Bundled in sheepskins, thick boots and wool scarves, more than 1,100 St. Paul teachers and principals walked out of all 77 public schools and into the 3-degree chill of picket lines on Nov. 25, 1946. Some historians consider that walkout 72 years ago the first organized teachers’ strike in the nation — although others point to a 1902 Chicago teacher’s suspension and a large protest that ensued as the first strike.
Two St. Paul women, born nearly a generation apart, led the 1946 charge for higher wages, smaller class sizes and school building upgrades during the landmark, five-week walkout.
Chairwoman of the teachers’ negotiating committee, Lettisha (Tish) Henderson was born Aug. 23, 1902, in Superior, Wis. Her father, Bud, worked as a foreman at a horse stable.
Only a year after Henderson’s birth, Irish-born Mary McGough started teaching in St. Paul. By 1946, she was the 61-year-old principal at Jefferson Elementary School. (Principals belonged to teachers’ unions until 1971.)
“Lettisha made the snowballs and Mary threw them,” recalled one longtime member of Local 28 of the American Federation of Teachers.
Henderson, 44 during the strike, was a no-nonsense negotiator who chain-smoked cigarettes and skipped wearing hats most ladies donned in the 1940s. McGough, 17 years her senior, was prim, proper but equally tough.
“A skilled public speaker, McGough’s dress, demeanor, intelligence, and knowledge of parliamentary procedure had earned her considerable respect from public officials,” according to Cheryl Carlson, a former St. Paul public school math teacher and counselor. She boiled down 50 interviews from her doctoral dissertation on the 1946 strike into a comprehensive, 2008 article in Ramsey County History magazine (tinyurl.com/1946strike).
“Both women were intelligent, assertive leaders,” Carlson wrote, “but ‘Tish’ Henderson’s outgoing style effectively complemented Mary McGough’s formal manner.”
Although McGough had no formal position in the union, she became the teachers’ voice — appearing on radio broadcasts to articulate why they were striking. One retired deputy superintendent said no one wanted to go one-on-one in debates with McGough.
She could “cut politicians to threads” and do it “in a very lady-like fashion,” one striker recalled.
“Henderson, in contrast, was adept at working behind the scenes,” Carlson said. “Few people are aware today of the contributions that Mary McGough and Lettisha Henderson made in 1946 to improve the public schools. Without their leadership, the strike might not have succeeded.”
The strike stunned citizens and made national headlines. Life magazine ran a photo of a turkey cooking on the picket line. The strike started three days before Thanksgiving and lasted until two days after Christmas.
Elmer L. Andersen, who became governor 15 years later after a stint in the Legislature, remembered stopping at Guttersen Elementary, his daughter’s school, to talk to pickets when the strike began. He was a longtime president of the H.B. Fuller Co. and a fledgling dairy farmer at the time.
“I remember the strike keenly because it is inconceivable to people today what a shock it was then to have teachers go out on strike,” Andersen told Carlson in 1995.
“Teachers just didn’t do that — it would be like a priest picketing a church or cathedral,” he said. “It was just absolutely unheard of. Everybody was in a state of turmoil over the strike.”
Nearly 90 percent of St. Paul teachers voted to strike in 1946 — pointing to 50 students in classrooms that held 35. Textbooks weren’t free and teachers often footed the bill for kids who couldn’t afford them. Libraries and school buildings hadn’t been upgraded for decades and bathroom conditions were decried. Only Atlanta paid teachers less among larger cities.
One-third of St. Paul students attended private school, mostly in Catholic parishes, so taxpayer support for schools was iffy. No independent school district existed in St. Paul until 1965, 19 years later, so schools needed to compete with other city departments for money — all of which had per capita caps.
Striking teachers enjoyed both strong solidarity and widespread public support from the start. Fewer than 25 teachers and principals out of 1,165 crossed picket lines to work. Parents and students brought coffee and doughnuts to the picket lines and invited pickets into their homes.
Harvey Mackay, who would become a well-known businessman and author, was a ninth-grader at Central High School. He told Carlson in 1995 that nearly everyone was sympathetic to the teachers and cheered them on.
Parents and church leaders appeared before a city Charter Commission to support a move to cleave school finances from other city costs.
The strike finally ended when both sides backed a charter amendment that raised per capita city spending from $30 to $42, with $18 of that set aside for school funding.
“Local 28 won the strike,” Albert Shanker, the former president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in a letter, “and paved the way for collective bargaining for teachers all over the country.”
Not that the fight was over. Henderson successfully lobbied for legislation in 1947 that required school districts to buy textbooks for students if the schools wanted state aid — lifting the burden of students having to buy their own books.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918.