Photo by Sarah Martinsen
Larry and Mania Moore [no relation to Shelly Moore] are both retired teachers and residents of Wisconsin’s Senate District 10. The Moores live in Mania’s childhood home on the edge of a sleepy pond in New Richmond. With a level of foreboding, they’ve been witnessing the political events of our state unfold. It is eerily reminiscent for this couple, they’ve seen this once before. Not only will the changes enacted by Gov. Walker and Sen. Harsdorf affect the profession that they’ve dedicated most of their lives toward, but also undo the very union that they helped create.
Here’s their story.
Larry: I always told my students – my first goal is to get you to learn; my second goal is to teach you some history. I realized that you have a lot of kids who just came to school because they had personal problems. I’ve buried about 31 of my kids over the years. How do you go on teaching during times like that? That is a moment for humans, not for state standards.
When I was hired in Clear Lake in 1969, about 50 teachers were there. Principals, superintendents, and teachers were all members of the same group, The Polk/Burnett Education Association. Well, you can imagine who ran the meetings, superintendents. Then, I started coaching. “Supers” ran the coaching meetings, too. We were frustrated with the lack of input we were getting. I’ve always had an absolute demand that no one can go into administration unless they’ve had at least 10 years in the classroom. You know, without that – it’s like getting sex education from a priest. It just doesn’t make any sense.
We started getting whiffs of things that were happening in the southern end of the state. The teachers down there were starting a union for teachers using the WEA. A real union. I said, “I don’t know anything about unions…I don’t know if I want to join.” Leaon [influential older teacher] was wearing wooden clogs at the time. She said, “If you don’t join, I’m going to hit you with my shoe!” (Laughing) So I said, “Ok, I guess I’ll join.”
Two years later, in 1971, I was the president and the head negotiator. When I took the responsibility – I took it totally. So, 26 different schools started coming to meetings at Rice Lake Elk’s Club and we were first called NUE or Northwest United Educators – Clear Lake.
What were some reasons worthy of firings before unions?
Mania: Pregnancy. Any reason at all that (superintendents or school boards) wanted. Any reason.
L: We had 3 young men teachers who didn’t have a lot of money and shared the upstairs of a woman’s house. Well, they fired one because the implication was he was gay. He wasn’t, but they forced him out.
This is the stuff that people don’t know.
Female teachers and students had to wear dresses at all times. Girl students could wear slacks under their skirts only if it was 20 below zero. Then, they had to take the slacks off when they got to school to look “like ladies.” Girls had to kneel on the floor to show that their skirts were long enough.
M: Unions later gave the students the same rights as the teachers.
L: Another time the super reamed two teachers up and down because they were wearing open toed shoes and it wasn’t “lady-like” and was dangerous.
M: Control! Control! It is all about control. And you could never buy alcohol in town because if you were caught you could be fired for that.
L: And you could be married, but not pregnant. [In the generation before, a woman couldn’t work anymore once she was married.]
M: Or pregnant, but not showing! As soon as you started to show you were let go.
L: Coaches were let go because they didn’t play the right kid at quarterback, or they didn’t have a winning record that season.
L: Even after the unions, teachers were afraid to teach theories, like evolution, because of the repercussions. Now can you imagine how it is going to be? [ A recent example includes the Georgia textbook controversy ]
Mania: So, I want Larry to talk about why we went on strike in Clear Lake.
L: Just before the strike in ’73 our teachers voted for a union. We didn’t want much. The main thing we were asking for was “just cause,” which means you can be removed from your job, but with procedure. At that time there was talk of strike in the air. So, to avoid that we told the board that we’d take their last offer.
M: Then the board said, “No, we won’t give that to you anymore. We’re changing our mind.”
L: We asked the board, “What’s your reasoning?” They said they didn’t have to have one. So, the next morning we went out on strike.
M: We went on strike over dignity – it wasn’t the money.
L: We had about 5 teachers who didn’t want any part of it. So, roughly 45 of us went on strike. We had older teachers holding hands with tears in their eyes saying, “We’ll support you, we’ll sit here in strike headquarters all day, but don’t ask us to march.” They inspired us to keep going.
Very quickly we were all fired. Other schools went on strike, too. During this time in WI, they were singling out and arresting African American protestors within a group for “having a rally without permission.” So, then the Black protestors would walk away from the group when the police came, but they would be arrested then for “having a parade without permission.” These are times that people don’t hear about or want to believe.
Mania, Leaon, and I moved into the upstairs of a house of one of the teachers and used it as “Strike Headquarters.” A bunch of us young idiots were out there holding signs in front of the school all day, and we’d come back and be telling stories. Mania and the other ladies were making up strike songs.
M: I was in my last year of college at the time. We had strike songs for “On Top of Old Smokey” and “7 Blind Mice”. We had a deer head up on the wall with a tie around its neck that symbolized someone. (both laughing and smiling at each other) We served meals, sang our songs, and slept on couches.
