• U.S.

Education: Savage Strike in Newark

4 minute read

Urban schools are often so bad that despairing parents no longer care whether their children attend. Militant blacks blame city teachers—most of them white, some of them black. Last week these pressures blocked settlement of a savage teacher strike in Newark, already the longest in the history of any major U.S. city. As a result, more than half of Newark’s predominantly (80%) black pupils stayed out of school for the tenth straight week.

Newark’s crumbling schools have fallen behind for years. In 1968, only six out of every 100 pupils were reading above the national norm. Guards have been on hand regularly in the city’s 89 schools, vainly attempting to prevent vandalism and racial clashes.

A year ago, Newark’s unionized teachers struck for 16 days. An arbitrator granted their demands for a share of control over class sizes, curriculums and assignments to such nonteaching duties as patrolling halls and lunchrooms. Future disputes were to be hammered out in binding arbitration. But militant, separatist blacks, led by Writer Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), immediately suspected that the union would use its power to block reforms and frustrate “community control.”

Clubs and Chains. The militants got a sympathetic ear last July when the election of Newark’s new black mayor Kenneth Gibson gave the school board its first majority of blacks and Puerto Ricans. When negotiations on a new teachers’ contract began in January, the board balked at renewing the arbitration clause, hoping to strengthen its educational control. The union struck.

Near guerrilla warfare soon buried any discussion of reform. The board kept the schools open, but teaching broke down. Unionists insisted that blacks were out to break the union. Black leaders claimed that the union’s 70% white majority had demonstrated a “racist” disregard for the city’s children. An integrated group of picketing teachers was beaten to the ground by a gang of blacks using clubs and bicycle chains.

The board only stiffened teacher resistance when it pressed charges against union leaders for violating a court injunction banning the strike. The board also suspended 347 teachers for similar violations and rejected a compromise settlement worked out by another mediator that the union was willing to accept.

Fights and Hooky. Last week, under pressure from Mayor Gibson, the board finally agreed to accept the mediator’s proposal—but called public meetings before voting formally to ratify the contract. By then the strike had become merely a symbol for the rekindled racial hostilities that erupted in Newark’s 1967 summer riot.

When the board convened, at least ten fights broke out; a white reporter for the New York Times was beaten by blacks who grabbed his notebook and wallet. No one had time for the views of Rita Majette, 22, a black union member who complained: “I have kids in seventh-grade, reading on a fourth-grade level, but how can it be my fault? I’ve only been teaching for one year.” The attitude of some unionists had become far meaner. “They want to tell us what to do,” complained Teacher Frank Marzerella. “Do I have to be judged by people with a third-grade education?” Replied the Rev. Henry Cade, a black minister: “No racist union will take away our education.”

On the showdown ratification vote, the board’s 4-4 tie was broken by the black president, Jesse Jacobs. Joining Gibson’s other appointees in opposing the mayor’s wishes, he banged his gavel defiantly. “Free at last!” he shouted. “I vote no!” Gibson, now ironically allied with the white board members, found chances for compromise vanishing; the union threatened a campaign to recall him. At week’s end the outlook was for a cooling-off period of at least a week before negotiations might resume. Newark’s restless children, who have been watching TV and wandering the streets having “hooky parties” during the strike, started their spring vacation. When they get back to school, it seems unlikely that they will learn any more than they ever have.

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