In 1970 Strike, Students Partied but Teachers Lost Battle, and Pay
Mal Stich learned how to surf. Dave Cherry organized sit-ins. David Tankersley chased girls.
“What I remember about the strike days was that we did absolutely nothing,” Tankersley, a Huntington Park High School sophomore in 1970 and now an Orange County car dealer, recalls of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s first--and last--teacher walkout.
“I spent six weeks at the beach before I found out that the strike was over,” said Stich, now a short-order cook and notary public, who was a Fairfax High School sophomore at the time.
But, for many who were district teachers then, the memories are very different.
‘I Hated It’
“It was war,” said Gary Lipton, a retired social studies teacher from John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley. “I hated it, but it was a matter of principle. I’m glad I did it.”
On April 13, 1970, about half of the district’s teachers reported to picket lines instead of classrooms--marking the first day of what was to be a five-week walkout. Like members of United Teachers-Los Angeles, who are set to strike on Monday, teachers then were angry over what they complained was inferior pay and low status.
At its height, nearly half of the district’s 650,000 students stayed out of school. Slightly more than half of the teachers stayed out of class and on picket lines. No schools were closed, but at one point the district threatened to go to court in an effort to jail union leaders for contempt in staging the walkout.
Back then, UTLA was seeking its first contract with the district. Teachers were demanding pay increases to raise annual salaries from a top level of $13,650 to about $20,000. They also wanted reduced classroom size and increased spending on reading and other programs.
Feared Major Cuts
District officials said they would be forced to make dramatic cuts, and threatened to eliminate after-school sports, to pay for even the 5% raise they had offered teachers. There were fears among some school board members that teachers were seeking to take over control of the district.
In the end, teachers settled for the district’s original 5% pay-raise offer--and the average teacher ended up sacrificing $1,100 in lost earnings during the strike. Teachers, however, did win some gains, such as creation of advisory councils and new reading programs.
The UTLA this time is seeking a 21% raise over two years, as well as a larger say for teachers in how schools are run. The district has offered a 21.5% raise over three years and holds that principals should retain final authority over school decisions.
“The professional issues are still the same,” said Cathy Golliher, who still teaches health at Reed Junior High School in North Hollywood. “What’s different and what makes teaching more difficult now are the societal problems that have spilled into the classroom, with teachers having to deal with gangs and kids taking drugs,” she said.
She Juggled Schedules
Irena Szewiola was the head counselor in charge of scheduling at Columbus Junior High School in Canoga Park in 1970. She remembers juggling classes and teachers to serve students.
“There was yelling, name-calling, students were encouraged to write ‘Scab’ on the blackboards before class,” Szewiola said. “But I didn’t worry about friendships. My job was to work with everybody, to make sure that kids had classes and teachers.”
Szewiola said students at her school were issued grades by substitutes every three days, and those grades were used to calculate the students’ final grade once the strike ended. “I think it worked well,” she said.
Then a Fairfax High School sophomore, Cherry said the teachers’ strike helped make 1970 “one of my best years.” He helped organize a sit-in and walked picket lines in support of the teachers.
“It was very much an outgrowth of the 1960s activism and the anti-war movement,” said Cherry, who was later kicked out of school for ditching too many classes before and during the strike. “To us, the teachers had a legitimate claim and they needed support.”
Former student Tankersley said he preferred attending school during the strike because “there was more socializing.” Substitutes, who had to supervise twice the number of students in overloaded classrooms, were “abused like crazy” by students who made their own rules.
“The teachers who stayed had their hands full,” Tankersley said, “guys like the football coach trying to teach the math class.”
After the strike ended on May 13, 1970, the school board offered to pay teachers to stay after school and tutor students who had missed classes during the strike. But that did not make up for the salary lost during the walkout, teachers said.
“What I lost, I never got back,” said Don Batcho, a sixth-grade teacher at Eastman Avenue Elementary School in East Los Angeles since 1964.
Still, Batcho is quick to add that if no settlement is reached before Monday, he will strike again. “I know what I have to do,” he said.
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