Former union leader recalls Wiley wildcat strike
Tom Schmida was president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union from 1990 to 2012. He currently serves as an advisor to me, the current president. Incidentally, Tom was also my homeroom teacher when I attended Wiley, and had me in his seventh-grade social studies class. I asked Tom to write this month’s column, recalling a one-day teachers’ strike . —Ari Klein
This year marks the 40th anniversary of an unprecedented event that rocked the CH-UH school district. In March 1979, teachers at Wiley Junior High (later Wiley Middle School) staged a wildcat strike. Surprisingly, this one-day walkout was not over typical bread-and-butter issues that divide union and management; it was instead a job action directed at the failure of district administration and the Board of Education (BOE) to effectively deal with student discipline problems.
The short story: A female student (white—not that it matters) refused the directive of a teacher (a newly hired African American—not that it matters) to leave a hallway; the student refused while swearing at the teacher. The teacher, in her attempt to escort the student to the office, was slapped by the student. The principal, who was new to the building, responded appropriately. The student was processed for suspension and recommended for expulsion. The teacher was instructed by her union to file a police report.
What happened next defied reason, and angered the teaching staff. The central office administration decided not to expel the offending student who committed the assault. Word spread quickly among the teaching staff, and that evening the union leadership in the building, Jack Quinn and I, used a phone tree to call every teacher and ask them to take a bold step by staging a walkout the next morning. Even though teacher strikes were illegal in Ohio at the time, nearly the entire teaching staff agreed to picket.
That morning, as students arrived, their teachers were on the sidewalk with homemade signs. The district administration had no choice but to cancel classes at Wiley. Throughout the day, there were numerous expressions of support for the teachers—coffee and donuts brought to the picket line by members of the community, car horns honking support.
The response from the BOE was quite different. Initially, the desire was to fire every teacher who participated. The union responded by giving notice that 600 teachers would be on the street the next school day if the board pursued that course. As it turned out, all of the participants received a written reprimand to which the union president attached a response in support of the Wiley teachers’ action.
In retrospect, while there was plenty of criticism from officialdom directed at the Wiley teachers, their job action led to the district taking a more serious approach to student discipline in the years that followed.
While assaults on teachers and school support staff are a rare occurrence in CH-UH, taking a strong action, when district leadership falters, is at times necessary to ensure the safety of our students and staff. —Tom Schmida
Ari Klein is a lifelong community member, math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union.