Then, as now, it was illegal for public sector workers to go on strike, but that didn’t stop teachers in the Timberlane School District from walking off the job in 1974. Although the strike failed, it pushed the state to adopt a law governing collective bargaining in the public sector.
The Timberlane teachers, members of the National Education Association (NEA), weren’t the first public sector workers to challenge the laws and traditions that stood in the way of powerful unions. Nashua police walked off the beat in 1918. Dick Molan, who served as a lawyer for the State Employees Association, recalled that a law adopted in 1969 enabled collective bargaining, but did not make it mandatory and did not cover pay or benefits. Nashua teachers struck in 1970, and firefighters in the Gate City walked off the job the following year. A labor-management conflict in the Keene school district in 1972 led to the firing of the teachers union leader and the school board taking away a principal’s authority to hire staff.
It’s also worth noting that the NEA, one of the two major organizations for teachers, was hostile to strikes, seeing itself more as a professional association than as a representative of workers. The American Federation of Teachers, which was (and is) part of the AFL-CIO, was only somewhat less averse to strikes. But by the early 1970s, teachers were increasingly challenging the authority of association leaders and local school boards. According to one study, there were 500 strikes in rural and suburban school districts between 1960 and 1975.
On February 26, 1974, about 100 teachers – two-thirds of the teaching staff – went on strike in a district that educated students from Plaistow, Atkinson, Sandown, and Danville. Wages and benefits were not the issue. The issue, as it is at the root of all labor struggles, was power, in this case the power of the organized teachers to insist on a master contract with an arbitration commission.
For months, the teachers walked picket lines and taunted strikebreakers, among whom were their former colleagues as well as substitutes brought in by the administration. When the school year ended on June 20 with teachers still on the line, the New York Times reported the labor action “the nation’s longest teachers strike.” And in a passage that sounds disturbingly familiar, the Times stated, “New Hampshire has neither a state income tax nor a sales tax. However, it ranks 50th in state aid to education and local property taxes, which support the schools, have been going up rapidly.”
In mid-March, the superintendent informed all the strikers that they would not be hired back. Tenured teachers insisted that it was illegal to fire them and insisted on a hearing. After the hearing, the School Board stood by the superintendent. When the teachers appealed, the NH Supreme Court ruled that the teachers’ right to a hearing had been honored and that their rights to keep their jobs were voided when they engaged in an illegal strike. In related cases, the Court ruled that injunctions against public sector strikes could not be automatically granted and that the state Board of Education had no authority to permanently take away the teaching certificates of strikers.
Governor Meldrim Thomson, who backed the school board, nevertheless urged the parties to seek a mediated solution. The teachers union agreed, but the school board said no.
While the teachers gave up their demand for binding arbitration in their contract, the strike’s major outcome was pressure to create a legal process to govern public sector collective bargaining. RSA 273-A, the Public Employee Labor Relations Act, was adopted in 1975.
Dexter Arnold says, “Even with the bargaining law, progress did not necessarily come easily. In 1978, Manchester firefighters risked jail by striking to force city officials to move towards a 42-hour week. The strike, which the union won with the solidarity of other New Hampshire firefighters and Manchester unionists, shaped relations between the union and city officials in the years that followed as the union won important gains for safety and other job conditions.”
The PELRB (commonly pronounced “PLERB”) is by now a well-established state agency, responsible for oversight of public sector union elections and oversight of hundreds of collective bargaining agreements. The Timberlane teachers are now represented by the American Federation of Teachers. And the law states, “Strikes and other forms of job action by public employees are hereby declared to be unlawful.”