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