I was raised in Michigan during the era when Walter Reuther advocated for workers’ rights, universal health care, public education, and affordable housing and the UAW was seen as a sacred, progressive union in my home. He and George Meany cofounded the AFL-CIO in 1955. Unions brought prosperity to middle class families, many of whom were part of the auto industry. So, strikes were an inevitable but good thing, as they brought equity and prosperity to people living in my neck of the woods. Crossing a picket line was unforgivable and unthinkable, until it affected my ability to survive.
In 1967, I started my first post-college job teaching English at Niles East High School in Skokie, Illinois. As a late summer hire, I had no time to get grounded in school politics. I’m pretty sure I automatically joined the teachers’ union because it was a reflex to do so, given my upbringing. My memory is hazy about this, but at some point that year, negotiations between the school board and the teachers’ union stalled, and the teachers authorized a strike. I don’t even remember what all of the issues were. I assume higher pay was one of them, as I was earning $6,000/year.
But here’s the thing. My meager salary as a teacher was also putting my husband through medical school. We had no savings and were living paycheck to paycheck. I was in a panic, trapped between my reverence for unions and workers’ rights and the need to receive my full salary to survive. Would I cross a picket line for that paycheck? As a new teacher, I knew that action would make me a pariah. Thankfully, the school board settled at the last minute averting the strike. Thus, I was never forced to cross a picket line to survive financially.
I remain pro-union politically, and it is easy for me to sympathize with Hollywood writers, actors, Starbucks baristas, and auto workers. But other strikes are a bit more painful to support. Medical personnel and teachers are ones that come to mind. Teachers’ strikes are always hard because children are the ones most harmed. Still, my heart is always with the teachers, especially the ones who forego their salaries for extended periods of time. Having been there once, I don’t know how I would have survived. On the other hand, as a parent and grandparent, I have felt the pain and disruption these strikes bring to children and working parents.
In retrospect, I would like to think I would not have crossed that picket line in 1967. It still shakes me to this day that I’m not 100% sure.
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.