Stacked & Backed

Circumstances, Solidarity Led Falls City EA to Negotiate Nebraska’s First Teaching Contract

Local Strengthened Earlier by ‘Stacking’ Contracts  in Support of Targeted Colleague

An injury to one is an injury to all.

That’s a common theme among union activists, and it was no more evident than in the mid-1960s when members of the Falls City Education Association banded together to “stack” their unsigned contracts and back a colleague who had been unjustly targeted by administration.

The FCEA’s activism was timely: it strengthened the Association at a time of rapid change in the profession in Nebraska and elsewhere. That solidarity served FCEA members well, as they then secured what became the first professionally negotiated teaching contract in Nebraska.

Paul Weinert was one of three teachers, all now retired, who were instrumental in those contract talks.

“We didn’t know we were first. It was nothing we planned,” said Weinert, who served as Falls City Education Association president in the pivotal 1967-68 school year.

“Our association was tight enough that we stuck together,” he said. “The fact that we were first was because we had a strong association.”

Working alongside Weinert were Larry Godwin and Pete Christensen. Weinert has lived in Falls City for nearly all his 86 years, and is an ordained Methodist minister, a former city councilman and former mayor of Falls City. Godwin closed out his teaching career in Falls City and lives in a local retirement home. Christensen left Falls City High School for Educational Service Unit No. 3, and then administrative positions in Oregon, where he lives today.

A Hardship for Some

Much happened in the Nebraska Legislature in 1967 to bring teaching to true professional status.

Senators passed LB457, which formally recognized teaching as a profession. It also created the Professional Practices Commission, which monitors the profession and recommends sanctions on teaching certificates for educators who break laws or rules of conduct.

LB595 gave K-12 teachers a three-year probationary period, after which they are protected against unwarranted and unjustified dismissal through a hearing process. In turn, educators must show evidence of professional growth.

Finally, LB485 – allowing educators to negotiate salary and benefits – was approved near the end of the 1967 session. The timing was perfect for members in Falls City, who entered the final year of a three-year, unstructured contract in the fall of 1967. Weinert noted that before LB485, school boards were not required to negotiate or even meet with teachers about contract issues.  For instance, when Weinert left the ministry to take the teaching job in his hometown, he leapfrogged the salaries of many veteran teachers.

“There were teachers who had been there 20 years. When I was hired in ’63 they gave me more or as much as they were earning,” said Weinert.

The three-year pact provided no raise in the second and third years. By the time the 1967-68 school year began, Weinert said the lack of raises had become a hardship for some.

“Inflation being what it was, we decided there needed to be improvements,” said Weinert. “In that third year, things were just beginning to get organized. We hardly knew what we were doing.”

Stacked, Unsigned

The three-year contract initially gave all teachers the same new raise – Weinert doesn’t recall the exact figure – but then froze salaries for remainder of the contract.

All teachers got the increase, with one exception.

A veteran FCEA member had experienced a diabetic reaction while driving through downtown Falls City. Weinert said the man was able to stop his car, got out and staggered. Someone came to his aid, and the teacher asked for orange juice.

He quickly recovered.

“But the rumor got around that he was drunk on Main Street,” said Weinert. “He wasn’t a drinker at all. He knew it would cause trouble with his health.”

Soon after, school secretaries hand-delivered the new contracts to teachers in every building. Weinert said the man called immediately: his contract did not include a raise.

“They were trying to get rid of him,” said Weinert.

Weinert called a general meeting of the FCEA the following day, and virtually all members attended. He shared what had happened to their colleague. There had been no hearing, no complaint filed.

I asked “What do you think would happen if none of us would sign our contracts?”

Many on the teaching staff were middle aged, and had been in the district for years. Weinert said neither he, nor Godwin or Christensen, thought members would support the plan. “But they did,” said Weinert.

Some members had arrived at the meeting, unsigned contracts in hand.

“They actually stacked their contracts together, unsigned,” he said.

“We agreed that no one would sign the contract until our fellow member was not discriminated against.”

Weinert quickly reported the situation to the superintendent. The school board met within days, and offered the raise to the teacher.

“Thinking back, it was pretty blooming gutsy, particularly since many of our members were well into their careers and had made Falls City their home,” said Weinert.

But, he said, “it strengthened our local.”

‘Not the Business of Teachers’

That strength came into play in the fall of 1967, as Weinert, Godwin and Christensen began to negotiate a contract for the 1968-69 school year.

With the provisions of LB485 behind them, the trio divided duties. Although he taught social studies and psychology, Godwin was the numbers man; Weinert and Christensen were the spokespersons.

“Pete and I both said that Larry was the brains of the team. He was always doodling and working with numbers,” said Weinert.

Godwin put together a salary schedule – something that Weinert pointed out has now become standard practice.

Weinert secured a spot on the school board agenda, and told the board that, based on LB485, FCEA members wished to discuss a contract for the following year.

That drew the ire of one board member who “ripped into us and said it was the public’s business, and not the business of teachers” to determine salaries. Fortunately, several board members asked to hear the FCEA’s proposal.

Weinert said Godwin shared the salary schedule, which included a five percent increase in every direction. The proposal had every faculty member on the schedule, and included a total cost.

The board took the request under advisement, and at a later meeting with the FCEA said the schedule was fair – with one change: the board agreed to the base but lowered the step increases to four percent.

“We agreed,” he said. “It was so easy it would make you cry.”

Easy, perhaps. Gutsy, as well.

Historic, for certain.