For most Bostonians, November 9, 1965, is remembered as the day of the Great Northeastern Blackout, when power grid failures at the US-Canada border knocked lights out from Toronto to Boston and south to New York City. For the Boston Teachers Union, however, the blackout was merely the backdrop to another once-in-a-lifetime event. Thanks to a new Massachusetts law that allowed public sector workers and their unions to bargain collectively with municipal governments, the BTU was contesting an election to represent Boston’s teachers at the bargaining table on November 9, 1965.
The union, chartered in 1945, had been organizing in Boston Public Schools for twenty years. For most of that time it had been a small but vocal force within the teaching corps with very limited ability to shape teachers’ salaries, benefits, or working conditions. Starting in 1959 in Wisconsin, however, states and cities across the nation began to extend collective bargaining rights to public sector workers, including teachers. 20,000 teachers in New York City won their first contract in 1962, sparking a wave of teacher organizing that reverberated through US cities. The American Federation of Teachers, in which BTU was Local 66, fueled these efforts with a grant from the AFL-CIO to organize aggressively in advance of collective bargaining elections. In the fall of 1965, it was finally the BTU’s turn.
Workers in the private sector (with notable exceptions in agricultural and domestic work) had enjoyed the right to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. Put simply, the law required bosses to recognize and bargain with unions elected by workers. Public sector workers were left out, however; even the pro-labor administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt believed public servants labored under a different set of expectations of duty and devotion to their work.
Teachers, however, had been organizing unions since the early twentieth century for the same reasons that garment workers and meatpackers did: they wanted more control over their lives and labor on the job, including better pay and working conditions. After World War II, teachers began organizing in earnest, often pointing out the wide gulfs between their own meager pay and that of unionized industrial workers. Winning collective bargaining rights would be a game-changer: instead of picketing outside School Committee meetings, the BTU would be at the table demanding the pay, dignity, and working conditions teachers wanted.
Organizing to Vote
In 1965, not all teachers believed in collective bargaining. The largest teachers organization in the country, the National Education Association (NEA), stood against it, believing that joining unions would debase teacher professionalism. Even as teacher unions cited the gains made by unionized industrial workers, their opponents sneered at the idea that teachers needed, or wanted, to associate with a blue-collar labor movement and its colorful cast of characters.
All through the fall of 1965, the BTU organized among teachers, preaching the virtues of collective bargaining and promising to address dismal working conditions, which included no free periods for elementary teachers. They faced off against an independent teachers organization, the Boston Teachers Alliance, which promoted a vision of professionalism opposed to unionism, much like that of the NEA (though the BTA was not affiliated.
When election day finally arrived, teachers packed the Boston Arena to vote, using flashlights to find their way once the lights went out. Three quarters of eligible teachers turned out, and fewer than 100 voted against collective bargaining entirely. At 10pm, ballots counted by candlelight revealed that BTU had won 1,602 out of 2,718 votes cast, and would henceforth represent Boston’s teachers at the bargaining table.
A First Step
The BTU celebrated the victory with a massive headline and front page story in a four-page edition of its newspaper, the Boston Union Teacher. One article reprinted congratulatory telegrams from AFT President Charles Cogen, as well as locals from Lynn, Massachusetts; Kenosha, Wisconsin; and San Francisco, California. Popular songs, re-written with celebratory lyrics about collective bargaining, filled page three, while the back page invited teachers to join the union’s holiday social, sure to be a particularly good one at the end of a momentous year.
And yet, as the BTU’s president, Fred Reilly, noted in his victory message, this was just the beginning. “A new era has opened for us” wrote Reilly, and “we must be equal to the responsibilities that we have sought.” No longer a self-selecting group of activists and organizers, the BTU now represented all the teachers of Boston. The task ahead was to win a contract that would guarantee those teachers living wages, better working conditions, and a voice in the making of public education in Boston.