Union Busting - Walking the Line
Fear and loathing in the Ohio Valley: Two locals faced a strike and the professional bullies brought in to break them
By John Rosales
Fear. Intimidation. Young, muscular males in commando pants and spit-polished black boots. Union busters, they are. Hired guns working for strikebreaking firms under contract with school districts. Bodyguards for scabs, the replacement workers who cross picket lines.
A hired strikebreaker videotapes teachers on the picket line as one of his firm’s white vans delivers scabs to a school.
Both the Edison Local Education Association (ELEA) and Harrison Hills Teachers’ Association (HHTA)—only a 30-minute drive apart, separated by a stretch of hard rock mountains—were forced to strike in Fall 2007. The districts hired union-busting firms, at great expense, to intimidate and harass the striking teachers and bring in scarcely qualified substitutes.
Strength. Determination. Colleagues chanting and walking the line for long, often cold, hours despite daily bullying and harassment. All wishing they could be with their kids inside but knowing they had to stand their ground.
No matter what came next.
Shadowy Figures Appear
Cheryl Wells, a teacher at Hopedale Elementary School, was known to administrators as an HTTA activist. One day during contract negotiations, but before the strike vote had even been taken, she went to the parking lot to find three Huffmaster toughs inspecting her van. One had a clipboard.
“I didn’t say anything, I just drove to the police station,” she says. Union busting firms have a reputation for slashing tires and removing gas caps. The police officer who inspected her car said it was okay to drive. So Wells continued on her 20-mile trek home, stopping at a McDonald’s for coffee.
“Out of nowhere, a guy in Huffmaster clothes and dark glasses stood in line behind me,” she says. “Another one came out of the bathroom. I was shook up.”
When Wells left the McDonald’s, she noticed one of Huffmaster’s white vans following her. It eventually turned off the highway without incident.
“They’re trained not to say a word to you,” Wells says. “Most of them wear dark glasses so you can’t see their eyes.”
Union busters don’t have to talk; their appearance and actions say it all. In addition to the confrontation at McDonald’s, Wells was later knocked down by a Huffmaster van while picketing. Though she was not seriously injured, it was chilling for the striking teachers and their families to realize that the union busters were willing to use vehicles to exert force.
In Edison, after hitting an impasse at the bargaining table in August, ELEA members distributed flyers at high school football games to build support in the community. Through September, there was little movement from the board to bargain in good faith.
Educators from neighboring districts picket for a fair contract.
“They kept cancelling meetings at the last minute and not returning our phone calls,” says Kathy Stewart, ELEA president. Finally, on October 19, ELEA’s bargaining team delivered a strike notice to the board. On the 26th, the superintendent responded with a “last best offer” contract, ending negotiations.
Though warning shots had been fired, no one wanted a strike. But Stephanie Blundon, ELEA’s vice president and a teacher at Stanton Elementary School in Hammondsville, knew the strike was imminent when she saw an ominous memo taped to the staff restroom door. It read: “Effective immediately, the restrooms in the Central Office are no longer to be used by Stanton Staff.” Only the superintendent’s staff, whose offices are located at the school, held the keys. “They drew their line in the sand,” she says, with the subtle pride of a battle-tested soldier.
Teachers were eventually assigned a lavatory on the far side of the gym. Blundon recalls having to cross that gym floor: If P.E. class was going on, “we might be dodging balls to get to the restroom.”
By that time, ELEA’s most dependable ally, the Ohio Education Association (OEA), was setting up “strike central”—essentially a war room with telephones, computers, and meeting space. OEA UniServ directors knew the district would be preparing as well. On October 31, the superintendent entered into a contract (see sidebar on page 36) with IMAC, a Cleveland-based company that calls itself “North America’s leader in crisis management and response.”
