50 years ago, Florida teachers walked off their jobs. Today’s union leaders are inspired

Published February 19

Ulysses Floyd remembers February 1968 all too well.

Teachers by the thousands walked off their jobs across Florida. Among their concerns: low pay, poor funding, a lack of planning time, missing materials, and more.

"We were at the mercy of the School Board and what they wanted to do," said Floyd, who started teaching in Orange County in 1958. "We had no say-so over anything."

So they left — resigned, actually, because strikes weren’t allowed — to make their position clear. More than 25,000 educators in all participated at the peak of the movement, which lasted days in some counties, weeks in others.

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Their actions marked the awakening of teachers unions as a political force in Florida. They gained traction on some key issues, including a guarantee of collective bargaining along with improved education budgets.

But the union leaders who followed now see themselves in a similar position as their predecessors from five decades ago. And they are looking to the past for inspiration.

The Florida House has advanced legislation that could lead to decertification of teacher unions that do not have at least half of eligible members participate.

To fight back, the unions plan to begin a campaign against the measure and to push for increased membership with a Monday rally marking the 50th anniversary of the state’s teacher walkout.

Scheduled for the corner of Sunlake Boulevard and State Road 54 — a highly visible and busy Pasco County intersection in the heart of House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s district — the two-hour event is aimed at Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Hernando teachers sending a message to lawmakers, as well as parents.

On Tuesday, teachers statewide have planned to wear black in honor of the anniversary.

"We need to educate the public to how the Legislature is treating public education," said Don Peace, president of United School Employees of Pasco.

Back in 1968, teachers in Pinellas County were among those who stayed out the longest, recalled Lee Benjamin, who was an assistant principal at the time. He joined the walkout, too, to back the majority of his staff at Northeast High in St. Petersburg.

"The whole idea was to improve teaching conditions and salaries at that time," said Benjamin, who retired in 1986 and later served four terms on the School Board. "We were doing a good thing for the state and the school system in the long haul."

Since then, however, the state has come "full circle," said Peace, whose father participated in the 1968 strike as a Pinellas math teacher and union steward. "Teachers are not respected. Pay is low. Working conditions are poor. And the speaker (Corcoran) has clearly exempted all other public sector unions from the conversation, and put a target on the back of teacher unions."

Peace decried legislative efforts to expand tax credit scholarships and charter school funding, saying such moves will strip funding from the district schools.

Republican leaders have argued that they are boosting per-student funding to historic levels while still providing money for school choice options. They have said they want pay for student education and are not interested in promoting the union position.

Peace said when his father went on strike, the family had only recently purchased a home. Everyone gathered to discuss what might happen if they went without a paycheck.

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In the end, he said, they decided it was worth it to strike.

There’s no such talk now.

"We are not going to go on strike," Peace said, suggesting such a step would prove counterproductive.

He was hopeful that parents and others will side with the teachers groups, and back their ideas for public education. Perhaps the answer will come in the 2020 elections, he said.

If not, Floyd — who at 89 still sits on the Florida Education Association and Orange County Classroom Teachers Association governing boards ­e_SEmD worried the state could be heading back to what he saw as the bad old days.

"For some reason, the people in Tallahassee are making all the decisions on testing and everything. Teachers are losing a lot of rights," he said, noting that some schools are struggling to hire as a result. "It’s beginning to go back again."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.