Viewing the recent Chicago teachers' strike unfold led me to reminisce about another teacher strike. It was the Jamestown Teachers' strike of 1972 which occurred 40 years ago this October. Eleven days in duration, it played out over parts of three weeks. Weatherwise, it was the most bitter October before or since. Close to 400 teachers faithfully picketed their respective schools in spite of it. The strike commenced on Oct. 16 and ended on Nov. 1. A small contingent of teachers did not strike.
The action, as it were, played out over two fronts. JTA President Brook Rhinehart and his officers negotiated with school board President Emory Olson and Superintendent Bryan Shaddick and his team. JTA was assisted by former Jamestown teacher, James Conti, N.Y.C.T. regional director, and his staff. I was appointed the manager of the striking teachers, with a very pregnant teacher serving as the association secretary. We were kindly domiciled by Jim McCusker in his very ample Dow House basement.
Part of my responsibility was to make daily rounds of the picketers at their various schools. Given the brutal weather, it wasn't easy to encourage them, but they were steadfast. Each evening those teachers who could, gathered together with me at the high school to relate and discuss the events of the day. Their multitude of experiences, sublime to ridiculous, alone could fill a book. Neighborhood folks were invariably kind to their teachers, with coffee, food and plenty of encouragement.
On one occasion a large contingent of mothers marched on the board of education building in support of the teachers. A body of students demonstrated at a meeting in City Hall in behalf of the JTA.
During negotiations prior to the strike, JTA members rallied in support of their negotiators at Machinists Hall on Foote Avenue Extension. On the evening of Thursday, Oct. 12, teachers overwhelmingly voted to give their team the power ''To call a strike if the board continues its recalcitrant attitude and negotiates in bad faith.'' Four hundred three of the city's 430 teachers were at the meeting.
Some board members and Chairman Emory Olson were still smarting from their defeat in a Sept. 5, 1969, overnight teachers' strike. On that afternoon, at Jamestown High School, JTA heavily voted to strike. Lengthy efforts to negotiate a contract with the school board were unavailing. Strike headquarters were quickly established in the Lakewood Red coach Inn. The strikers set about making appropriate signs, reviewing picketing procedures and other preparations.
That evening, a school board member with access to the local radio station arranged for an ''open mike'' program. Obviously, the purpose was to elicit public condemnation of the striking teachers. Instead, massive public support of the striking teachers resulted. at 3 a.m., while sitting on our staircase with my wife and children, listening to the radio program, our phone rang. School Board President Emory Olson called me downtown for negotiations. A two-year contract resulted and the strike was averted. Instead of picketing that morning, teachers were back in class. This was the strike that wasn't.
In retrospect, our relatively easy success left us still naive as to longer duration work stoppages and their dangerous consequences. By virtue of The Taylor Law, collective bargaining was legal but striking was not. And striking bore considerable penalties.
Despite the presence of skilled state arbitrators and court orders, the board remained obstinate in its refusal to negotiate in good faith. Their intransigence was unchanged from the week of negotiations prior to the strike. Contract rollbacks and merit pay featured their responses. It put me in mind of Shaddick's comment when the strike was looming. ''We have plans made in the event of that contingency.''
At a Mayville court hearing, JTA President Brook Rhinehart said ''The board's patsies returned with a $25 offer. Five days on strike and the board and their henchmen added fuel to an already uncontrollable fire. They are prolonging the strike.
On Nov. 1, weary and frustrated with the Board's intractable bad faith, the JTA capitulated. A niggardly, punitive three year contract was signed. The teachers were allowed to work five of the days they were on strike. The other six days were doubled to 12 days lost pay. Subsequent paychecks were good for pocket change for a while. At the time, it was very difficult to bear.
We lost the battle, but we won the war. With the exception of a near disastrous strike in Orchard Park in 1976, real collective bargaining has peacefully functioned for the past 40 years in western New York.
Before and during the strike, teacher associations locally and throughout western New York were greatly supportive of our efforts. Some even responded financially to our situation. Then Buffalo Teachers' Federation President Tom Pisa said, ''JTA battled for all W.N.Y.'s 60,000 teachers.''
Tom Harte was manager of strike for Jamestown Teacher's Association and taught American History and Sociology at Washington Junior High School and then the high school.