This Week in Wisconsin History: March 18 – 24

This week, TCD takes a closer look at the 1974 Hortonville Teachers Strike, plus the Milwaukee Braves, the 328-day Allis-Chalmers strike, and more.
March 20th, 2012 |
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March 18 – 24 in Wisconsin History

March 18, 1953:  The Boston Braves franchise announces they are moving to Milwaukee, becoming Wisconsin’s first major league baseball team.  As soon as the news hit, Milwaukee Mayor Zeidler started planning for Milwaukee Braves Week, which coincided with the team’s homecoming on April 8 and season opener on April 14.

March 19, 1991: A legal battle between the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Superior Indians and the State of Wisconsin came to an end. The 16-year-old dispute over the Indians’ off-reservation hunting and fishing rights was resolved by federal Judge Barbara Crabb whose ruling clarified that the Chippewa tribe retained special hunting, fishing, and gathering rights from 19th-century treaties. The case began in 1974 when two Lac Courte Oreilles Indians were arrested for spearfishing on a lake near a reservation.

March 20, 1958: Ed Gein’s farmhouse near Plainfield is burned down days before a scheduled open house and auction of his property. Authorities immediately suspected arson.  Plainfield residents had protested the choice of holding the auction on Palm Sunday and were fearful that Gein’s home would become “a museum for the morbid.”  The auction and open house were held as planned, although the only standing buildings left on the property were five small sheds.

From LIFE magazine dated Feb. 3, 1947: Mass demonstrations with friendly unions were called by Local 248. Huge picket lines marched outside the plant–mass picketing was presently prohibited.

March 24, 1947: The 328-day Allis-Chalmers strike comes to an end, setting the record for the nation’s longest labor dispute. The strikers, who were members of the Local 248 of the CIO United Autoworkers Union, returned to work without a contract and without a single concession from the company with the goal of continuing their fight within the plant.  Initially, the union had demanded a 25 cent per hour wage increase as well as a union shop and union control of grievance procedures. Over the course of the strike, often marked by violence, 151 striking workers were arrested.

This Week’s Featured Event: Hortonville Teachers Strike

On March 18, 1974, 88 teachers belonging to the Hortonville Education Association went on strike after 10 months of failed negotiations with the Hortonville School Board. After 16 days of heated protests and little compromise, the school board fired the 84 remaining teachers on strike, stirring up a conflict in the small community and across the state.

“The teachers felt the only alternative was to go on strike to make people realize that this was a big issue,” says Adam Mertz, a graduate student at Marquette University, and author of the thesis, Forged in the Fire of Community: The 1974 Hortonville Teachers’ Strike and the Rise of Modern Conservatism.

Not only had the Hortonville teachers been working without a contract for the 1973-74 school year, they also had not received an increase in their base pay in three years, a blow made even more significant considering the rampant inflation rate, says Mertz.

The stalled negotiations in Hortonville highlighted a flaw in the collective bargaining law in place at the time. While the law required negotiations between employers and their bargaining units, there was no mechanism in place that stated the two parties had to reach an agreement, says Mertz.

Though public sector strikes were illegal, teacher strikes were popping up frequently in Wisconsin with roughly 30 occurring between 1972 and 1974 mainly due to the ineffectiveness of the collective bargaining law, says Mertz. The longest strikes lasted up to two weeks, but were successfully resolved after compromise from both sides. No one expected the big strike to take place in Hortonville nor did they predict the outcome, says Mertz.

The Hortonville teachers began a small-scale strike in January of 1974 outside of their normal teaching hours. Instead of supervising students’ extracurricular activities, they would picket in the community, handing out pamphlets explaining their demands and stance on the school board’s stubbornness. The after-hours strike failed to persuade the school board to budge, but it succeeded in angering Hortonville residents.

“The mini-strike was a flash point that put many community members against the HEA,” says Mertz.

After the school board failed to meet HEA’s deadline for negotiating contracts for both the current school year and following school year, the teachers went on strike. With the teachers supported by the Wisconsin Education Association Council and the school board backed by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, the community conflict turned into a state-wide dispute, culminating on April 3 when the school board fired the 84 teachers on strike.

In response to the school board’s unprecedented move which gained national attention, HEA and WEAC brought in buses of sympathy protestors from across the state, including other teachers and representatives from public and private sector unions, further fueling the bitter battle in the community, says Mertz.

The protesters, reaching crowds of 500, would stage massive sit-ins in front of school buses and in front of the school and prompted counter-demonstrators to show up.  Police officers in riot gear from five neighboring counties were stationed at the scene and made more than 70 arrests during the height of the strike.

The dispute moved to the court system when the striking teachers filed a lawsuit against the school board, stating that the firings were a violation of due process since the school board was not impartial. After losing the case, they appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to overturn the decision. The state supreme court sided with the striking teachers, prompting the school board to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The legal battle ended in 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the school board’s favor.

The strike eventually led to the passing of the Mediation Arbitration Law in 1977, which allowed public employees to strike as a last resort after a series of required negotiation processes, including binding arbitration as the final step in which an arbitrator must choose an offer from either side in its entirety. The law compelled both sides to make more reasonable demands and successfully prevented any teacher strikes for the next 15 years, but came at a high cost for Hortonville, says Mertz.

“The strike was very destructive,” says Mertz. “A lot of teachers had to go on to find different careers after being blacklisted in school districts across the state. They were viewed as agitators.”

Meanwhile, WEAC would not recognize any of the teachers who crossed the picket lines during the strike and refused to be affiliated with the Hortonville School District until all of the strikebreakers had retired.

The students, perhaps, suffered the most, according to Mertz. They were subjected to constant chaos outside their school during the protests while their education was disrupted due to the ever-changing line-up of substitute teachers who often couldn’t keep the kids in control at the start of the strike. Most students were even missing their third quarter grades after the striking teachers took their grade books with them, says Mertz. The students also witnessed their parents and teachers fighting with other community members on a daily basis.

“The town was figuratively torn apart and very polarized and to some extent, it’s still like that today,” says Mertz.

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