Edison Local Education Association: represents 140 teachers, both at the time of the strike and today (nearly 100 percent membership)
Edison Local School District: 2,290 students attending three elementary schools, one middle, and one high school
Contract Sticking Points: wages and health care benefits; management’s refusal to bargain over (their term) “management rights”—items like vacancies, transfers, and reduction in force
Strike Duration: November 7–November17
Strikebreaking Firm: International Management Assistance Corporation (IMAC)
Next Bargaining Year: 2010
Itching for a Fight
At Harrison Hills, checks to Huffmaster started flying out of the superintendent’s office on September 21, when the board gave the company a $26,000 retainer. Huffmaster staff had been present at Hopedale for three weeks before HHTA’s strike vote, a clear sign the district was preparing for a work stoppage (see sidebar on page 36 for Huffmaster contract points).
“They were scouting the buildings, looking at the ceilings, maybe to see where to place video cameras,” says Wells, who had experienced two previous district strikes, the last one in 1987. Hopedale’s two large on-campus trailers became Huffmaster administrative offices.
“We had all the heat, oh my God,” Wells says.
Harrison Hills Teachers’ Association (HHTA): represented 150 teachers during the strike, about 130 today (100 percent membership)
Harrison Hills City School District: 1,900 students attending four elementary schools, one middle, and one high school
Contract Sticking Points: contract duration (HHTA wanted three years, the district only two), and the issues of salary and a “no reprisal” clause (HHTA wanted to include everyone while the district did not)
Strike Duration: October 1–October 15
Strikebreaking Firm: Huffmaster Crisis Management
Next Bargaining Year: 2010
Stanton was the hotbed during the ELEA strike, says teacher Jennifer Bahen. Since district offices are located on the Stanton grounds, most IMAC workers had to check in there. Bahen says that throughout the morning, roughly 65 subs would drive past the picket line in vans, small buses, and personal vehicles.
Teachers met IMAC’s white vans at the vehicle entrances of the district’s five schools each morning. “[The vans] would arrive at 6:30 or 7:00 a.m.,” Blundon says, because “they needed light to videotape us in case we tried to scratch the vans.”
IMAC guards would hunch over the hood to escort the vans past the pickets. It would take about five minutes for them to roll 30 feet.
The vans started arriving earlier and earlier to avoid the pickets, but to no avail—the pickets were on the line by 4 a.m.
The law says that those on the picket line must keep moving in an orderly way and not block traffic or make contact with the vehicles carrying the subs. They cannot be on school property. The security guards were not supposed to physically engage teachers, though they sometimes did. A sinister-looking guard, Bahen says, once walked up to her and stood inches from her shoulder, giving her a laser-beam stare as she spoke with a parent.
“It was coercion,” she says.
Teachers passed the time between the drop-offs and pick-ups of scabs by walking the line, chanting, and singing. They ate meals out of the back of a van and escaped the rain and hail by ducking into two large camping tents. Bathroom breaks were taken at an RV parked in the driveway of a sympathetic neighbor.
IMAC Contract Points
For Recruiting up to 60 temporary replacement teachers, the district reimbursed IMAC $150 per person recruited and paid temp teachers $200 a day for local residents and $280 for out-of-towners.
IMAC site commanders earned $40/hour.
Shift supervisors and “evidence coordinators” earned $28/hour.
Video operators and guards earned $20/hour
Finding a Teachable Moment
During down time, the teachers also began to talk with the guards. They may have looked like stoic military police officers, but many were just out of high school and trying to earn a few dollars.
“I asked what their mothers would say about what they were doing to teachers,” says Marsha Hennis, a Hopedale teacher. “They’d say they needed the job. Many of them were kids.”
Hennis says the teachers had nicknames for some of the guards, like, “Hollywood” (the video camera operator) and “Bling” (one of the van drivers}. “He had gold caps on his teeth, so we gave him a flashy name,” she says.
The dedicated teachers even tried to inspire their antagonists.
“We’d tell them they had the potential to be doing so much more than hauling scabs back and forth and keeping us out of our buildings,” Hennis says.
