On Feb. 14, hours before a third extension of the District of Columbia teachers' contract was to expire, negotiators for the school board and the Washington Teachers' Union made a private deal to avoid a strike. It was a face-saving arrangement for both sides in the long-stalled negotiations.
The board already had announced publicly that it would not extend the contract again. But that night, in a closed door bargaining session, board negotiators privately assured the union that teachers would continue to enjoy rights granted them by the old contract, including the automatic deduction of union dues from teachers' paychecks.
Union President Willaims H. Simons consented to tone down the strike rhetoric he had been mouthing for months-and not to discuss the deal with reporters.
Three days later, however, Simons, at what he thought was a closed meeting, told key union organizers that he had arranged for the contract to remain in effect and dues payments to continue, despite pronouncements to the contrary from school board members.
What Simons did not know was that a reporter was at the meeting quietly taking notes. When the reporter's story appeared the next day, board members were livid. They ordered School Superintendent Vincent E. Reed to cancel the contract and discontinue the deduction of dues from teachers' paychecks.
Simons was stunned. He felt that the board's action had seriously damaged his credibility with his union and that he had only one alternative: take the teachers out on strike.
This is the story of that crippling 23-day strike, based on interviews with many of its major and minor players.
It is the story of a showdown within a young home-rule government-haunted by a historically substandard, poorly-run school system and fraught with the political jealousies of new and ambitius politicians.
It is the story of a powerful union and its almost cult-like ties to its veteran leader, of a new mayor fearful of the effect that a crippling citywide crisis would have on his image, and of a divided school board determined to carve its place in this city's history by "standing up for the children."
Like many Washington stories, it also has a racial element-the paranoia of a predominantly black labor organization suspicious of what its members perceived as "bust-us-out" tactics. But mostly, it is a story rooted in the gnarled and trouble-plagued recent history of public education in the District of Columbia schools.
Neither the school board nor the union disagreed with the judgment that the city's schools were in trouble. Some high school graduates were barely able to read. In national Scholastic Aptitude Tests, Washington students scored 100 points below the national average.
But, the board believed it was essential for it to have more control over not only the schools, but over the activities of the highly-paid and, in the board's opinion, underworked teachers. From the union's point of view, the solution was to give teachers-those who see the school system's problems first-hand each day-greater influence in the decisions that affect how schools are run.
So a tug-of-war ensued over the teachers' contract. Over the years, through the contract, the union had been able to give its members substantial control over school policy-including student grades and discipline, teachers' duties and the length of the school day and the school year.
The old contract expired in January 1978, and for months the board and the union had been wrangling over a new one. So far, however, there had been little progress.
The board was determined to assert its control over the schools and was prepared to take a strike.
But Bill Simons did not anticipate becoming a victim of the school strike rhetoric he had been spouting for months. His union did not have a strike fund, and Simons talked strike as a bargaining tactic. He did it very effectively - for a while.
Simons knew that any new contract would give teachers less control over working conditions. To keep the old contract in effect for as long as possible, he adopted a policy of continual extensions.
As the deadline for each extension neared, Simons would threaten a walkout and the board would grit its teeth and extend the despised old contract a few more days. Meanwhile negotiations on a new pact would waddle along slowly, and the union's financial lifeblood-$70,000 in monthly dues automatically deducted from paychecks-would continue to flow.
The board finally called Simons' bluff after granting three extensions, totaling 13 months. "And Bill was caught," one source close to negotiations said later, "where the air is thin."
Few people doubted it was an illegal strike. The union was certain to be held in contempt for violating a March 5 court order forbidding the walkout. But Simons was confident the strike would be over in three or four days. Again, he was wrong.
Simons had hoped the court would sense a willingness on his part to bargain and order both sides back to the table in return for calling off the strike. But Superior Court Judge Gladys Kessler plodded ahead toward the inevitable contempt finding.
This strike marked the first time that Simons had no influential friends on the board. But he did have a friend in the mayor's office, and Mayor Barry had begun a whirlwind of weekend activities in an attempt to end the strike soon. Simons knew Barry from the days when Barry was school board president. Later, as a member of the City Council, Barry sponsored the legislation that granted teachers pay raises.
More important it was Simons and the teachers' union that broke ranks with most other labor groups in the city and endorsed Barry's underdog candidacy for mayor. Simons believed that endorsement put barry in office. Bill Simons went to City Hall on Saturday, March 10, five days after the strike began, to seek help from his friend the mayor.
At this point, however, Barry was too self-conscious of his own image as the union's third man in the ring to grant Simons concessions. The mayor said he sould work for a compromise that included safeguards for the union and its members, but reinstatement of dues checkoff was too much to ask.
