Court orders, padlocks and backlash: Remembering the 1975 teacher strike in Pittsburgh

“It was tense,” one picket captain remembers. “It was also bitterly cold.”

Smithfield Street in Downtown Pittsburgh in the 1970s.

Smithfield Street in Downtown Pittsburgh in the 1970s.

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This week, Pittsburgh Public Schools came as close to a teachers’ strike as it has in four decades.

After a marathon 14-hour negotiation session that lasted until late Tuesday night, the teachers’ union and district officials reached a tentative agreement, TribLive reported, avoiding a strike after the possibility had loomed over the past few weeks.

This followed months of negotiations, and the district’s teachers had worked without a new contract since a two-year extension of their last contract expired in June.

Earlier this month, the teachers authorized their union to use the strike option if necessary. It’s the closest the city has come to a teacher strike in years and, if delivered, would have been the first in Pittsburgh since 1975.

Here, we look back at that strike 43 years ago, consulting books and articles on the subject and talking with one of the teachers directly involved. By all accounts, the strike of ’75 was a chaotic and tense affair that revealed divisions within the labor movement and the city itself. Faced with the potential for a sequel, here is what we found.

‘friendships were destroyed’

When Pittsburgh teachers last walked off the job, Gerald Ford was president, the war in Vietnam had ended just months prior, the Steelers were defending Super Bowl champs, and Mayor Peter Flaherty was roughly a year into his second term.

Pat Colangelo was 27 and a teacher at Brookline Elementary School making somewhere in the neighborhood of $7,000 a year, the equivalent of roughly $33,000 today.

“The times were different,” she said, “but I don’t know that anyone thought that was a great deal of money even back then.”

As most strikes go, issues of compensation were a crucial catalyst.

Video: Schools closed in West Virginia for another day amid statewide teacher strike

 

The strike, which commenced Dec. 1, 1975, would ultimately end two months after it began. But as author Jon Shelton details in his book, “Teacher Strike! Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order,” the strike didn’t end without first revealing racial tensions here anew, fueling an anti-teacher backlash and playing into a growing sense of economic anxiety gripping municipalities and municipal officials nationwide.

Things went off the rails quickly.

Not long after it began, the strike found its way into court, where the Board of Public Education asked a judge to grant an injunction ordering the teachers back to work. The Board claimed the strike represented a threat to “community welfare.”

The judge agreed and issued the injunction, but the teachers refused to heed the order and remained off the job for weeks after. This led to the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, the union that represented Pittsburgh teachers in 1975 and which continues to represent them today, being found in contempt of court. (These days, under Act 88, the state Secretary of Education may seek an injunction when a strike has gone on long enough to prevent the district from providing 180 days of instruction time by June 30.)

“Obviously, I wouldn’t be too happy about going to jail, but whatever has to be done will be done,” Albert Fondy, the PFT’s then-president said, per the New York Times.

Years earlier, in 1970, public-sector employees in Pennsylvania, including most notably teachers, had earned greater latitude in calling strikes with the passage of Act 195, also known as the Public Employee Relations Act. According to the Pa. Department of Labor and Industry, “Act 195 placed almost no restrictions on unions’ ability to call strikes. For example, Act 195 permitted teachers to walk off the job without giving school administrators prior notice and allowed unions to target schools selectively within a district. The law set no limits on how long a strike could last.” (That has since changed with the passage of Act 88.)

Between 1968 and 1975, Pittsburgh teachers went on strike a total of three times, often in pursuit of more competitive pay.

In 1975, Colangelo had been a teacher at Brookline Elementary for six years and was serving as a picket captain there and at two other South Hills school buildings during the strike. During her career, she also served as an executive member of the PFT’s board.

“I was engaged and hoping to get married later that year and so money was tight for everybody. I remember we were fearful of losing our jobs and didn’t know at the time how much being a member of the union could protect us. But we were following Al Fondy, someone we believed in wholeheartedly.”

She added, “We wanted [pay] you would be able to support your family with if you stayed in the profession instead of leaving for something more lucrative. We felt we would help to not only raise our salaries but also the conditions in the buildings — but it was a gamble for mostly everybody because we didn’t know exactly what the outcome would be.”

They soon found out.

After the court’s injunction ruling, things began to spiral a bit from the union’s perspective.

Colangelo said the union’s offices were padlocked under the court order with their picket supplies inside.

There were also defectors, teachers who, after the ruling, crossed the picket lines out of a sense of obedience, futility or frustration.

“I remember when the buildings were opened to students, I believe it was after the injunction. We had teachers crossing the picket lines and a lot of friendships were destroyed,” Colangelo said. “A lot of people carried those resentments throughout their career.”

For those teachers who refused to heed the court order, they were threatened with fines of up to $100 a day, the equivalent of roughly $450 today, Colangelo said. The union was threatened with fines of $25,000 a day for every day the strike wound on past the injunction ruling. While the strike continued for weeks after, Colangelo said teachers were never fined. She said the union was but later appealed and succeeded in getting, to the best of her recollection, some $125,000 returned.

A unionization wave that swept U.S. public education in the mid-20th Century also spread to higher education. This photo shows teaching assistants at the University of Wisconsin protesting in 1980.

A unionization wave that swept U.S. public education in the mid-20th Century also spread to higher education. This photo shows teaching assistants at the University of Wisconsin protesting in 1980.

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There was also the issue of public sentiment turning against them on a few fronts.

At the time, Pittsburgh’s black population was much larger than it is now. Pittsburgh’s teachers, meanwhile, were mostly white.

