Hundreds of active and retired teachers, some of whom hadn’t seen each other in decades, gathered yesterday evening to commemorate a historic milestone—the Bridgeport teachers strike of 1978—which, for many, has brought to mind the wave of uprisings and walkouts happening across the country today.
“How ironic that the timing of this 40th anniversary plays into the Supreme Court case of Janus v. AFSCME, an attack on the very people who are here today and all those we represent,” said CEA President Sheila Cohen. “How ironic, as well, that the timing is seemingly synchronized with what has been happening in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and soon, North Carolina.”
Seeking fair wages and better working conditions, including prep time and smaller class sizes, a total of 274 Bridgeport teachers in 1978 were handcuffed, fined, and jailed, as well as strip-searched, deloused, made to use bathroom stalls without doors, and subject to other degradations.
“The Bridgeport strike was a defining moment for our union,” said strike supporter and Southington teacher Robert Brown, adding, “I am honored to be in a room full of heroes—not only strikers from 1978 but also every educator here who is still teaching today.”
Sandy Petrucelli-Carbone, one of the strikers in 1978, recalled the fear she felt as she answered the judge on the day she was sentenced. “I was scared and shaking.” After packing a small bag and saying goodbye to her students and her family, she was loaded onto a schoolbus and driven to a maximum security prison in Niantic. En route, she remembers throngs of people gathered in the streets to cheer on the detained teachers.
“People everywhere were shouting, ‘We stick together!’”
Petrucelli-Carbone was one of dozens of strikers who attended the commemorative dinner in Bridgeport, recalling their experience with great emotion, pride, and the hope that what they had achieved would not soon be lost or forgotten. Some were seasoned veterans at the time of the strike; for others, it was their first day on the job.
Forty years later
In the aftermath of the strike, the Connecticut legislature passed the 1979 Teacher Collective Bargaining Act, which mandates binding arbitration when teachers and the districts they work for reach a stalemate in contract negotiations.
“Little did they know 40 years ago, and little do they know now, that when we are attacked, we stand together,” said Cohen. “We stand together strong, and we fight back. The lessons learned in Connecticut 40 years ago have helped embolden educators across this nation to say ‘enough’—enough of professionals having to work multiple jobs in order to make a living wage, enough of professionals having to purchase resources for their classrooms, enough of state governments eviscerating the rights of teachers and making a mockery of their well-deserved pensions and benefits. All of us here today stand upon the shoulders of the Bridgeport teachers, some of whom were jailed so that Connecticut teachers then, now, and in the future could belong to unions and work in an environment of professional respect and human dignity.”
Other speakers at the commemorative dinner included Bridgeport Education Association President Gary Peluchette, CEA Executive Director Donald Williams, Bridgeport strikers Ronald Remy and James Hodge, and the youngest incarcerated striker, Melanie Haslam Kolek, whose mother was three months pregnant with her in the fall of 1978. Kolek is now a CEA attorney representing teachers.