Simons reluctantly agreed later to accept a compromise without dues checkoff as a way to end the strike if the contempt proceedings could be delayed. At that point, the school board emerged as the real obstacle to ending the walkout quickly.
From the board's vantage point, there was every reason to resist Barry's intervention. Each time in the psat when the mayor had intervened, the union had won and the children had lost, board members felt.
The board was taking most of the public heat for the city's troubled schools and had sole legal responsibility for running the schools. If the board determined that standing up to the union and enduring a strike was necessary, who was Marion Barry to call the board off?
The first action the board took against the strike was a court suit filed by the six-person "back-to-basics" board majority and School Supt. Reed. The suit asked that the strike be declared illegal, and it was. Hen the board pushed to have Simons and others held in contempt of court.
The original six that comprised the board majority were Minnie S. Woodson, Carol L. Schwartz, R. Calvin Lockridge, Alaire B. Rieffel, Conrad Smith and Victoria T. Street. By the time the contempt request was made, Street had defected from the ranks.
The board had serious doubts about the union's strength, and the initial court order was expected to discourage fence-sitters in the teachers' ranks from joining the walkout.
It would take time, board members realized, to determine how effective that strategy would be. In the meantime, the schools would remain open, inviting the teachers to return.
The board refused to meet during this period and came under strong criticism. Soon, a bunker mentality developed among the hard-line five. They met in one another's house and encouraged one another to tough it out.
Schwartz often became depressed, she and Rieffel cried a lot. There were telephone threats on Schwartz's life. "We're all hanging out here alone," Schwartz said. "To be a school board member now is a very sad and lonely place."
The contempt of court order did not bring the teachers back. Ten days after it was issued, the union had accumulated $503,250 in fines and half the teachers were still out. The board then began a futile search for the right formula to bring the teachers back on the board's terms.
Before it could succeed, however, events had been set in motion that would place the next-and almost decisive move-in Barry's hands. And, much to the board's disappointment, Barry woudl use the board's own court suit to give the union what the board so stubbornly refused to grant.
The schools were struck on Marion Barry's forty-third birthday. Sitting in the back seat of his chauffeured sedan that afternoon, Barry disguised his concerns under a thin veneer of nonchalance.
By the third day of the strike, however, the mayor and his top aides were worried. The strike could go on for days, even weeks, Barry feared.
Barry's infant administration would have to grow up fast, and in a fishbowl. The President of the United States was watching, and so was the Congress, Barry felt. The future of home rule was on trial. and this government had to solve this crisis.
Most of Barry's moves were aimed at the board, because, he noted early in the strike, the board would be the most difficult party to bring into a strike-ending compromise. Simons could be counted on to deliver his union. But who could deliver the board?
First, Barry offered a compromise proposal, but the board would not even consider it. He tried to prod the board into an emergency meeting. The board would not be rushed. He worked the telephones daily and met into the early morning hours with his top aides. But the board's mind was set.
At this point, the biggest threat his administration faced was an escalation of the strike. District Council 20 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) representing some 4,000 auxiliary workers in the schools, was drawing closer to joining the strike.
Some in the mayor's administration seriously doubted that many AFSCME members, including low-paid cafeteria workers and janitors once snubbed by teachers, would support the strike. After all, D.C. teachers had the highest saalaries and shortest work day of any teachers in the area.
From Barry's point of view, however, it was no time for guessing games. Besides, the threat of policemen joining the picket lines had become serious enough for Police Chief Burtell M. Jefferson to draft a teletype to send to police stations advising against participation in the strike. Barry told Jefferson to shelve the memo. It could be inflammatory, the mayor said.
Barry's final, strike-ending effort was as well-orchestrated as Simons' call for a strike. Cutting in to the evening television newscasts on Friday, March 23, the mayor threatened to end-run the board and sign his own agreement with the union if the strike were not settled over the weekend.
Relying on his own persuasiveness, Barry summoned all sides to join him at the Hotel Washington that night to begin round-the-clock negotiations. Before Barry's summit could make any progress, however, Judge Kessler had already taken actions to help bring the stike to an end.
From the beginning, Judge Gladys Kessler appeared to view her role not as the ultimate assigner of punishment, but rather as the catalytic agent for a truce that could end the strike.
On March 23, she ordered the teachers back to work and reinstated their coveted contract for one week.That was too short and too precarious an extension to get Simons to call off the three-week-old strike.
Five days later, at Barry's suggestion, Kessler extended the deadline for the reinstated contract until the end of the current school year and Simons' teachers rushed back into the schools.