For most of the first semester of her senior year in 1982, Robin Middleton’s “brainy” classmate at Wilkinsburg High School was her de facto trigonometry teacher.
Her schoolmates consisted of only her fellow senior students. Her cheerleading team, which she led as a captain, was disbanded. The hallways of the school “looked like a ghost town, empty and abandoned.”
More than 30 years after a teacher’s strike when almost 2,500 students in Wilkinsburg School District lost several weeks of instruction, a digital archive of stories and photos at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette narrate those lost days and the corresponding lengthy battle between teachers and administrators.
Mike Evans, current president of the Wilkinsburg Education Association, still remembers the day on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 1982, when picket lines formed at 6 a.m. around all five of the district schools. He had been teaching in Wilkinsburg for about six years when all elementary elective teachers were laid off, eliminating separate art, physical education and music classes.
Instead, home teachers were required to teach those electives in addition to academic instruction, Mr. Evans said.
“Teachers were coming to school at 6:30 a.m. to get themselves ready, because once the day started it never stopped,” he said. “A lot of times we wouldn’t be able to leave until after dark.”
Last-minute negotiations over teacher workload and changes to the furlough language broke down and, just two weeks after students had returned to school, more than 150 teachers were on the picket line. When asked if classes were canceled that Wednesday morning, then-superintendent Richard Davis told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “The teachers have canceled the classes.”
District administrators took over teaching classes for senior students to keep them on track to graduate that spring.
“The administrators had no clue how to teach us advanced math or honors English, so we were basically teaching ourselves,” Middleton, now 50, said.
The students would form study groups during and after school to help work through the material, she said.
“It was kind of fun at first because we had all the attention, then it got really lonely. But we had to graduate, we had to go to school, so we didn’t have an option.”
Students and teachers would eventually return to school on Nov. 18, shortly before Thanksgiving, under an agreement worked out by Common Pleas Judge Nicholas Papadakos. Per the agreement, negotiators would participate in nine 12-hour days of bargaining. Still, no settlement was reached and WEA members went on strike again for another week.
By that time, Davis estimated that the uncertainty chased 200 students from the district to private schools or other Pittsburgh-area school districts where they had relatives.
Although students attended school on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, they would still come up several weeks short of the state-mandated 180 days in school. Davis told the Post-Gazette that, contrary to rumors of possible widespread retention, students were still be promoted to the next grade.
It wasn’t the last time negotiations between the WEA and administrators came to a head, with students trapped in the middle.
Less than a decade later, the association went on strike again. This time, it was over salary levels, disability pay and the length of the school year.
The selective strike, where teachers would teach some school days and strike on others, was “frowned upon” because of its unpredictability, Mr. Evans said.
“We felt that was the only way we were able to bring this to a head quickly and get everyone back to school,” he said.
After a couple of weeks of striking, Wilkinsburg football coach George Ferguson, who was also a special education teacher in the district, told The Pittsburgh Press the situation was “bizarre” and likened it to “preparing for a wedding then having it called off.”
Any time teachers would not report for work on a game day, Coach Ferguson would watch his team play from the stands. He watched his team lose to West Allegheny Senior High School on Oct. 24, his fifth consecutive game missed while on strike. Assistant coaches Ray Berry, Wilfred Dennis and Jonathan Richardson coached in his stead.
“It’s messing with my self-esteem,” he told The Pittsburgh Press after the 21-6 loss. “I like to work with kids, coaching and teaching them. I’ve been denied both opportunities because of this strike.”
The selective strike’s impact on the Tigers’ football season is what Mr. Evans thinks eventually settled the contracts.
“This is Western Pennsylvania and you know football is king,” he said. “Our team was really good, there were scholarships on the line and college coaches coming to look at them play. It was really big stuff.”
“The threat of missing a game put a lot of pressure on the other side to buckle down and get back to the bargaining table.”
Teachers walked away from that table with a three-year contract that gave them a $9,740 salary increase. The contract also extended their work week by 90 minutes, consisting of three 30-minute sessions for students in need of extra help, and extended the school year by one day to 187.
This time, though, students were able to make up the missed days through vacation days and additional school days in June.
It would end up being the association’s last strike.
State Act 88 took effect shortly after in 1992, requiring striking teachers to return to the classrooms by deadlines that ensure students received their state-mandated 180 days of education.
“Teachers always start out with a lot of support but, as the strike goes on, a lot of that support wanes,” Mr. Evans said. “The longer the strike goes on, the more people would get upset and rightfully so. Parents want their children in school, to be learning and achieving. We tried to help parents understand that what we were trying to do is ultimately to help the students.”