'Strike!' looks back at the legendary 1970 Minneapolis teacher's strike

People stand outside in a picket line.
Educators stand with signs outside during the 1970 Minneapolis teachers strike.
Courtesy of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers

You may remember when thousands of Minneapolis teachers went on strike last March. That strike was their first in 50 years. Back in 1970, public school teachers in Minneapolis went on an illegal, twenty-day strike that changed the course of education and union organizing in Minnesota.

A new book recounts those 20 days in April 1970. It’s called “Strike!” and it’s written by Bill Green, professor emeritus at Augsburg College and former superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools. He joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about what he learned while writing the book, which will come out this summer.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Last March, about 4,000 teachers in the Minneapolis Public Schools walked off the job. You'll remember that. That strike was their first in 50 years. Now, back in 1970, public school teachers in Minneapolis went on an illegal 20 day strike. And that strike changed everything about education and unions in Minnesota.

A new book recounts those 20 days in April of 1970. It's called Strike! From the University of Minnesota Press. It's written by Bill Green, Professor Emeritus at Augsburg College and former Superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools from 2007 to 2010. It is always a pleasure having you here. Welcome, Professor.

BILL GREEN: Thank you very much for inviting me.

CATHY WURZER: Let's set the scene for folks. The country in 1970 saw a bunch of strikes and worker unrest. Talk about the atmosphere back then and the forces that were at play that led to this strike.

BILL GREEN: Well, you're absolutely right. It was a time of considerable upheaval. And it's really odd too because when I think of 1970 Minneapolis, I think of Mary Tyler Moore. That series was just beginning that fall.

We lose sight of all that was going on, both in Minneapolis, the Western metro area, and in the state. The state and government was controlled by the Republicans, who were anti-union at this particular time. We also saw a lot of tension between various bargaining groups. Seemingly, everybody was on strike, from truck drivers to even welfare mothers.

In the Western school districts, that is to say in California, Tennessee, Texas, you began to see teachers unions going on strike. But for all intents and purposes, in Minnesota, the general sense was that the only type of person who maintained some stability or guaranteed stability for the community were the teachers. And then in April of 1970, the teachers went on strike.

There was a sense throughout the community that something is happening in this country. And then we had a governor who basically declared war on the teachers unions, specifically in Minneapolis, for standing up. By virtue of picking up a picket sign and going on the street to call for bargaining rights, by virtue of a teacher doing that, they had lost their job.

CATHY WURZER: That was a risk, obviously, because it was illegal back then for public employees to go on strike in Minnesota.

BILL GREEN: That's right. Absolutely. Absolutely.

CATHY WURZER: And what did the folks you talked to, because there are still some of the teachers that went out on strike that are still alive, obviously, what did they say about the damage to their reputation?

BILL GREEN: Well, there were several surveys during the strike itself conducted by various media and newspapers that were showing that those who were not connected to the schools tended to be much more critical of what the teachers were doing. But surprisingly, the parents, who had to carry the brunt of having to take care of their kids who are not in school, generally supported what the teachers were doing.

They had personal relationships with their respective teachers, and, as a result, had sympathy. And then you add to that, Cathy, the fact that the superintendent, who was then John B. Davis, and the school board whose job it was to uphold the law, found themselves torn because they have, generally speaking, a sympathy with the teachers. And yet they were hamstrung by this law that kept them from being able to sit down and negotiate in good faith.

It was an interesting time where people were on both sides at the same time-- on both sides of the issue. The teachers themselves were also at war with each other. There were two unions, in effect, organizations. And they were rivals.

You also had a taxpayer group that had formed to attack the school board if the school board were to make any kind of accommodation to the teachers. Both the school board and the teachers were dealing with tensions from all sides of the political spectrum.

CATHY WURZER: And I got to be honest with you, I was a young student back in 1970 and it was a big deal that your teacher was walking the picket line.

BILL GREEN: That's right.

CATHY WURZER: And it definitely felt like it was a fraught situation. Now, you mentioned the two unions-- wasn't one of them the MFT, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, and the other one--

BILL GREEN: Was the CMEA which, was the Educational Association counterpart in Minneapolis. So the Association was on one side. It tended to be much more conservative. The Federation was on the opposing side. They tended to be more union oriented.

