By MALLORY GRUBEN
Return to work or go to jail. That was the ultimatum a judge gave teachers at Evergreen School District 50 years ago, when they walked out in Washington state’s second teachers strike.
Unwilling to cede ground in their fight for fair pay, reasonable class sizes, and worker voice in contract negotiations, the teachers chose lockup. Almost 300 members of the Evergreen Education Association convened in the courthouse May 22, 1973, ready to serve their sentences.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of a landmark strike that demonstrated how far teachers would go to secure fair, quality, and comprehensive contracts with their school districts. Their strike won the first comprehensive contract for educators in Washington and earned teachers the right to collectively bargain. It also solidified EEA and other Washington Education Association affiliates as true unions, not just professional organizations.
The strike’s legacy lives on in EEA traditions, though some of the details have faded from collective memory in the last five decades, said EEA Labor Community Ambassador Shaun Gundert. For example, the scholarships awarded by the union bear the names of strike leaders who spent time behind bars. And the rep council meeting, which usually happens on the third Monday of each month, is specially scheduled in May to fall on or close to the anniversary date of the strike.
“We know that it’s important, and it’s important to our local,” Gundert told the Labor Press. “But they maybe don’t have that historical context. …It kind of was the start of teachers unions in the first place.”
A ‘voice’ but no power
Before the EEA strike, most school districts in Washington hired teachers on individual employment contracts. That meant most workers got a single-page document outlining their pay and work assignment for one year, said Steve Kink, a retired WEA leader who worked as a field representative during the 1973 strike. School boards had power to set policies that changed working conditions without including teachers in those decisions.
In 1965, the state legislature passed the Professional Negotiations Act, which allowed teachers and local education association chapters to meet with management to bargain over working conditions. But nothing in the act bound administrators to implement what had been discussed. That meant administrators could agree to something at the bargaining table but change their minds and unilaterally approve something different later on, Kink said.
Within five years, WEA started its “Unified Service,” or UniServ program to provide on-site trained staff to help local teachers organize and bargain. It was a notable shift from an organization that was viewed as more of a professional association than a labor group; WEA’s early ranks had even included administrators.
UniServ representatives like Kink motivated teachers to stand up for themselves and demand a voice in working conditions. In 1972, the reps supported teachers from Aberdeen when they walked out on the state’s first teachers strike.
The Aberdeen strike was short-lived and did not result in a contract, though the district did make many of the changes teachers proposed. But it paved the way for a more aggressive action in Evergreen School District, Kink said.
“They wanted to strike in ’72, but the unit wasn’t really prepared,” Kink said. “We spent an extra year organizing and putting together what we called a master contract, which was a comprehensive labor agreement between the district and the association. That’s what they went to the bargaining table with.”
One for all, all for one
For five months starting in January 1973, EEA met with management to negotiate. EEA asked for recognition as the bargaining representative for teachers, a grievance procedure and salary schedule, class size ratios, planning time requirements, and more specialists, Kink said.
“The district basically said no from January to May,” he said.
On Mothers Day, teachers overwhelmingly voted to strike. The next morning, May 14, they began picketing. Of the 300 members, only a dozen were not on the picket lines after day one on strike, and no one crossed the line, Kink said.
On the fourth day of the strike, Clark County Superior Court Judge Guthrie Langsdorf ordered EEA Crisis Coordinator Dick Johnson and EEA President Fred Ensman to court. He demanded Johnson and Ensman tell the teachers to go back to work.
“The president said, ‘No, I’m not going to tell them to do that. We are not going back to work until we get a contract,’” Kink recounted. “So he threw them in jail.”
Langsdorf tried again with EEA Vice President John Zavodsky, who gave him the same reply as Ensman — and also ended up in a jail cell. According to reporting from The Oregon Journal, his last words to teachers before being hauled away were, “For God’s sake, stay together.”
At this point, reports from the Oregonian and Oregon Journal conflict with Kink’s recollection. But all agree that almost 300 teachers appeared at the courthouse ready to turn themselves into the judge and face jail sentences. Alongside updates on the Watergate trial, the Oregon Journal’s front-page articles reported that the swarm happened during Zavodsky’s hearing; Kink says it happened at a third hearing with Betty Colwell, the elementary school teacher who volunteered to serve as interim president. This newspaper, then known as the Oregon Labor Press, did not report on the strike at the time.
In Kink’s account, which was shared by the National Education Association, the union’s strategy was to appoint Colwell, so the judge would face the difficult and publicly unpopular decision to send a woman to jail. Two days before her hearing, Colwell gave a passionate speech at a school board meeting about how she had “never had as much as a traffic ticket before in her life, and now she was about to go to jail because the school board was making her, because they wouldn’t negotiate,” Kink said.
At a May 21 union meeting the day after the board meeting, Colwell told almost 300 peers she was ready for her sentence. She’d be headed to the courthouse tomorrow, knowing her fate would be a jail cell.
“One member stood up and said, ‘If Betty is going to jail, I’m going with her.’ And it just kind of snowballed,” Kink said. By the end of the meeting, the teachers all agreed to turn themselves in to the judge.
“There was not any discussion about it, other than a couple of questions like, ‘OK, if we go to jail, what can we take?’” Kink said. “It didn’t bother them a bit. … These people were really, really dedicated. They’d spent a year organizing within the local to get this contract. It meant everything to them.”
They arrived at the courthouse the next day with baggies of toothbrushes and extra underwear in hand. They filled the courtroom, spilling out into the hallways.
“The whole building was basically filled with EEA members who were going to surrender,” Kink said.
A level playing field, at last
The judge realized there wasn’t room for everyone in the jail. Someone proposed converting school buildings into a large holding cell, but that would be a bad look, Kink said. Langsdorf became frustrated, then he changed strategies: He ordered the school board to negotiate in good faith.
“And if they don’t, he was going to throw them in jail!” Kink said.
The teachers and administrators went back to the bargaining table, this time with state mediators and pressure of jail time for both sides. Within about three days, on May 29, 1973, the two sides signed the first comprehensive teacher contract in the state.
The contract included key victories including smaller class sizes, more specialists, and planning time for teachers. For example, it dropped class sizes from an average of 41 students to the low 30s. Kink said.
Despite requests from teachers and administrators to release Johnson, Ensman, and Zavodsky, Langsdorf held the men in jail more than a month after the contract was signed, on the grounds that the strike had been an “insurrection.” When they finally got out, Zavodsky had spent 43 days in jail, while Johnson and Ensman had stayed 45 days.
Soon, other districts started signing similar collective agreements with their teachers. Some school boards resisted bargaining, “but they knew we had the power to be able to go as far as having people go to jail in order to get these contracts,” Kink said.
“As soon as that (Evergreen) contract went down, a lot of other contracts fell after it. It “was kind of the lighthouse for getting the first collective bargaining contracts, Kink said.
By 1976, state lawmakers signed the Educational Employment Relations Act that enshrined collective bargaining rights for school employees. The act came on the tail of dozens of new collectively bargained contracts made possible by the EEA strike, Kink said, and it remains in effect today.
“It really was a unique situation that set precedent for organizations across the state,” Kink said. “And there hasn’t been a teacher in jail (for striking) since then.”