‘Strike for better schools’ – The St. Paul public school teachers’ strike of 1946

In 1946, even the idea of a teachers\’ strike was revolutionary. Despite organized union activity dating from the turn of the century and a long history of unfair treatment at the hands of school administrators, teachers had never before gone out on strike. In October 1946, however, nearly 90 percent of the teachers in the St. Paul Public Schools voted to strike.

The strike, which lasted nearly six weeks, was the first organized teachers\’ strike in the nation and the only strike in the history of the St. Paul school system.

photo of striking teachers roasting a turkey on the picketline
Life magazine featured a photo of the striking teachers roasting a turkey on the picketline for Thanksgiving.

The walkout in St. Paul received not only national but international coverage. Even Life magazine featured a photo of the picketing teachers, cooking a Thanksgiving turkey on the picketline. The strike of 1,165 St. Paul school teachers, lasting from Nov. 25, 1946, to Dec. 27, 1946, startled the nation into realizing that teachers were ready to use the strike weapon as a method to alleviate school funding problems and/or intolerable working conditions.

The slogan of the strikers was "Strike for Better Schools."

In 1946, the overwhelming majority of teachers in St. Paul were women. An official of the American Federation of Teachers at the time called the St. Paul teachers\’ union a "petticoat local" because of the heavy involvement of women. Two women who were heavily involved with the strike were Mary McGough and Lettisha Henderson.

Two tough leaders
Mary McGough was an original member of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (1918) and had started teaching in St. Paul in 1903; at the time of the strike, she was nearly 60 years old. In the 1930s, Miss McGough had been a vice president for the American Federation of Teachers. She was a strong, articulate woman who interviewed well and during the strike participated regularly in radio broadcasts which were a major contribution to efforts to settle the strike.

One veteran of the strike noted that McGough could "cut politicians to threads" and do it in a very ladylike fashion.

Lettisha Henderson was the strike committee chair and at the time of the strike, a vice president for the American Federation of Teachers. A "tell it like it is" leader, Lettisha worked long and hard to improve working conditions for teachers. She was unconventional: Henderson was a chain smoker in a day when women didn\’t smoke. She did not wear hats at a time when women were supposed to wear hats.

Together, McGough and Henderson were an effective team. Margaret Kelly, a longtime member of Local 28, said "Lettisha made the snowballs and Mary threw them."

Substandard schools
In 1946, the national public school picture was grim; the plight of the St. Paul Public school system was even more serious. It was not unusual to have close to 50 students in a classroom where the room was intended for at most 35. There were no free textbooks for St. Paul students. All textbooks had to be purchased from St. Paul Book and Stationery or bought on the second hand market. And if students could not afford to buy textbooks, in many cases, their teachers paid for the needed books with their meager salaries.

School buildings were often substandard; some larger elementary schools in St. Paul at the time of the strike had only one lavatory for girls and one lavatory for boys. Many schools during this period had not been updated for decades. The libraries were antiquated if they existed at all. Laboratory and shop classes went without the necessary equipment and supplies.

Teachers were among the lowest paid in the nation. In 1946, the pay of St. Paul public school teachers was on par with the pay for teachers in Birmingham, Alabama. When compared to communities of comparable size, only Atlanta paid its teachers less.

There was no school board. Rather, the schools were under the jurisdiction of the city administration and the mayor. Since 1914, the school system had suffered under the restraint of a per capita spending limit on all city services; without a specifically designated school advocate, the schools had to compete in the political arena with the other departments of city government for a share of the city budget.

Another reason for the poor funding was the fact that a sizeable portion of St. Paul families sent their children to the many parochial and private schools located in the city.

Attempts to pass charter amendments were constantly defeated by use of the vote-splitting technique in which two similar charter amendments were submitted at the same time. Vote splitting illustrated the business community\’s dominant presence in maintaining miserly limitations on spending for St. Paul schools. With St. Paul citizens unwilling to spend more tax dollars on public schools and the business community continually campaigning to keep property taxes at a minimum, St. Paul had had a long history of inadequate funding for public education.

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Last resort
St. Paul teachers went on strike after long delays, frequent evasions, and outright refusals by city officials responsible for education to give them any hope of getting satisfactory funding to meet the educational needs of St. Paul public school students. Real negotiations began only after the strike action occurred. There were no sincere attempts at negotiations before the strike was called.

