Labor - And A Whole Lot More

The Other S.F. State Strike
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A LEGISLATURE SHOWS CONGRESS HOW
A LEGISLATURE SHOWS CONGRESS HOW
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In marking the 40th anniversary of the student strike at San Francisco State College this year, don't overlook the faculty strike that broke out in early 1969, not long after the student strike began. The eight-week-long walkout led by the American Federation of Teachers was one of the longest and most bitter teacher strikes in California history.

Although the faculty members called their strike to seek firmer rights, lesser teaching loads and other improved working conditions for themselves, they also demanded that the college negotiate an agreement with the student strikers and otherwise resolve student grievances.

The teachers didn't specify support for any of the students' particular demands, only that the college administration reach an agreement with them and meanwhile rescind the harsh disciplinary rules for students that were adopted during the strike and take other steps to end the campus turmoil that the strike had prompted.

Most of the faculty demands eventually were met, but theirs was a long, hard struggle that spread to San Jose State College and involved brief sympathy strikes at a half-dozen other state colleges. The faculties' specific demands were secondary. The stumbling block was their simple demand for negotiations.

Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, his hand-picked State College Board of Trustees, and San Francisco State's politically ambitious acting president, future U.S. Senator S.I. Hayakawa, claimed that teachers didn't have the right to collective bargaining. They insisted that the faculty members were legally obliged to accept whatever Hayakawa and other college administrators dictated. The most they could expect was to "meet and confer" with administrators about their working conditions, with no guarantees that any changes would be made.

Reagan, the trustees and Hayakawa tried to halt the strike by arguing that the law prohibiting public employee strikes applied to the teachers, by obtaining court rulings ordering them back to work and by invoking a State Education Code rule that teachers off the job for five consecutive days without permission were to be considered as having resigned. The trustees wanted to go even further, arguing that teachers who struck for any length of time should be considered to have voluntarily resigned.

But though none of that halted the strike, it did bring great media attention and public praise to Reagan and Hayakawa for their righteous attacks on irresponsible, law-breaking teachers and the radical, violent students they supported.

The few media outlets that explored the facts behind the political bluster were attacked as well. Hayakawa was so angered at the in-depth coverage of KQED-TV's pioneering "Newspaper of the Air" (later known as "Newsroom"), that he stormed off the set and out of KQED's studio in the midst of a live interview with "Newspaper of the Air" reporters.

The teachers got important support from the San Francisco Labor Council, whose formal sanction of the strike kept food service workers, truck drivers and other union members from crossing their picket lines.

Council Secretary George Johns played a major role in getting the state college trustees to finally agree to negotiate a settlement despite Gov. Reagan's continued opposition to negotiations. The governor even opposed the provision, standard in such settlements, that there be no post-strike reprisals. Reagan asserted there should be reprisals against teachers for having struck in violation of the law.

Key provisions of the settlement set up a formal procedure for teachers to attempt to settle their grievances against administrators, promised there'd be no reduction in the current number of teaching positions, reduced teaching loads that were among the highest in state colleges nationwide, and created sound financing for the new Black Studies Department and School of Ethnic Studies that student strikers had demanded.

The faculty strike was a true landmark. It showed that teachers could strike despite the laws against public employee strikes - and despite heavy opposition from the public and political leaders. It showed that a teachers' union could negotiate for its members, again despite supposed legal barriers and disapproval by the public and politicians. It helped push much larger and more powerful teacher organizations into demanding what amount to union bargaining rights.

Whatever the specific demands of the teachers, or of any group of unionized public employees, that is what they wanted above all - the rights to strike and to negotiate. So whenever one of the unionized groups managed to do both, they all moved toward winning those rights. It's a movement that has continued to this day.

Copyright (c) 2008 Dick Meister