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In 1983, judge killed strike

Teachers union picketed for a day, then went back to work

Published: Monday, March 4, 2013 1:15 a.m. CST

DIXON – Three decades ago, Dixon teachers went on strike for a day. A judge ended it.

On Aug. 15, 1983, the Dixon Teachers Association (now the Dixon Education Association) voted 188-16 to strike.

The school district wanted to freeze wages and cut insurance benefits. The union demanded raises.

It was a time of great union activity in the Sauk Valley. Workers at Northwestern Steel & Wire in Sterling were on strike in the summer and fall, with the company threatening to bring in strikebreakers. In Dixon, labor tensions rocked the state prison. At one point, workers staged an informational picket.

That fall, teachers were picketing around the state. A year later, Rockford teachers went on strike for nearly a month.

‘Board should pay for quality’

On Thursday, the Dixon teachers union went on strike for the first time in 30 years. It appears to have at least some local support, which didn’t seem to be the case in 1983.

At the time, Larry Miller, the union’s president, acknowledged to the Dixon Telegraph that public sentiment was against the strike. He said his union wanted to let the public know that the teachers represented quality and the “board should pay for quality.”

The Telegraph’s managing editor, Lenny Ingrassia, urged the union not to strike. He noted Dixon’s unemployment rate of 13.7 percent.

“Things are rough all over is an overused cliche but sums up that reality,” Ingrassia wrote. “To think the taxpayers will come to the rescue of striking teachers is absurd.”

The teachers started their strike on Aug. 26, 1983. The Dixon district sought a court injunction to stop it. Lee County Circuit Judge James Bales granted the request.

In court, the school board’s attorney cited case law to argue that public employee strikes were illegal (even though they were not uncommon), Bales agreed.

He warned teachers that if they did not return to work, they would be in violation of his injunction.

The judge announced his order after the strike had begun that day, which was a Friday. Of the district’s 211 teachers, only 10 had showed up for work.

Over the weekend, the union decided to follow the judge’s order. A look through old newspapers shows the negotiations continued for months.

Judge ‘chewed out’ the union

In an interview Thursday, Larry Miller’s wife, Mary Miller, said her husband, who died in 1999, was on the picket line for about 10 minutes when an Illinois Education Association attorney whisked him away to court.

“Judge Bales chewed out [the union], saying they had taken the teachers down a horrible path,” said Mary Miller, a retired teacher.

The Telegraph’s Ingrassia applauded the judge’s decision.

“Taxpayers cannot continually bail out public employees,” he wrote. “We again ask Dixon teachers to look around the community to examine the reality of a depressed economy. Be thankful for a well-paying job and get back to the classroom.”

That editorial didn’t surprise Mary Miller, who said the Telegraph was seen as anti-union. If the newspaper has improved at all in that regard, she said, it’s because public sentiment has.

Bales’ order was the last such temporary restraining order in the state, Miller said. The law on strikes changed soon after that.

‘A compromise must be reached’

By fall 1983, a school board election campaign was under way. One of the candidates was Tom LeMoine, who lost that year.

In a Telegraph profile in October 1983, he commented on the tensions between the teachers and administration.

“The adversarial relationship is beyond what I think it should be,” said LeMoine, who was later elected in the mid-1990s and has served since. “The board must recognize the teachers’ needs and the community must recognize the board has no money to work with. Therefore, a compromise must be reached.”

He said residents must see that any more raises for teachers would lead to cuts in the curriculum.

“We can’t expect them [teachers] to take a zero pay raise for 3 or 4 years,” LeMoine said.

In an interview Thursday, LeMoine said he remembered the board offering the teachers zero.

“I thought it was unfair to the teachers,” he said. “Inflation had been high.”

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