When striking teachers saw Washington Teachers' Union president William Simons walk in for a rally on the first day of the teachers strike, all 2,500 of them stood and clapped.
Simons, in a green corduroy suit, raised his hands into the air when he reached the front of the crowd and a wide grin spread over his face. He turned from side to side, waving at faces he recognized in the crowd of teachers.
"How sweet it is," Simons said.
"Oh, we have our problems with him," said a gray-haired teacher who was standing in the back of the crowded church, "but Bill Simons -- I don't think anyone could replace him. He's been around so long he is the union for most of us."
Simons, a 55-year-old former social studies teacher at Banneker Junior High, has been the leader of the teachers' union since 1964. And for the last week he has been the personification of the union that has taken teachers out of the city's schools in a strike that has severely disrupted the school system.
Because Simons is the head of the union, his personality -- that of an oldtime teacher who doesn't stand for any foolishness -- has become a factor in the current strike. He is the union's chief negotiator, their chief spokesman, and to many people his wide grin and a nervous giggling speech is the union's way of talking -- the union's voice.
Simons often is taken to be brusque and arrogant by members of the school board. He frequently refers to the board as "stupid" and since the strike began he has taken to saying that the board suffers from the "three I syndrome: ignorance, insecurity and incompetence.
Simons called for the board to resign earlier in the month, telling union members at a strike-vote rally that the board was "incapable of handling labor negotiations."
Simons' name calling has grated on some board members: "He's always calling somebody stupid," Minnie S. Woodson, president of the school board, said earlier this month. "I guess he thinks he is very smart... name-calling doesn't help anything."
Even when he is not name-calling, Simons makes it clear that he sees himself as above the board, picturing board members as slow children and himself as the wise teacher: "The board has got to learn that this union is not going to give up gains we have made in the past. They have got to learn and they will learn."
Since he first became president of the union, Simons has crusaded to change the image of teachers from one of nice old ladies and milquetoast men who aren't good enough to do anything but teach. The image Simons has sought for teachers is one of tough, unionized workers who are not going to accept a retirement dinner or nice words from a former student in place of a good salary and strong influence in administrative decisions that govern what goes on in the classroom.
"... for too long," Simons wrote in an essay just before teachers' went on strike in 1972, "teachers have been paid tribute with pious platitudes which have never been matched by the economic resources of a commensurate value."
In 1967, when Simons campaigned against the National Education Association to be the baragining agent for teachers in the D.C. school in contract talks with the school board, he criticized the NEA as a "professional group for administrators" and pictured his union as an organization of "working teachers."
Simons won, and immediately let the school board know that he felt his victory was "a protest against the way the public school system in Washington is now being run."
The year after he won the right for his union to be the teachers' bargaining representative, Simons outraged persons accustomed to retiring, quiet teachers when he called for a one-day teacher' walkout of classrooms and a rally at the U.S. Capitol to demand higher wages for teachers from congressmen and senators. Teachers' salaries are set by the City Council and by congress.
In 1970 Simons, continued to change the nice, we'll-do-what-you-want image of teachers by attacking an education program created by psychologist Kenneth B. Clark. The "Clark Plan" was designed to bring D.C. students up to their grade level in math and reading in one year. The plan included a proposal to have teachers paid on the basis of how well their students did on standardized national tests.
Simons instructed teachers not to hand out materials that were essential to the "Clark Plan" and his fiery opposition to it finally forced the then-superintentendent to give up the plan.
In 1972 and now, Simons has taken his union on strike. In between there have been regular strike threats during contract negotiations with the board.
Through the years Simons has been the arch-defender of teachers against politicians and educators who placed the blame for the problems of the D.C. schools on the system's teachers. When two students bound to become D.C. teachers graduated from D.C. Teachers College in 1977 without passing a anath course, criticism of all teachers grew. Simons struck back by accusing school administrators of doing more harm to the city's children by allowing the teacher to pass students from grade to grade with "social promotions" even though their teachers had failed them.
When school administrators said the school system was burdened with a growing number of bad teachers who were protected by the union, Simons responded by saying that all he was asking for was "due process... what any employe deserves. We're not protecting anybody. We just want administrators to make their case against teachers instead of fulfilling vendettas. There are more bad administrators than bad teachers."
When the school board asked that teachers work a longer day and a longer year because they earn a good salary, Simons said: 'Oh, not that again. How long has it been since teachers earned a fair salary? Not long ago bus drivers made more than teachers even though teachers had to have four years of college."
Throughout negotiations with school boards Simons has sought the help of politicans to get his demands met, letting it be known that his union could deliver campaign workers and votes.
In 1978 the union broke away from the Grater Washington Central Labor Council to back Marion Barry over Walter Washington. Just prior to the September primary, Simons joined with then-school board president Conrad Smith, who also supported Barry, to announce that Barry had worked out the probelms that the union and the board were having arranging negotiations. Less than a month later the teachers almost went on strike over the same issues.
Simons explained in the union newspaper why he felt it was important for the union to be politically involved: "Although there are many groups claiming that they were the margin of victory for Barry it is the considered opinion of this writer (Simons) that the teachers were the decisive factor in securing a victory... Somewhere along the line the winning candidate will have to deal with the union on some salient issues. This is always inevitable. It is at that point in time that you (the union) regain your position of strength."
At a recent rally for the striking teachers Simons said Barry had not joined the school board in asking for a temporary restraining order against the union and said he expects Barry to be helping the union during the strike.
Simons' constant defense of teachers in all situations caused him to come under fire late last year when he said that teachers should not break up fights between students but "let the children destroy themselves."
Simons said his words were taken out of context and that he meant to say that some teachers are too old and not in good enough physical condition to be breaking up fights between youngsters without risking harm to themselves.
"I am still somewhat shocked and dismayed," said Calvin Rolark, editor and publisher of the Washington Informer, "that the president of our teachers union would make such a statement... It shows bad leadership, especially for an individual who formerly taught school, to make such a statement. His members should not have allowed him to go without rebuke for uttering such words."
In the weeks before the strike there was growing dissidence in Simons' union, as union members complained that the union does not have a strike fund and began to question the union's finances and Simons' leadership.
"I would say to those of you who have questions about your union and the way it is run," said an American Federation of Teachers' official who spoke to the striking teachers on the first day of the strike, "that it is your responsibility to correct this union's faults.But for the duration of the strike Bill Simons is your leader and he shall not be moved."
Simons remains the relativly popular leader of the city's approximately 6,000 teachers, about 5,000 of whom are union members. Many see him as a father figure, a guiding light in the middle of a troubled school system. He easily has won reelection to the presidency of the union, rebuffing challenges from opponents who said no one was questioning how Simons ran the union's finances and his methods of leadership.
His main campaign slogan has always been that "Every salary increase is directly due to union activity."