And the Educational Association had been the group who the board would talk to for determining what would be the conditions for teachers. But those agreements tend to be much more conservative. So the Federation view the MEA group as being hostile to the interests of teachers.

And when the strike began, the Federation, MFT, basically was out there by itself. And the MEA basically was caught in the middle, but not very supportive of what MFT was doing. So a lot of letters, a lot of acronyms, I know-- refer to the Federation and Association on opposing sides. So the schools themselves, you walk down the hall and you can see tensions among the teachers, depending on which organization they belonged to.

CATHY WURZER: Did the teachers get the demands they were looking for? Sounds like they had similar demands, actually, back then that we also had last year-- smaller class sizes.



BILL GREEN: They did. They did have the same kinds of demands. And when you start looking at the history of MFT, which goes back to 1909, you're basically looking at similar demands-- salaries, a living wage, support for teachers, time to prepare for classes, the ability to discipline. All of these kinds of demands are historic.

Looking at the strike last year or two years ago was sort of a replay of history. And that raises very interesting and larger questions-- what have we learned about what teachers need, and what the school district needs, and what are the challenges that our children face? That still doesn't seem to have been fully resolved.

CATHY WURZER: Yes. And how did the 1970 strike finally end?

BILL GREEN: It ended with an agreement to go back onto the picket line. Some of the demands of the teachers were met. But as the strike progressed, increasingly, the most important issue was the ability to negotiate. The teachers union was not able to secure that major issue until a year later when the legislature changed the law, creating an Act called PELRA, which was the Public Employee Labor Relations Act, which guaranteed negotiation rights, the right to bargaining, to all public employees, with the exception of police and fire department.

The teachers basically spearheaded, in effect, that whole effort to change the body politic. That fall, with the election, Wendy Anderson was elected-- he was a DFLer-- and he led, basically, a change of governance with the DFL sort of taking over the legislature. And with that came the political will to at least change the way that we negotiate and bargain with public employees.

So in the long run, teachers benefited. It wasn't an overnight success. But you could see by the end of 1970 heading into 1971, there was a shift of attitude on the part of policymakers to the needs of public employees and teachers, in particular.

CATHY WURZER: Did that also, Bill Green, lead to, since we're talking about led into 1971, what did the strike do to spark the Minnesota Miracle-- that's that legislation folks may remember that sought to reduce disparities in school funding across Minnesota.

BILL GREEN: One thing led to another. The strike was settled at the end of April. But it was as if the teachers during that time had refined their capacity to organize politically. So by the time we had elections at the end of the year, the teachers played a very key role in organizing to get the kind of elected officials who would be more sympathetic to the needs of public employees in general and the teachers in particular.

So you had an end to the strike. Then you had PELRA being enacted by the end of '71. And then I believe it's two years later, with the same kind of momentum, you see the Minnesota Miracle began to take place. So it didn't happen overnight, but you had the fertile ground being set up. I think the teachers should be given full credit for mobilizing themselves and the community, learning how to work with the community and how to inform the public as to how the election can affect the quality of education that their kids get.

CATHY WURZER: I know you talked to teachers who were on the picket lines back then in 1970. Did they express what kind of emotion? Regret? Were they satisfied? I don't know, how would you characterize that?

BILL GREEN: While many of the teachers, I would even say most of the teachers, felt that it was ultimately the right thing to do, the tension that they felt, the animus that they felt towards the rival group lingered. And to this day, members of the Education Association and the Federation may still harbor resentment from those times.

And that's one of the reasons why I was interested in this story. Even though the two organizations would come together to form one union in Minneapolis, the wounds that they felt as a result of the tensions among teachers never fully healed for a lot. So it's an interesting story about how we survive conflict.

CATHY WURZER: It's a good book, as always. You always come out with some interesting things here. And that's why I appreciate talking to you. Thank you so much.

BILL GREEN: Thank you. Thank you very much. I appreciate your interest here, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Bill Green is Professor Emeritus at Augsburg College and the former Superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools-- a former Superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools. His book on the 1970 teachers strike called Strike! is expected to be released this summer.

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