It was May in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles, so it might as well have been the middle of August anywhere else. The dog days of summer start before most of us have had enough springtime. I looked down at my Timex watch with the faux leather band, shading my eyes from the sun with one hand and hoisting the wooden sign with the handwritten message, written in block letters on a piece of poster board, over my shoulder with the other.
The picket line went south all the way to the corner of Bellaire Avenue, then wound around westward on Bessemer Street, ending in the school’s parking lot at the corner of Bessemer and Bluebell Avenue. I had two students who lived in houses on Bluebell. Robert lived with his mother and spent his free time playing in the front yard in the hope that his father would drive by and stop to visit with him. Sisters Huong and Hanh – I had both of them in my class because I had a 5th/6th grade split and they had willingly and enthusiastically agreed to being in the same classroom that year – were two doors down and stayed mostly to themselves. Their parents ran a nail shop over on Coldwater Canyon and preferred they stay indoors so as not to call attention to the family.
The work actions leading up to the strike had begun back in the fall. The contract was up and Tim, the union rep at the school wanted the teachers to start preparing early on. I was the newest teacher on the campus and followed the veteran teachers’ lead to find my way in the maze of discussions, phone trees, announcements, and finally, work actions that were part of this process.
First up was refusing to do some things that were not directly related to teaching our students, but had become a regular part of our workday over time. We took turns supervising the yard before school began, at recess, and at lunch. On the first day the union rep had announced in the teacher’s lounge that we wouldn’t be supervising outside the classroom, there were shouts of joy and some applause. I simply got up and left, not thinking much about it in the moment.
Tim followed me outside. He told me I was either in or out when it came to the work actions. He explained that they would increase each week the school district refused to meet the union’s demands. We stood on the asphalt facing one another as the sun beat down on us in the mid-morning heat. He was staring me down and it was uncomfortable, but I wasn’t going to budge when it came to looking out for my students.
I would choose another thing to “not” do. One of my girls had mild cerebral palsy, another was almost completely deaf when her hearing aid battery died, and one of my boys had anxiety and sometimes experienced agoraphobia while outdoors. I told Tim I would simply walk the perimeter of the yard, cross through to the other side, and make sure no one needed an adult for any reason. He nodded, then turned quickly to return to the teacher’s lounge.
The bell rang and I joined the other teachers to pick up our classes. There were numbers spray-painted on the yard so we could find each other quickly. My kids were animated from being left mostly without supervision on the yard for almost half an hour. I’d have them put their heads down on their desks for a couple of minutes and then take out a book for SSR – Silent Sustained Reading – for awhile.
There were two teachers, Mrs. Bennett over in the Magnet and Deanna Brown, the fourth grade teacher who befriended me early on who had been involved with the previous strike back in 1970. They had been at separate schools and met during a rally at Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. Only about 60% of the teachers had walked out back then, even though their demands were more about improving education for poor and minority children and giving parents a voice than about salary increases. It had lasted twenty-three days and shut down nearly every school in the country’s second largest district.
After it was over, the teachers throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) struggled to repair the damage that had been done to the relationships between the teachers, classified workers, and the administration at the schools. The union (UTLA) encouraged transfers to other school sites for those who felt it would be too difficult to continue working alongside people who had chosen a stance that was so diametrically opposed to theirs.
I was barely past 30 and still in very good health, so I didn’t give a second thought to the warning about the importance of sending in a check to cover my medical insurance. But the teachers I had become closest to that year, Lillian Molmud and Ed Sawicki made sure I understood the consequences of not doing so. I took a gamble and while I walked the line each morning I made plans for what I could do with that $118 instead of sending it to the insurance company. These were simpler times, before pre-existing conditions and letters of portability became a regular part of our vernacular.
The work actions escalated. I enjoyed the one that required us to take our lesson plan books home instead of having them open on our desks with completed plans through the end of the following week. The intention was to have everything ready in our classrooms in case we had an emergency and didn’t return the next day.
We finally voted to go on strike. Unlike previous ones between the Los Angeles Unified School District and the UTLA union, this strike had the support of the majority of teachers, parents, support staff, and classified employees at the school sites. Walking the line every day for two weeks had an impact on my life in many ways. For one thing, I decided that instead of letting my real estate license lapse and devoting all of my time and energy to teaching, I would keep my license and continue to work in real estate on a part-time basis. There were other changes in my belief system and attitude as well…
We were supposed to show up at our schools by seven each morning and check in with the person in charge. I’m an early riser and was typically at school by seven fifteen, so it was easy for me to arrive a little earlier. I would sign in, choose one or two donuts, and then take the picket sign I was handed by the person assigned to give them out. Sometimes, I looked down to see what the message was, but it was simpler to just take it in one hand and balance my paper plate with the donuts in the other.
There was a pattern and a route for us to walk, and rules about standing still for too long. Then the administrators would arrive, and the handful of teachers who had chosen not to walk out, the children, and finally, the people who would take over our classrooms and spend time with our students during that day.
I can remember seeing a few of my kids on the first morning and being overcome with emotion. I dropped my sign and ran over to the fence. They had been let in to the school grounds by someone in the back of the school by the parking lot. We pushed our fingers through the chain-link fence in a moment that reminded me of pictures of children and parents separated in refugee camps. I would promise them I would be here every day and that this would all be over soon, and then they would hear someone blowing a whistle and have to quickly keep moving to their assigned destination for that day.
Two weeks and a million thoughts later, and the strike was over. I was a mile away at a union rally at the park when they made the announcement. Because I was in the back of the crowd, I was able to get to my car and drive away before everyone else. I drove over to my school and parked in the fire lane right in front. The principal, Mrs. Shannon was just coming out of the office and saw me.
She came over to the fence and I whispered “It’s over.” We both looked around, and then made our way to the gate. She unlocked it and we had a quick hug. Then she stepped back, locking the gate behind her.
“See you in the morning, Connie. And thank you for leaving your cabinets unlocked so the subs could access what they needed. It made a difference.”
I nodded and got to my car just as some others were arriving at the school. I drove away slowly, so as not to call attention to myself. On my way back to the real estate office, I made myself some promises: I would always have more than one way to make a living; I would prioritize working and spending time with children; and I would always do the right thing, no matter how difficult that might be. I wanted everything I was a part of to make a difference, and continue to feel this way and do so to this day.
This article is a work in progress, and I will continue to update it until I’ve shared all of the details for the story I want to tell… the story that needs to be told. And another thing: I stand with the members of the Writers Guild of America members, consisting of the WGA – West and WGA – East and comprised of more than 25,000 members.
NOTE: Today, July 13th, 2023 the Screen Actors Guild — SAGAFTRA has voted to go on strike, making this the first time in over 60 years that both unions are on the picket line simultaneously.