July 07, 2014

Remembering the bad old days

Author: Kara Smith
Source: NYSUT Communications
When you hear the value of collective bargaining questioned in the faculty room, at the water cooler or after the morning meeting, remember the struggles of those who came before you — the battles teachers waged in the early days to earn the benefits you enjoy today.

Imagine being forced to resign from your teaching position — with no guarantee of being rehired — just because you got pregnant. Or not having a designated lunch break during your workday; forced instead to either eat with your students or to cover lunchroom duty. Or imagine this: After earning your academic degrees and participating in months of teacher training, finding out that your take-home pay is less than the workers at the neighborhood car wash.

Stories like these sound crazy today. But before widespread teacher unionization, these scenarios were real. In fact, they were just a handful of the many injustices educators faced. Prior to the 1960s, teachers' professional lives were governed by administrators who held absolute power over what was taught, who was hired, who was fired and class sizes.

teachers united bookIn his book, Teachers United: The Rise of New York State United Teachers, author Dennis Gaffney details the antics of administrators like Abe Greenberg, an assistant principal at Astoria Junior High in Queens, who spied on teachers with binoculars throughout the day. Among other questionable opinions Greenberg held, he believed that educators should only lecture while standing. Teachers were chastised for sitting during class; Greenberg called it unprofessional.

In a 1996 New York Teacher story detailing the early days of the union, United Federation of Teachers retiree Lou Carrubba, said teachers had to "eat a lot of crow" back then. "Today's teachers have no idea. I'm telling you, hardly a day went by when we weren't humiliated in one form or another," he said. "There was no real grievance machinery, no protections, no due-process procedures. Besides, if you complained, they'd make your life even more miserable."

Sick days required a doctor's note or teachers weren't paid. Until 1957, pensions didn't exist and to get one educators had to be 65 or have 35 years of service. And lunch and other breaks were unheard of. "You lined up with your kids in the schoolyard and stayed with them the whole day, even eating with them — not even a bathroom break," remembered Janet Miller, UFT retiree.

Said UFT retiree Alice Marsh of one first-grade class of 48 students she taught, "I had to leave 12 children back because I couldn't get to them when they were slipping. This was par for the course." A 1952 New York Post article, "The Scandal of Our Schools," reported that one Queens elementary school built for 1,140 students had an enrollment of just under 3,000.

And teachers really did earn less than car washers. A January 1955 New York Times editorial, titled "Teach or Wash Cars," asked why anyone would take a teaching position at $66 a week when washing cars paid $72.35.

Longtime NYSUT retiree activist Sylvia Matousek, remembers earning $4,400 as a new teacher in North Syracuse in 1964 — a sum that forced many educators to apply for food stamps. Teachers were also required to inform the district superintendent immediately if they became pregnant. "The big joke was that you'd call the superintendent at two o'clock in the morning, and say, 'Oh, well, I think I just got pregnant,'" said Matousek.

Many current NYSUT members are too young to remember the early union struggles, but those struggles paved the way for what educators now consider the status quo. But with the stroke of a lawmaker's pen, or a single U.S. Supreme Court decision, today's "status quo" could become tomorrow's "good old days." Your hard-won rights, your voice at the table, could be lost — unless you remain vigilant.

When you hear the value of collective bargaining questioned in the faculty room, at the water cooler or after the morning meeting, remember the struggles of those who came before you — the battles teachers waged in the early days to earn the benefits you enjoy today. If today's political climate teaches us anything, it's that nothing is guaranteed. You must be vigilant to ensure your rights are not stripped away.

Don't let complacency return us to the bad old days.

Remember the value of your union.

Is wasn't that long ago...