When Bridgeport public school students arrived for the first day of school on Sept. 6, 1978, they discovered that their teachers were on strike. The Board of Education and the Bridgeport Education Association (BEA), the collective bargaining representative of the city’s 1,247 teachers as well as about 100 other school professionals, had been at loggerheads for months. Connecticut law forbids strikes by teachers, however, and many Bridgeporters were caught off guard by the picket lines in front of schools.
This does not mean the city’s residents were unsympathetic. On the contrary, many parents joined the picket lines, as did students. On the West Side, a neighborhood group organized its members to gather outside Longfellow school to urge students to go home and to urge parents who accompanied their children to school to support the strike.
National Teacher Strike Wave
The walk-out in Bridgeport was one of many that September as teachers in Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Seattle and numerous smaller cities and towns saw schools closed because of strikes. Not far away, teachers in Norwalk also went on strike for five days. None of those strikes, however, was as contentious or bitter as the one in Bridgeport.
The teachers were seeking significant increases in salaries and pensions, other benefit improvements, and smaller classroom sizes. They had accepted what many observers regarded as a concessionary contract in 1975 and were dissatisfied with the city’s offer three years later. The union pointed out that salaries in Bridgeport for teachers and other school staff were the lowest in Fairfield County (as they are today) and among the lowest in the state. The union also noted the regular exodus of teachers from Bridgeport to higher-salaried jobs in nearby school districts, another trend that remains in 2018.
From the outset, the strike was highly successful. Only 36 teachers, or less than 3%, reported for work on September 6th and that number dropped in the days that followed. The Board of Ed kept elementary and middle schools open at first by utilizing a small number of teaching aides, substitute teachers and accredited, unemployed teachers, but only 10% of students showed up. The city’s Parent Teacher Association supported the strike by rejecting a call by the Board that they assist in staffing schools and helping scab teachers.
Mass Arrests and Imprisonment
Arrests began just days into the strike, and State Superior Court Judge James Heneby began levying fines of $10,000 per day against the union. As the strike continued, Heneby ordered the union’s officers jailed. The first jailings of teachers occurred on September 12th when thirteen strikers were handcuffed and carted off, the men to a prison in New Haven and the women to one in Niantic some 60 miles away. Those arrested endured degradations such as strip searches and being doused with lice spray. Adding further insult, Heneby imposed individual fines of $350 per person per day on the arrestees.
Angered by the arrests and the teachers’ subsequent treatment, treatment that one arrestee later called the most humiliating event of her life, the strikers turned out to the picket lines the following day in ever larger numbers and with greater determination and militancy. One result was that the city and school board were forced to abandon efforts to keep any schools open. With all 38 schools closed, another 115 teachers were arrested in the next few days, and 274 in all were arrested during the strike, 22% of the total in the city. Many of those arrested were packed onto buses and taken 70 miles to a National Guard camp in Windsor Locks that was converted into a makeshift prison.
Standing Firm to Victory
With all of the other strikes around the country settled, the mass arrest and imprisonment of Bridgeport’s teachers was drawing international attention and causing local elites and city residents as a whole great embarrassment. Despite the arrests, jailings, fines and some tense scenes on a number of picket lines, the teachers stood firm. Finally, on September 25th, after 19 days, the teachers union and Board of Ed both agreed to accept binding arbitration. All teachers, some of whom had been locked up for 13 days, were released from prison. The final terms of the agreement were largely favorable to the teachers.
New Legislation: A Setback?
In the strike’s aftermath, the Connecticut legislature passed the 1979 Teacher Collective Bargaining Act that mandates binding arbitration when teachers and the municipalities they work for are stalemated in contract negotiations. While some observers saw the law as a victory for teachers, it remains illegal for teachers in Connecticut to strike. In addition, a number of changes to the law since 1979 such as one that allows municipalities but not unions to reject the decision of an arbitrator, have weakened the bargaining position of teachers.
The law’s restriction against strikes is also problematic, as conditions for Bridgeport teachers, not to mention students, have in many ways worsened since 1978. In Chicago, where strikes are not illegal, teachers who struck for nine days in 2012 and for shorter durations several times since have again shown that significant improvements can be won with strikes. Those actions have countered attempts by elites intent on weakening teacher unions and underfunding schools by pitting the interests of students against those of teachers. A similar alliance of the wider public and school professionals, including 274 who endured arrest and scandalous treatment, is what enabled teachers to prevail and lift all boats in their strike in Bridgeport in 1978.