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55 Years after Florida’s 35,000-teacher walkout, education is still under attack

By Simon Rowe

Florida teachers have a proud history of struggle.

Tampa, FL – February 19 is the 55th anniversary of 35,000 Florida teachers submitting their resignations in the United States’ first statewide teachers strike. Teachers and administrators took a stand against the Florida legislature worsening schools. This historic action is relevant today with renewed attacks on teachers unions by the DeSantis administration.

The strike

By 1968, Florida had experienced a large population rise with little to no increases in state-level funding. Schools were in poor condition, textbooks were out of date, there were staffing shortages, class sizes were too large, and teachers had to buy their own supplies. Florida teacher pay did not increase to match rising inflation and cost of living. The state’s refusal to increase taxes led to worsening education. The Federal Education Association (FEA) wanted to fix this.

The former Governor Claude Kirk threatened to veto any spending package that increased taxes. In response, tens of thousands of teachers rallied in Orlando on August 14, 1967 to listen to the FEA president speak.

When a special session over the spending package lasted for months, teachers took a stand in February. Public sector strikes are illegal in Florida, so teachers instead submitted resignations. For weeks, half of all teachers in the state were for all intents and purposes on strike.

The statewide strike ended three weeks later in March with some demands met and some losses. The funding package passed without Governor Kirk’s signature. Schools received an estimated $175 million, or about $2000 per classroom. Florida teacher pay went from 22nd in the nation to 13th, a ranking it has never achieved since.

Weeks after the FEA declared the strike over, some counties remained on strike. The strikers demanded the reinstatement of all striking teachers. Hundreds of teachers were not rehired, and dozens had their teaching licenses revoked. The retaliation haunted many teachers.

On September 18, 1968, the Florida supreme court confirmed the right of public sector unions to collective bargaining. The strike also paved the way for teacher retirement and pensions. To quote Don Cameron from his book Educational Conflict in the Sunshine State, giving credit to legislators for these gains “allows Florida’s power structure to obviate FEA’s success, and lets itself off the hook for abandoning education and forcing teachers out of their classrooms.”

Teachers today

Florida teachers today face many of the same issues as 55 years ago. Teacher pay is low and class sizes are high. The Florida legislature’s refusal to raise taxes is a major reason for the state’s low rankings in reading and math comprehension in the nation.

DeSantis’ attacks on teachers are different from Kirk's because of the increased unionization. This year, there is legislation that would decertify a union with less than 60% membership at a workplace. This would end collective bargaining rights for many union workers in Florida. DeSantis admits this is an attempt to break teacher unions.

The wins of the 1968 teacher strike have eroded in the five and a half decades since. Yet teachers have not lost their right to unionize and to bargain collectively. To stop attacks from the Florida legislature and get funding for schools, educators took statewide action. Learning of the 1968 teachers strike serves as inspiration for how to defend worker’s rights and fight for a public sector that serves everyone.

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