When my colleagues and I went on strike on May 2, 2007 in Richmond Heights, Ohio, I realized that the closest I’d ever come to picketing was during the Vietnam War when my older brother wrapped a black arm band around my bicep and made me march for two hours with him and a hundred other college students. Nevertheless, when my union announced the strike, I arrived the next day at 5:30 a.m. at Strike Headquarters, ready to do my part.
Why? Because crossing the line was not an option and we teachers needed to stand-up to our superintendent for eliminating our right to advance notification of teaching assignments and the right of the non-tenured to file a grievance. Negotiations had dragged on for ten months, so my union followed through with our threat to strike and on May 2nd we began picketing at school entrances. We heard that the superintendent had already received authorization from the school board to hire replacement personnel and uniformed security. A week later, before our vote to strike even took place, my union building representative requested that several of us come to school Sunday morning to verify the rumor. We arrived to a parking lot full of cars, which signaled that people were inside interviewing for our jobs.
Two weeks into the strike our union negotiation team met with the superintendent, his lawyer and two board members at the office of a federal mediator while we sat on lawn chairs outside. Certain the strike would end, I prepared lesson plans for my post-strike return. Through text messages over the next eight hours, a member of the negotiation team updated us on the meeting’s lack of progress until a final, frantic message at 6:10 PM requested we block the exit doors to prevent either team from leaving. We linked arms, forming a human wall outside both exits of the office building, until the federal mediator called the police, who forced us to break our chain and leave the premises.
A week later, after I nearly received a $150 ticket for public disturbance (I was carrying my picket sign across an intersection) and a colleague was arrested for crossing the school driveway with his picket sign on his way to use the bathroom at the nearby City Hall (he didn’t know the police had decided to arrest anyone crossing the entrance), I decided I’d had enough.
I phoned Duane, a board member I knew personally, and explained that I was calling on my own to see if we could meet. Later that evening, as we sat at his kitchen table and sipped Pepsis, we lamented over the length of the strike, the replacement teachers in the school, and the lack of progress with negotiations. He mentioned his son, whom I had taught years ago, and we reminisced about high school basketball games. Our common ground reminded both of us of how we—and not the superintendent—were connected personally to the school and the community.
From his briefcase, Duane produced a copy of our original contract, a copy of the superintendent’s proposals, and administrative teacher-evaluation forms. “Let’s see if we can make sense of this,” he said, looking at the collection papers on his table.
Duane asked what objections the union had to the superintendent’s contract, and the difficult conversation I was expecting to have collapsed. Duane’s tone was curious and low key, not demanding or aggressive; it was as if we were discussing the best pitcher in the major leagues. He listened and scribbled notes on the superintendent’s proposed contract - once writing “NO” next to the clause “eliminate any non-tenured teachers’ right to file a grievance.”
By 10:45 we had discussed each item in question on the master contract and the superintendent’s proposals. Duane promised to speak with the two other board members who were not part of the superintendent’s negotiation team.
A weekend passed and on Monday, Duane and the other board members showed up on the picket line to inform us that the superintendent agreed to delete his proposals and bring us back into our classrooms. On May 28th our union leaders signed that new contract.
Nine months of negotiations, three weeks of picketing, and one arrest did not achieve what Duane and I settled in one evening at a kitchen table.
My lesson? When a superintendent refuses to compromise, teachers need to reject all the strategies we are told make a strike successful. Instead we need to get personal with board members, who have power over a superintendent, and talk to them like neighbors, face to face, instead of using words on a picket sign or yelling at passing cars.