In his book, Shelton says a push to restore corporal punishment in Pittsburgh schools, one led by the PFT in the months before the ’75 strike, rankled and alienated Pittsburgh’s African American community, which saw the policy as likely to disproportionately impact students of color.

Given that context, when the Pittsburgh Courier asked black residents of the city about their thoughts on the strike, Shelton reports, their answers were emphatic and unsympathetic.

“The teachers are making too much money already,” one resident told the paper.

A student added, “Most of the time it seems that we go to school to learn, but we end up learning on our own.”

Pittsburgh was also in the throes of a dramatic rise in homicides and violent crimes in 1975, further stoking an underlying sense of communal unease.

And while Colangelo said she doesn’t remember a racial component to the backlash — she definitely remembers the backlash.

“I was in a bakery in Brookline, and I went in to get donuts for the picketers, and I remember having my hand on the counter and the woman behind the counter said to me, ‘What are you doing here so early?’ And when I told her, she pushed my arm off the counter and said ‘Shame on you. You shouldn’t be doing that kind of thing as teachers.’”

Colangelo said part of this owes to the fact that while private-sector strikes were socially accepted, especially in a union-heavy city like Pittsburgh, strikes by public-sector professionals were not. Even some of the city’s teachers agreed.

“It was tense,” she added. “I remember getting some support from parents and community members. But we didn’t really have a lot of people driving by and honking with their thumbs up. It was also bitterly cold out there.”

The money

In the end, teachers returned to work on Jan. 27, 1976, after agreeing to a new contract with smaller raises than they’d originally fought for, Shelton writes. But Shelton contends that what happened in Pittsburgh that year said as much about the city as the state of the union.

Just months earlier, New York City had escaped bankruptcy by the skin of its teeth. Nationwide, the post-World War II economic expansion had fully waned and by 1974 the U.S. was in a full-on recession.

In cities nationwide, this, coupled with the financial troubles dogging a powerhouse like New York, imbued a newfound sense of fiscal caution. Pittsburgh was no different.

“Even though Pittsburgh held a strong financial position, the [Pittsburgh] Board of Public Education leveraged fears about budget pressures to take a hard line against teachers,” Shelton writes. “The narrative stemming from New York City made such fears more plausible.”

Flaherty backed the Board’s position, warning Pittsburghers that without austerity measures and spending limits, Pittsburgh could become “another New York.” (Roughly a decade later, Pittsburgh almost did.)

Running headfirst into this growing sense of caution were Pittsburgh teachers who argued that their salaries had not kept pace with inflation or the rising cost of living in the city.

And while members of the public, local newspapers and others argued that the teachers — or more aptly their union — had gone too far in pressing their demands, the union, led by the dynamic and charismatic Fondy, saw nothing less than the future of the profession and American schooling at stake.

Education historian and author Diane Ravitch has made a similar claim before, arguing that without an “organized force to advocate for public education in the state capitols of this nation, our children and our schools will suffer.” Essentially, Ravitch argues that teacher unions are more aligned with the interests of students and parents than the policymakers in Washington, D.C.

But others saw teachers’ unions as excessively and unquenchably advocating for their own interests.

In Pittsburgh, there was also the matter of a schism within the labor movement, the more traditional vestiges of which Colangelo said never fully rallied behind the striking teachers.

“Other unions did not count us as true unions,” Colangelo said. “I don’t think they respected teachers’ unions as the real unions.”

Charles McCollester, a retired IUP professor, Pittsburgh historian and former member of the United Electrical Workers union, described Pittsburgh labor as a scene riven by factions leading up to the 1970s.

“There were all kinds of splits; there were age splits with World War II vets versus embittered Korean War vets versus even more embittered Vietnam War vets. There were also racial splits. All the old ethnic barriers were breaking down. There were many mixed marriages, either religiously or ethnically, and the city was changing, but it was still stoutly working class.”

A 2015 protest in Pittsburgh calling for a minimum wage increase is pictured.

A 2015 protest in Pittsburgh calling for a minimum wage increase is pictured.

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Given the city’s deep labor ties and working-class identity, it’s curious then why the public here never fully embraced the teachers’ cause.

Part of it may have dealt with the inconvenience or the belief that higher pay for teachers meant higher bills for taxpayers. In his book, Shelton links teacher strikes like Pittsburgh’s in 1975 to the American working class’ slow march toward conservatism.

And even though Pennsylvania’s passage of Act 195 in 1970 marked the arrival of one of the most far-reaching public-sector labor laws in U.S. history, Shelton says the strike in Pittsburgh in 1975 wound up prompting then-governor Milton Shapp to form a new commission “with the potential to roll back the gains of the law.” Over time, the state mostly did.

Of course, the PFT and district said they were doing everything in their power to avoid another strike this time around — and ultimately they did.

But for those who were there in 1975, some of the same ingredients remained.

“I can feel a samenessess,” Colangelo explained. Colangelo was a Pittsburgh Public Schools employee for 36 years in total.

“I can feel the same anxieties and worries. I can feel there’s members who understand what ‘union’ stands for, but also members who say ‘This doesn’t affect me. Why should I?’ and who still need to be convinced of what ‘union’ means.”

She added, “We always think we’re doing the best for our students. We always believe that’s what we’re doing. Improving a teacher’s life is improving the environment for students. Some people think this is just for teachers. But if you’re making this a profession that can draw people in instead of having the best people go elsewhere, you know, it’s all worth it to fight.”