L: The district had brought in the “Scabs” (substitutes) to teach. They paid Scabs way more than they ever paid us. Plus, they threw in room and board for them. We were going to get beaten. It had nothing to do with the money. They were going to beat us.
I don’t think people understand the stress level involved with something like this. A few people went out picketing a couple of times and it was just too much – they went duck hunting instead. And many people didn’t do anything at all. We had to take one guy to the hospital because the stress just got to him. He broke. Leaon was my strength, and she was starting to crack. She would go home and cry. Then, I went to this one guy’s house and his wife is in tears because there is no income and he’s starting to break. The next house is the same deal. Some of the teachers were going to go back in…crossing the picket line and going back to work.
We were picketing in front of the school. The Scabs just let kids out, and they were all over the place. We put our signs down and helped gather the students up, monitoring while they got on their buses. We had a ton of support from our students.
We had open meetings for negotiations and the Super and Board would use intimidation tactics. They set it up where they were up above us on a stage looking down. They had our tables wedged right up against the crowd with these really angry, aggressive people right up against us. The whole cafeteria was full of people. ”Unionist!” you hear us called. It was a swear word. Sometimes, I’d be there with just Leaon because people were too scared to come.
“We’re starting to cave. We’re going to lose,” I was telling Jim Guckenberg (ex-WEA president/current NUE director). But what we didn’t know then was that the community was calling in and pressuring the School Board and Super. So, the district hired a lawyer to negotiate with Jim and I. It was top secret, and we couldn’t tell anybody. After striking for 4 days, we settled for $50/year raise [from $4000/yearly salary] and we finally got “just cause” for teachers.
[The Moores still qualified for food stamps after their raise.]
When the board finally settled it, we all sneaked up to the Clayton Rod and Gun Club that night and had a little party. Every bar had a brew called “Teacher Beer” because it was the cheapest beer.
M: A case of beer for a couple of bucks.
L: Talk about a bunch of idiots for the way we were celebrating. We considered it as a victory, of course – because we finally got “just cause” (and could no longer be fired without a reason). The oldest teacher on staff and his wife were chasing each other through the grass like kids, celebrating. From that point on, everything was “BTU” (Before The Union).
Besides “just cause,” what other advances did your union make for workers?
L: A teacher, Darlene, was pregnant. During negotiations, they were like, “ok, we’ll give you maternity leave.” And we said, “No. We’ll take “long-term leave”. That way anyone could use it.
M: One of the things that this accomplished was that you made any of the benefits work for both sexes. [Men may take some time off to help with their newborn] Then, there was the benefit that allowed teachers to switch positions within the school. Before that you had to quit and reapply.
L: Then, we had a male teacher who was raised by his aunt and would not be allowed to attend her funeral, because that right was only allowed for the death of parents, spouses, or kids. We were negotiating and saying, “Who are you to say that this guy’s aunt isn’t important to him?” And their argument was, “People go to funerals to socialize and get out of work.” We finally got “funeral leave” for anybody…but at a “leave day” cost.
Well, then we got “sick leave”. Before that, one teacher was reamed out because she was home sick on the day of parent/teacher conferences. They said, “Ok you can stay home sick today, but you’d better get here for conferences tonight.” So, she came in very sick.
Then, we got “personal leave,” so when your kids are sick you were allowed to care for them.
We also set aside our own wages to collaboratively take care of our own retirement needs. We would take less now to have enough later. It is deferred payment.
Then, we had a group of teachers who got together and created our own insurance, which wound up being the standard in WI. We did that ourselves. No one gave that to us. The thing is – the better you do at something, the more jealous some can become, and you are punished for it….things are taken away that you’ve earned.
M: We negotiated for things instead money. We could’ve taken money all of those years. But we took insurance and retirement, instead. And we showed the district how they could save money by letting us retire.
L: You are in teaching for the dignity and the value of teaching. Of course you want a decent wage, but no one goes into teaching for the money.
Over 3 decades ago, 45 brave educators – our friends, neighbors, and loved ones – struggled for reasonable treatment for workers. They were able to make sure future generations were not fired without cause; workers could stay home when they or their children were sick; workers could attend funerals when loved ones died; or women, minorities, and students were treated fairly within the educational system. Gov. Walker and Sen. Harsdorf have assured Wisconsinites that eliminating virtually all of the bargaining rights of unions was a “fiscal policy,” and they have assured Wisconsinites that they will not eliminate progress made for workers. I hope they are right. We will all bare witness to the truth of that assertion. Will Superintendents, School Boards, and bosses exercise restraint and be satisfied with the financial concessions made by most public workers? Or will they start demanding longer work days, elimination of seniority, and erosion of “just cause”? Larry and Mania Moore predict the latter, “You see, people don’t get it. Without unions, the leaders don’t have to have a reason for anything they do. Period. “