In February 1968, the Florida Education Association (FEA), staged the first statewide teachers strike in the country. The strike occurred as a result of Governor Claude Kirk's refusal to meet FEA demands on salary and school budget increases. The conditions in Florida’s education system and the political climate leading to the strike, are eerily similar to those of today. Governor Kirk’s ideas of teacher accountability and a capitalistic business model for education resurfaced with the Jeb Bush reform era in Florida and continue to plague Florida’s education system under Governor Scott.
FEA, backed by the National Education Association, focused more attention on education and the failure of legislators to fund public education. During a special session of the legislature to address the education crisis the Senate drafted a bill that met FEA demands, but the House scaled down the proposal and a joint committee passed a bill considered unacceptable to teachers. In response, 35,000 Florida public school teachers and administrators handed in their resignations and walked out of their classrooms beginning on February 19, 1968. Most of the schools were able to remain open with the help of non-union member teachers, substitutes and parent volunteers, who unknowingly hurt the noble cause of the strikers. The cause of the strikers was simple and has remained the focus of PCTA and other teacher unions throughout the country, to ensure that all students receive a quality education. A cause that is vital to the existence of our democratic way of life.
On March 8 the FEA and the State Board of Education came to agreement, which included $10.2 million in education spending. The FEA ended the strike the next day and teachers returned to work, though some had to negotiate reinstatement with their districts. No striking language was added to the Florida constitution in 1968.
Not all Districts chose to rehire their teachers, 7,500 teachers throughout the state would never teach in Florida again.
Many people view the 1968 teacher strike as a failure. However, the sacrifice of those brave educators yielded some major gains that every educator today, union member or not, owes a great debt for placing such a high value on our profession. They could not watch education deteriorate any further and they drew a line in the sand and were committed enough to stand their ground.
The next year Florida taxes were raised by $350,000,000 and Florida education was funded by a record increase. The walkout brought the problems in education to the attention of all Floridians. FEA did gain the right to bargain collectively for educators in a state with a history of anti‐union and right‐to‐work laws. This paved the way for all public employees in the following years.
The teachers who participated in the walkout, stood up against a Governor and a political system that had little respect for teachers and unions as a whole. They risked their careers, their livelihood to bring attention to the deteriorating conditions of our students learning environments. They took, what many would call, radical action to ensure a quality education for their students. They felt they had no choice but to stand up for their profession, their students and for public education.
Unfortunately many of the issues that occurred during those tempestuous times are arising again in Florida. Today’s educators must not forget the sacrifice of those brave strikers. Thanks to them, collective bargaining is our right embedded in the Florida constitution. Duty free lunch, planning periods, paid holidays and health coverage are rights we take for granted, made possible by their courage.
We may not have the right to strike, but we can organize and we can hold our elected leaders responsible. Our strength has always been in our numbers and our ability to educate the masses, not just our students but all citizens. We need public education friendly elected officials and we need to let those in office know that we are watching how they vote. We don’t need to strike to get the right people in office. We only need to pay attention, be active and stick together. If we all could only realize just how powerful we are when we work and vote together, I think those who paved the way for us would be very proud of us.