Crossing the Picket Line by
(286 Stories)

Prompted By Strikes

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Me as a first year teacher

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.


Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: well written


  1. Khati Hendry says:

    You describe so clearly the difficult decisions people face if their union goes on strike–which is one reason strikes really are the last resort. So glad you didn’t have to make that decision. I was active in my clinic’s union for years, and we fortunately didn’t ever have to figure out a way to have a job action that would spare the patients. It’s good to see that people seem to be doing more organizing again, since there is indeed a clear correlation between being in a union and having decent pay and working conditions.

  2. Thanx for your story Laurie, and for your honesty.

    Such decisions are hard, fortunately you didn’t have to make that one, and please don’t beat yourself- you’d done more than good in one educator’s lifetime!

  3. Yes, this does give understandable cause to the strike breaker. Unions should provide adequate composition for people who are forced to “break” due to personal problems,
    It is hard to compromise ethics vs. need.
    We voted down the creation of a Union at our University. The result was that many faculty were fired for a variety of reasons even against decisions by the American Association of University Professors. For one current example, see the case of firing an adjutant at Hamline University against the AAUP’s judgement.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I didn’t feel any support for my financial dilemma back then. Perhaps because I was a new teacher, I didn’t know how to access that support. Most teachers’ strikes are for issues that impact the quality of education for children, but they are often seen as money grabs for people who don’t have to work over summer break. Sad that people don’t seem to understand how much work goes into quality teaching.

  4. Suzy says:

    Laurie, I sympathize with your dilemma. I too was brought up never to cross a picket line, but you needed the money. Luckily you didn’t have to make the decision since the dispute was settled before a strike was called.

    Here in California, our governor just vetoed a bill to give unemployment benefits to striking workers. Sigh. And he’s a (mostly) liberal Democrat!

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    So interesting to read about your reverence for unions, coming from Detroit, Laurie. As you’ve read, I also saw how great they could be, until they hurt my own family. I understand how grateful you were that you didn’t have to decide between honoring the Teachers Union strike, or crossing the picket line, to support yourself and your med student husband. Some choices are impossible.

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