Levittown is no stranger to school-related controversies be they battles in the 1950's and 60's between rival parent's associations over curriculum and school prayer or the censorship of books in the school library. But the teacher's strike of 1978 brought all these controversies, rivalries, political bickering, and personal grudges into one "mother of all battles."
One need only say "1978" to a long-time Levittown resident and it opens a floodgate of memories, images, and unresolved conflicts. The facts of the teacher's strike are straight-forward enough if every other aspect is a chaotic morass of claims, counter-claims, protests, and counter-protests reminiscent of Thackeray's description of the myriad causes of the Seven Years War. Simply put, all but five of District Five's 635 teachers embarked on a 34-day strike; rejecting the Board of Education's 58-point contract and, in the process, violating Section 210 of New York State's Civil Service Law known as "the Taylor Law" which prohibited public employees from going out on strike.
In the end, the Board published the teacher's salaries, the picket lines ceased, and Levittown Teachers United undertook constructive talks with the Board. These facts beguile the truly bizarre nature of this episode. Weeks into the strike, for example, frustrated parents from PEACE (Parent's Emergency Action Committee for Education) barricaded themselves in Superintendent James Canrite's office demanding round-the-clock negotiations at Wisdom Lane School whilst the pro-school board Levittown Education Association demonstrated against the protest. Screeds in flyer's, street speeches in front of TV news cameras, and newspaper editorials alternatively accused the Board of being too lenient with the striking teachers as others accused it of engineering the strike via unreasonable austerity demands to break the union.
Each side - and eventually there were multiple sides - lambasted the ineffectual New York State mediators for being biased or inept or both and those accusations were exacerbated by Republican challenger Perry Duryea and Democratic governor Hugh Carey using the occasion to spar with one another. Picket lines in front of Levittown schools became disquieting scenes as incidents of public disturbance and vandalism and exchanges of course language between striking teachers and "replacement workers" required police presence. Union leader Martin Cullinan was sentenced to twenty days in the Nassau County Correctional Facility - a sentence commuted by the governor to the sound of brickbats and cheers.
In the end, the teacher's strike left the community residents bitterly divided for some years to come; united, it seems,not only by their profound and escalating dissatisfaction with the school district in particular but with the growing dysfunctional nature of our system of taxation and public education in general. It was a microcosm of "the national malaise" President Jimmy Carter spoke of the following year in a public address that summarized the post-Vietnam/post-Watergate era's disillusionment with government and, to some degree, his own failure to subdue it.
The 1978 teacher's strike symbolically marks the end of the seemingly limitless possibilities suburbia enjoyed in the 1950's and 60's and of which Levittown was considered the quintessential example in the minds of millions of Americans.For the first time since World War Two, families were beginning to consider that they were not better off than they were just a few years earlier.
Unlike the heated educational debates of the 1950's that harried the Levittown and Island Trees school districts - "questions of board members' religion, their political leanings, and their personalities" as the September 21, 1987 issue of The New York Times described them - in the 1978 teacher's strike, it seemed as though everything was at stake. Although there was no bloodshed, in many ways it was Levittown's Civil War.
Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org