Huffmaster Contract Points
The cost of the strike at Harrison Hills was $388,783.70, almost all of which went to the union busters. The pay raise HHTA requested was approximately $60,000. According to the district treasurer’s report, Huffmaster was paid $339,082.50.
Some of the line items on the bill:
Substitute teacher pay, plus meals and mileage ($49,701.22)
Huffmaster employee hourly wages: $21.50-$45/hour
Per diems and hotel stays for subs and Huffmaster staff
Legal fees from a Cleveland law firm (roughly $100,000
Caught in the Crossfire
The Ohio Association of Public School Employees (OAPSE) represents public school support staff as well as employees of public libraries, Head Start, and other organizations, and is the state’s largest union. While expressing solidarity with teachers during the strike, local OAPSE members had recently settled their own contract and were compelled to cross the picket line. At Edison, they received a memo from the superintendent in the week preceding ELEA’s strike to report to work. “Failure to do so,” it stated, “will be deemed an unauthorized absence and may subject the employee to loss of pay and/or discipline, which may include termination of their employment with the district.”
“[The administration was] trying to drive a wedge between us,” says Stewart. “We knew [the ESPs] were with us in spirit.”
Teachers involved in both strikes said one of the hardest parts was watching near-empty yellow school buses roll in each morning. The striking teachers always let buses pass undisturbed; as the drivers approached, they would hold up their fingers to indicate how many students were on board.
At Edison, only 4 percent of students on average attended school during the strike. Almost nine out of 10 stayed home, “because all [the subs] did was work at the computers,” says Blundon. “Our support staff folks told us what went on.”
Criminals in the Classroom
When a Huffmaster substitute teacher hit Hopedale teacher Karen Hanzel with his car, she went airborne. “He came up [over a hill] fast and wasn’t going to stop for anything,” says Hanzel. “His bumper hit the top of my legs, and I went over the hood.”
In the wee hours, a guard escorts a Huffmaster van carrying subs.
It turned out that the perpetrator of the assault had a long criminal record, ranging from driving suspensions and criminal trespassing to a drug count reduced to disorderly conduct. This was discovered after he’d already been in the classroom for three days at Harrison Junior High School.
“We wanted to bargain. Instead, they put criminals in our building,” says Roxane Starkey, HHTA president and a teacher at Harrison Jewett Elementary School.
Media coverage of Huffmaster’s shoddy screening practices set off community backlash. Who is in charge of our children? parents wanted to know. Many joined the picket line.
As with Harrison Hills, some parents in Edison walked in solidarity, knowing that ELEA teachers had been working without a contract since June 14.
They say the Ohio Valley is union country. Once word of the teachers’ strike got around, the pipe fitters, coal miners, steel workers, and members of other unions started showing up in hard hats and union jackets. Neighbors provided support in the form of coffee and doughnuts laid out on tables as early as 4:00 a.m., when teachers started arriving. At Harrison Hills, a retired school custodian who lived across the street from the school made his house available to pickets. At another school site, one in Jewett, members of a nearby Methodist church cooked hot meals, and shared cases of water and bags of candy with pickets. The overwhelming community support helped boost the teachers’ confidence.
“We took [Huffmaster] by surprise because we were not easily intimidated,” says Hennis, “and our neighbors joined us.”
They may not have “busted” the unions, but IMAC and Huffmaster did walk away with hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars for their services.
ELEA teachers had to cope with wind and rain during the 2007 strike.
In the end, the districts ceded most of the contract points. ELEA won a fair salary increase that was one-and-a-half times what management tried to impose. (Though the district retaliated with a reduction in force five months earlier than scheduled, the one teacher laid off is now back at work in the Edison district.) HHTA won a third year to their contract and protection against reprisals, though they did not get the full salary amount they felt they deserved.
Members like Susan Frampton, a teacher of 31 years in Edison, looked back in amazement at how well both strikes had been executed.
“There were no lawsuits, no arrests, and no one was hurt badly,” she says. “We weren’t fighting for money. We were fighting for contract language. And respect.”