On the morning of Nov. 25, the day the strike began, the thermometer stood at three degrees above zero, the coldest day so far that autumn. Teachers, bundled in heavy winter clothes, picketed at all 77 elementary and secondary schools, with a minimum of two people on every picketline and three or more at the larger schools.

photo of teachers and supporters with picket signsThe school district made no attempt to operate the schools. Throughout the city, parents, business people, private citizens, and students carried coffee and doughnuts to the picketers or invited them into homes or buildings to eat, drink and get warm.

Parents of students at Maxfield, Crowley and Marshall schools set up their own picketlines in sympathy with the strikers, and in many instances, students carried banners alongside their teachers. Many local unions — whether affiliated with the AFL or CIO — offered support and put pressure on public officials to settle the strike.

Thousands of letters of encouragement, many containing checks to aid the strikers, arrived from all over the nation. Yet, even with the support, it took guts to go out on strike.

The teachers faced, of course, the immediate difficulties of surviving without a paycheck. Many strikers had to take other jobs to make ends meet, while also walking a regular shift on the picketline.

Breaking the law
More importantly, however, were the long-term implications of a walkout. It was illegal for teachers and other public employees to go on strike.

In the weeks before the walkout, the commissioner of education had threatened to fire anyone who went on strike. He also said they would jeopardize their tenure rights and state teaching certificates. Former Gov. Elmer Andersen summed up the views of many when he recalled seeing teachers walking the picketline in front of his daughter\’s school.

"I remember the strike keenly because it is inconceivable to people today what a shock it was then to have teachers go out on strike," he said. "Teachers just didn\’t do that — it would be like a priest picketing a church or a cathedral. It was just absolutely unheard of.

"Everybody was in a state of turmoil over the strike."

A solution to the dispute was set in motion the very first day, when the Attorney General of Minnesota authorized the finance committee of the Teachers Joint Council to be the bargaining agent for St. Paul teachers and empowered the City Council to negotiate with that committee to try to settle the strike. Gov. Edward Thye also named representatives to the negotiations.

While talks progressed, the teachers\’ union held out for an amendment to the city charter that would divorce school finances from other city activities. "Until the charter commission approves the proposed amendment, the strike will go on," pledged picketing chair Michael McDonough.

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Pressure builds for settlement
In the newspapers and on the radio, as well as on the street, pressure built for a settlement. On Dec. 12, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported on the formation of a citizens\’ committee to support the charter amendment.

That same day, in an article entitled, "The Shame of a City," the Union Advocate took the city to task for the failures brought to light by the strike. "Today, the entire nation knows that St. Paul has been decadent in its educational stewardship," the newspaper said. "Truly, this is the shame of a great city if ever there was one."

Finally, in late December, the charter commission approved an amendment that would designate the expenditure of $18 per capita for schools and $24 per capita for other city departments. On Friday, Dec. 27, the teachers suspended their strike.

The teachers\’ strike had many ramifications.

In the months following, voters approved a charter amendment that separated expenditures for education from those of other city departments. The amendment also increased funding for the schools.

Money became available for badly needed school building improvements. Due, in part, to the lobbying efforts of Lettisha Henderson and the St. Paul teachers, the 1947 Minnesota Legislature passed legislation which required school districts to buy textbooks for students in order to receive state aid.

Legislative efforts also were undertaken to establish an independent school board in St. Paul. It took time, but on July 1, 1965 — 19 years after the teachers\’ strike — Independent School District 625 finally became a reality.

Ripples across the country
Outside of St. Paul, the strike had ripples as well. Across the nation, many school boards — perhaps fearful of similar walkouts — gave unsolicited salary increases to their teachers.

Perhaps most importantly, the teachers demonstrated to themselves and to others what can be achieved through solidarity. According to teachers\’ union records, fewer than 25 teachers and principals, out of the total St. Paul staff of 1,165, crossed the picketline and went to work.

Albert Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised the courage of these women and men in a letter to the St. Paul Federation on its 75th anniversary.

"Local 28 won the strike — and paved the way for collective bargaining for teachers all over the country," he wrote.

"The AFT owes a lot to the St. Paul Fed, not the least of which is the 75 years of unbroken association that makes you our oldest local. I feel this personally when I think of the strength, singlemindedness and devotion you have given to teaching and to trade unionism."

Cheryl Braunworth Carlson, a guidance counselor at Central High School in St. Paul, has always had an interest in history. This article is based on her dissertation for a Ph.D in education at the University of St. Thomas.

Photos courtesy of Cheryl Braunworth Carlson.
Illustration by Ricardo Levins Morales, Northland Poster Collective.

Related articles
Milestones in the history of the St. Paul teachers union

Florence Rood: Pioneer teacher union leader

Steve Dress: He continued a tradition of leadership

Union Advocate history series main page

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