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Historic St. Paul walkout

Published (4/15/2011)
By Kris Berggren
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“Strike for Better Schools” read placards carried by striking teachers and community supporters near Markfield Elementary School, November 1946. (Courtesy: Minnesota Historical Society)Overcrowded classrooms. Deteriorating school buildings. Inadequate school funding. A business community resisting tax increases.

That could be a contemporary laundry list of school problems — but they were the reasons for a 1946 teachers strike in St. Paul, the first such strike in the nation.

The St. Paul Federation of Teachers locals – the women’s local 28 was formed in 1918, and men’s local 43 in 1919 – had a history of activism, having won tenure and pension rights. A walkout was unprecedented and illegal, but working conditions had become intolerable.

Many school buildings were poorly maintained or inadequate. One elementary school had just one bathroom and sink for 180 students. Many schools lacked toilet paper, soap and towels. Some classrooms were heated by a single coal stove. Snow blew through window cracks in others. Some buildings were condemned by fire or public safety officials.

St. Paul teachers were paid less than any similar sized city except Birmingham, Ala. Textbooks weren’t supplied, and teachers often paid for books for poor students.

“How can one teacher with a class of 49 teach first-graders to learn to read and give each one individual attention?” said Helen Conway, a school principal quoted in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Nov. 27, 1946, who picketed with the teachers. “Since you can’t put kids in cold storage, the problem of good teachers and good facilities might as well be met head-on.”

This is now

Depending on this session’s outcome, teacher strikes could again become illegal, or they could merely remain untenable because of penalties and deadlines in current law or community’s will to avoid them.

“This is not 1946. My sense is the situation now is very different,” said Rep. Dan Fabian (R-Roseau) a high school teacher and union member who’s been the lead negotiator for two contracts in his home community.

Fabian said labor negotiations in cities like St. Paul are as likely to be conducted by lawyers as teachers, but in towns like his, the people on the other side of the table are people with whom he plays golf, attends church, even his former students. He can’t imagine they would impose conditions that would be so intolerable they’d warrant a strike, which can leave deep, divisive imprints on a small community.

Teachers today are as likely to bargain for such workplace conditions as professional development and site-based evaluation as they are for more compensation. There hasn’t been a school strike since a contract deadline and district penalty was imposed in 1995, except for strikes in International Falls, Red Wing and Crosby-Ironton between 2001 and 2005, when the deadline was temporarily lifted.

This year’s omnibus education finance bill, HF934, sponsored by Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington), would prohibit teachers from striking. Collective bargaining would be limited to certain months of the year and teachers would be required to accept a qualified economic offer from districts if it included an increase at least equivalent to any increase in basic revenue formula. Changes are proposed to tenure laws and the teacher evaluation process. Some DFL members see the proposals as riding a national wave of union-busting.

The 1946 St. Paul teachers strike lasted five weeks from Nov. 25 to Dec. 27, during a particularly cold winter. (Courtesy: Minnesota Historical Society) “Through a series of portions of this bill we pull a full ‘Walker’ on the teachers and other education employees in the state of Minnesota,” said Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Mpls) during floor debate on the bill March 30. He sees the ability to organize and strike as a civil right as well as a time-honored way to make changes to unjust labor practices or statutes.

“Some people — on both sides — want us to be like Wisconsin,” said Rep. Kurt Bills (R-Rosemount), a high school teacher and member of Education Minnesota. The tensions and differences that surface in the Rosemount High School teachers lounge and across bargaining tables across the state are simply part of the profession, he said. “Teachers are animated, and sometimes we raise our voices, but we always come back and eat together.”

Bills questions whether teachers, if truly hard pressed, would obey a strike ban. “We have always been a fairly outspoken and confident group of people.

“For me personally there’s no way I would walk out on the kids.”

That was then

The St. Paul teachers in 1946 didn’t want to walk out either, but they concluded, after years of attempts to follow legal channels, that only a strike would make their urgent point.

In 1946 the city had no board of education to oversee school funding or policy. Schools competed with streets, sewers, water and other services for funding from a $30 per capita property tax limit established in 1912. Originally $6 per capita was dedicated to schools, but in 1919 the city charter was amended so that all funds went into the same pool. Any change required approval by 60 percent of St. Paul voters.

But city officials, backed by well-funded opposition to raising taxes by the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce and the St. Paul Real Estate Board, repeatedly put off demands to put the question to citizens.

Finally the teachers, fed up with intransigence by the city council, the St. Paul Charter Commission and the mayor, called a strike to begin Nov. 25, 1946. Only 25 of the union’s 1,165 teachers crossed the picket lines to work. The strike lasted until Dec. 27. After numerous delays, the city finally agreed to put a charter amendment to the ballot, and the union suspended the strike. Voters eventually approved the amendment increasing per capita spending to $42, with $18 dedicated to schools. It took until 1965 for the city to establish a school board and create Independent School District 625.

Teachers enjoyed grassroots support. A ministers’ association wrote to city officials: “[W]e believe that a way must be found that will deal fairly with the members of a profession to whom is entrusted the training of our children who are the future citizens of our democracy.”

Maxine Dickson, then a first-grader at Ames Grade School, recalled in a 2003 article in “Ramsey County History” that her family circled the block in their 1938 Chevrolet in support of picketing teachers. “Dad would honk our horn in chorus with the other supporters in their autos. We rolled down our windows in the cold air, pointed out and called to our teachers walking the picket line. They smiled, held up their signs, and waved back.”

Harvey Mackay, the envelope business magnate, motivational author and syndicated columnist, was a 14-year-old ninth-grader at St. Paul Central High School in 1946. He remembers serving coffee to his teachers on the picket line – and playing a lot of basketball at the Jewish Community Center in the long weeks without classes. He said St. Paul Central was better off than many city schools with less affluent families, but there was “no question the classrooms were crowded.”

Mainly what Mackay recalls 65 years later is the value of his public school education.

“The major perception on the part of all of us that go to all the reunions is how lucky we were to have gone to St. Paul Central, and have been able to go on to higher education.”

The 1946 strike he witnessed may have been his teachers’ last resort, but it was a giant step towards putting schools and students first.

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