bargaining was rooted in a fear that allowing teachers to bargain over workplace issues collectively would limit the power of school board officials (it would), and by proxy, the “taxpaying people” who elected school board members. Those arguing for “community control” sparsely acknowledged that teachers are part of the community where they teach. While school boards were often a metonym for “community,” they more frequently reflected the power bloc of any given town.

The invocation of “taxpayer” in letters to the editor in January and February issues of the Des Moines Register from anti-bargaining readers was prevalent. Some of these letters testify to the fears of a union takeover of the government: “[The Public Employee Relations Act] before the Iowa House could also be called a ‘giving away the government bill,’ for it gives public employees unprecedented power to challenge the decisions of duly elected officials … We may be seeing only the tip of the iceberg of labor control of our government. For if any government at any level can be challenged by its employees, then there is no guarantee that government at all levels is immune to the same challenge.” [4] This line of argument posited collective bargaining was a mechanism that would bestow substantial control of the government to employees, employees who presumably already desired such absolute authority. Some of the most strident opponents of collective bargaining, notably school board members and superintendents, were convinced the bill would end in something akin to authoritarian control by unions. Such thinking perhaps betrays their own aspirations for unqualified jurisdiction over schools. For instance, the sole Keokuk school board member who voted against the contract settlement post-strike was Richard Hoerner, a graduate of Harvard Business School and owner of a daily newspaper in Keokuk. In his dissenting statement, Hoerner clarified his preference for firing the 161 teachers who participated in the strike. “It might be better to do this,” he wrote, “than to teach our children, through the actions of this board and K.E.A. [Keokuk Education Association], that breaking the law really makes no difference, and that is surely what we will be teaching them if we allow these teachers to return to the classrooms.” Hoerner’s dissenting statement is steeped in the language of “law and order.”

Another anti-bargaining perspective regarded the bill as altogether unnecessary; that perhaps this type of legislation was needed in states more accustomed to labor unrest such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, states with large urban centers, but not Iowa. So one side claimed bargaining must not pass on account of fears about militant teachers and other workers, ready to take the reins of government away from elected officials at the first opportunity. On the other, a group who opposed bargaining because they saw little need for it — their view was that labor-management relations in Iowa were mainly peaceful. How can these two factions, ostensibly aligned in their opposition to this bill, hold such starkly different perspectives on the state of Iowa workers and labor relations? Here, it seems worthwhile to return to gender and consider how popular conceptions of feminized work may help resolve this logical contradiction.

Perhaps the most salient insight into the cultural logic around women, work, and the teaching profession in Iowa in this period comes from a roundtable interview between an Iowa legislator in favor of the bill and several journalists. A reporter asks the representative from Clinton, Iowa: “you talk about withholding services. How could a school district withhold its services?” When I showed this clip to a friend and coworker, they audibly howled — the answer seemed so mind-numbingly evident. The politician responded: “well… by the employees not coming to work….” [5]

Representative Brice Oakley, taking questions from the press on the proposed bill for public employee collective bargaining, on Iowa Public Television from Thursday, February 14, 1974

Although we cannot conclusively establish the extent to which gender played a determinate role in the thinking of those opposed to bargaining for public employees, it nevertheless seems appropriate to speculate on its influence. Would that reporter ask the same question if he were to inquire about workers in predominantly male professions, police, firefighters? Baked into the question seemed disbelief in the notion that teachers, a majority female workforce, might decide, under certain conditions and for political reasons, not to show up for work. That teachers might choose to give up their obligations to teach and to care for children seemed an alien concept. Here perhaps, is where these two lines of thinking intersect. For conservatives, fears that public employees might capture disproportionate control of local government could only be realized if that power was handed down to workers by the state legislature through the passage of a collective bargaining bill. In other words, the fear was that Iowa workers would become militant because they were handed some bargaining rights. Such a position forgets that the bill, whose explicit aim was to tamp down on potential labor unrest by systematizing contract negotiations and legislating tough no-strike penalties, was a compromise. But more importantly, it forgets that Keokuk school workers were not docile or passive. They had already mobilized themselves four years earlier, organized around workplace issues, including rampant gender discrimination. It also fails to recognize that when Keokuk teachers defied an injunction and leveraged their labor to continue what was then an illegal strike, with the community’s support, they had an edge on the school board in the negotiation process. Those opposed to the bargaining bill because they believed such a law would open the floodgates to labor radicalism had the order of operations backward. It was because in 1970, teachers and custodians in Keokuk and in 1967, city workers and firefighters in Des Moines had gone on strike that the bill was up for debate in the first place. [6]

photo credit: Eric Fischer

Previous and future episodes of Speaking of Work can be found here, at the Iowa Labor History Oral Project

[1] Shelton, Jon. Teacher Strike! : Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order / Jon Shelton. Second ed. Working Class in American History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017. Page 8

[2] Shelton, page 98

[3] “I’m a pusher”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/04/30/why-tina-feys-ms-norbury-is-the-real-hero-of-mean-girls/

[4] Letter to the Editor, “Challenging Power of Elected Officials,” in February 2, 1974 Des Moines Register

[5] Link to the full program of which this interview was a part, from the show “One Hundred Days,” on Iowa Public Television, February 16, 1974: https://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_37-47dr80m4#at_2524.329_s

[6] Caring for America is a history of home health workers in twentieth century America. Although not about teachers, it is an invaluable text for thinking about labor and gender politics in the post-New Deal era:

Boris, Eileen, and Jennifer Klein. Caring for America : Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State / Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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