Posted by: JanF | September 7, 2011

Lessons from Hortonville

Today’s post is a history lesson and a reminder about the importance of tone in political discourse.

In 1974, the school board and the teachers union in the tiny town of Hortonville Wisconsin could not agree to terms on work rules and wages. After 14 months of negotiations, the teachers went out on strike. Some teachers crossed the picket lines. The school board fired 84 teachers for refusing to go to work. (In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld those firings).

This is not about whether the teachers were right to strike or the school board was right to fire them or whether the teachers who crossed the pickets lines should have done so.

This is about the feelings that linger for years and years after these kind of confrontations and the damage that can be done by words and actions.

Back to school …
Last February, teachers in Wisconsin returned to work after being out on a job action. In Madison, schools had been closed for nearly a week. In Milwaukee, schools were closed for several days. In other districts across the state, one or more days of classroom work have been lost (and will be made up).

And all across Wisconsin during that period, school district superintendents sent letters to parents discussing the teacher’s actions and how teachers may be disciplined. Each superintendent controls the tone of his or her communications and how the conflict was presented established how much healing could take place and how harmonious labor relations would be be going forward.

One could make the case that the teachers were completely wrong by staying out and the tone could demonize them.

One could make the case that the teachers were demonstrating for human rights and the rights of working people in Wisconsin and that the experience can be used as a teaching moment.

One could also try to create a false equivalency that teachers taking a day off to go to a rally in support of human rights are in the same league as politicians ginning up a controversy to crush the labor movement in Wisconsin and forever change our state for the worse.

I received a letter trying to create the false equivalency and it upset me because words have meanings and those words were meant to harm not heal, to sow dissension not set the stage for harmonious future dealings.

Wisconsin’s teachers are the first line of defense against the statewide and nationwide effort to crush labor and unions. I completely supported their leaving their classrooms to demonstrate at the State Capitol in Madison. The rallies were for all of our’s rights including what will ultimately be our right to have democratic elections if there are no unions to counter the influence of corporate money in politics.

The lesson from Hortonville
Many of the teachers fired by the Hortonville school board left teaching. Many left because of the animosity directed at them by the citizens of their small community … people who were their neighbors and who they thought were friends. Many changed careers because school districts across the state blacklisted them and they found themselves unable to find jobs. The state teachers union refused to certify the new union that was established later because it included teachers who had crossed the picket lines during the strike.

You can’t undo the bad feelings from strikes and bitter labor disagreements. You can’t unring that bell or change its tone once it has been rung.

Former Madison mayor Sue Bauman was asked about how she felt hearing the protests from her office window last week:

[For] Bauman, a former teacher in the Madison School District, the sound took her back to one of the most difficult times of her life — the city’s bitter 1976 teacher strike.

The experience was so unnerving that Bauman found it hard to teach afterward. As she told a reporter later, “Teaching was never the same again.” She ended up going to law school to study employment law and served as Madison mayor from 1997 to 2003.[…]

Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, said a lack of collective bargaining would dramatically change what is now an established and mostly smooth working relationship between administrators and teachers.

A smooth working relationship between administrators and teachers. That is what is in danger of being lost. And that is bad for our schools and bad for our kids and bad for our state.

Tone deaf school administrators need to listen more closely. And read a history book or two.

Update: In Fall 2011, when children returned to school, they and their parents noticed something missing: almost 5,000 teachers decided to retire, nearly double the normal number of teacher retirements in a given year. These teachers represent thousands of years of experience, lost forever to our children.

Words did have meaning.

(A version of this was originally posted on 01/22/2011 at BPI Campus)



  1. This probably has a lot to do with the retirements also:

    $635 less per student per year, the most drastic cut in the country. In a classroom with 28 students, that is $17,780 less for that teacher in supplies and support.


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