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WEAC History Book Chp 5

Hortonville is a small town in northeastern Wisconsin that became a national symbol for the tension between school boards and teachers

The infamous Hortonville teacher strike was one of 30 Wisconsin teacher strikes that occurred in the 1972–73 and 1973–74 school years and one of countless teacher strikes throughout the United States. But the Hortonville School Board’s intransigence and the 84 martyred teachers’ strength of conviction made the Hortonville strike perhaps the most closely watched and portentous teacher strike of its day.

Teacher strikes were illegal in Wisconsin under the 1971 bargaining law (111.70) that mandated good-faith bargaining on both sides of the table. However, there was nothing in the law that forced compliance for either party.

During that period, a typical teacher strike lasted no more than two weeks, with the local association able to claim victory on many of its goals, especially the addition of just cause for contract non-renewal, and salary and insurance improvements. Most school boards sought injunctions against strikes and then resumed bargaining that quickly led to settlements.

At first, the Hortonville Education Association and the Hortonville school board seemed like they too would follow the familiar pattern of strike and settlement. However, the sight of organized teachers stoked the Hortonville school board’s fervid anti-unionism and gave the strike a life of its own. The school board was not only hostile to the HEA, it was prepared to demolish its own educational system and break the union if HEA’s members would not approve the board’s offer. In 1973, the HEA and the school board began bargaining the 1973–74 contract. By January 1974, after ten months, negotiations were at a stalemate. The school board, with coaching by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, refused to budge. It would have cost only $26,000 to settle, a tiny fraction of their eventual legal bills and strike-related costs. Indeed, it cost $15,000 per day just to pay for the police presence during much of the month of April 1974.

On April 2, the Hortonville School Board fired all the teachers and withdrew its last contract offer, and it was obvious that this board was out to claim the mantle as the toughest school board in the United States. This is precisely how it was portrayed in a cover article that appeared in the magazine of the National Association of School Boards in June 1974.

The Hortonville School Board's intransigence and the 84 martyred teachers' strength of conviction made the Hortonville strike perhaps the most closely watched and portentous teacher strike of its day.

The strike and its aftermath threw the lives of the “Hortonville 84” into stress and turmoil. Some left teaching for good, and others changed careers after school districts across the state ignored their employment applications. Many had to uproot their families as they searched for new employment.

The mass firings provided a dramatic example of how a flawed collective bargaining law could lead to an abuse of power by an unreasonable school board. The firings contributed to a new political climate for change by showing the people of Wisconsin how much disruption a bad law can cause. The Hortonville experience so energized WEAC members that, over the next two years, they mobilized to win a new, fair law through intensive political action and lobbying efforts.

When the strike began on March 18, 1974, Hortonville teachers had not won a base salary raise in three years. The school board refused to bargain or mediate. Its final offer included a 4.2 percent raise and an open ten-hour day. The HEA had two options: accept the board’s offer or go on strike.

For those who were there the images are still fresh: picket lines made up of 500 Wisconsin teachers; helmeted deputy sheriffs bused to Hortonville from five neighboring counties; carloads of strikebreakers driving through picket lines; a tough anti-union school board; the WEAC executive secretary and more than 70 HEA supporters arrested for acts of civil disobedience. No one who was there will forget the Hortonville Vigilante Association, a small band of idle men who delighted in harassing picketers and escorting strikebreakers through picket lines.