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Scar tissue

Teacher strikes can lead to unusually bad behavior and leave community wounds that take generations to heal, say academic experts and others who have lived through labor strife.

Since 1973, Oregon has seen more than 20 strikes, some of them intensely acrimonious, leaving scars and long-term distrust.

Former Marshfield High School teacher Eleanor Dinkins, one of 213 Coos Bay teachers who went on strike 27 years ago, recalls an incident that still leaves her shaking her head.

It was a Monday in April 1987, when striking Coos Bay teachers shut down schools for six days. Glen Spahr, a 57-year-old Jacksonville resident, was headed to join scores of substitutes called in to replace striking teachers. Just as he entered Coquille on Highway 42, shortly after 7 a.m., Spahr lost control of his Ford sedan, crossed the center line and struck a chip truck.

News of Spahr's death was cheered by striking teachers, who considered him and the rest of the replacements as usurpers taking their jobs.

There are other lasting images of strikes: a McMinnville administrator accused of striking a picketer with her car, a high school basketball coach pictured in the Register-Guard spitting on a bus carrying replacements to a Eugene school.

Dinkins said the reaction to Spahr's death was hard to fathom.

"People cheered," she recalled. "In a situation like that, people are totally out of character, intentionally cruel and mean-spirited. They will do things they would never do. Some family lost a breadwinner; I was rather stunned."

Teacher strikes tend to bring out the ugliest parts of human nature, largely because such disputes touch on much that is near and dear. It's hard not to get caught up in the upheaval in communities the size of Medford, where children play multiple youth sports, take music or dance lessons and gather in Scout or church groups led by adults whose work world relationships overlap with service clubs, sports teams and even local elected boards.

Experts and teachers alike agree, strikes can scar a community for decades and destroy friendships.

"The longer-term resentments can be broad or very specific," said Lee Adler, of Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, where he teaches about public sector collective bargaining. "Resentment and antagonistic feelings often show up in social relationships and often characterize post-strike situations. They can go on for years down the road."

Dinkins was one of two teachers who voted not to strike but nonetheless honored the picket lines and stayed out of her classroom. She stuffed envelopes at union headquarters and baby-sat so other teachers could protest.

"People who cross the picket line will be pariahs to their colleagues forever," Dinkins said. "People who are normally reasonable and logical will lose their brain power and say things that you will wonder where it came from."

Now retired, Dinkins found fellow teachers grudgingly allowed her back into their lives — years later. One close friend revealed her anger in a conversation three years after the fact.

In February 1990, McMinnville School District Personnel Director Val Just became the focal point of tensions as she drove out of a parking lot. Just had dropped off replacement teachers at a middle school when picketers converged on her car.

"Depending on which side you asked, she either ran into a middle school picketer or a middle school teacher flung herself into the car," said Starla Pointer, a McMinnville News-Register reporter who covered the strike.

Just's car struck teacher Leslie Johnstone, whose injuries were negligible. The McMinnville Education Association lodged a complaint with local police, but the district attorney declined to prosecute the case.

An ensuing civil suit rattled around the courts well into 1993, reaching the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which remanded some of the elements to state circuit court. Johnstone eventually withdrew her claim in January 1997.

"The scars have been slow to heal here, particularly during negotiation periods," Pointer said.

Eugene teachers have struck twice, in 1979 and in 1987. Basketball coach Barney Holland was pictured spitting at a bus carrying replacements during the first strike.

Mike Jodoin, a longtime Eugene softball coach and retired math teacher, weathered both labor fights.

"When you look at the community, some are for you and some against you," said Jodoin, who is currently in a long-term substitute role filling in for a teacher on maternity leave. "They get real bitter; it just kind of tears you apart."

While the Medford School District has opted to continue high school athletic programs through the current strike, Churchill, North Eugene, Sheldon and South Eugene high schools forfeited contests in 1979 and again in 1987.

"In Medford they're talking about the (advanced placement) kids losing out, for us it was the athletes who weren't able to play football, soccer the first time and then baseball, softball and track (in 1987)," Jodoin said. "That made it even tougher on the athletes and parents."

The second strike lasted 22 days — wiping out 15 instructional days.

"That's a long time," Jodoin said. "We were getting ready to negotiate and have everything settled. All of the sudden, talks broke off and we weren't going to get together for another three or four more days. You couldn't believe what you were hearing. There were a lot of factors and you could never feel good again about the people you were dealing with."

Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell's ILR school, said the heaviest damage comes when strikes linger and middle ground disappears.

"You find yourself choosing between neighbors," said Bronfenbrenner, who co-authored "Ravenswood: The Steelworkers' Victory and the Revival of American Labor" in 1999.

"It's the long, bitter strike where everyone is asked to choose a side, that can leave workers going back feeling they've been betrayed by the community, while the community blames the union for the divisiveness," Bronfenbrenner said.

When some educators cross picket lines, rough periods can follow, she said. On the other hand, a small community has to move on, just as when there is a death in the family or a divorce.

"A town has to keep going, even when something has gone wrong," Bronfenbrenner said. "The union has to get along with itself and the union has to have a relationship with the community and repair its relationship with the community."

Bronfenbrenner said a union not willing to strike might as well not exist, however.

"Strikes aren't negative things," she said. "Strikes are healthy."

Medford's present strife stirred memories of Eagle Point's six-day strike in 2012 for David Sours, who was a member of the union's bargaining group.

"It's really interesting to read about the issues in the paper, because I see it playing out the same way," Sours said. "When you're not in the midst of things, it's easier to look at administration and board positions and say those are reasonable points. But when you're in the thick of it, it's hard to see from any other point of view. Sometimes I wonder what was real and what was my imagination during that time. It's human nature."

Sours left his seventh-grade language arts assignment at White Mountain Middle School after the strike, one of a number of teachers who departed in the wake of the bitter negotiations. He now teaches part-time at Rogue Community College and substitutes. This week he was at Rogue River.

"When I was hired in 2003, if someone would've asked if I'd ever support a strike, I would have said you're crazy," Sours said. "But it's something I felt I had to do. I'm not sure (the strike) resolved much. I think there is a long-term difference in perception between teachers and administrators."

Dan Hodges, an industrial salesman, joined the Eagle Point School Board after the strike.

While the immediate days and weeks following the strike were difficult, Hodges said, when it came time for contract negotiations earlier this school year both sides were intent on sealing the deal as quickly as possible.

"No one wanted to go through that again," Hodges said. "We had three meetings and the bargaining was done. I've been in a Teamsters Union and once you use the word 'bargaining' it changes the tone of everything, I don't care if it's a public or private union."

Passions of the moment may have carried through the rest of the school year, Hodges said. But for the most part parents and students put it behind them.

"Some of the employees came back to work like nothing ever happened and some struggled," he said. "We had some turnover after the strike, some of them found greener pastures. But my experience was that it was over and done for most people and they moved on."

Dinkins, the retired Coos Bay teacher, still thinks there could be another way. Back in 1987, Dinkins thought students and taxpayers needed a place at the bargaining table.

"The people without a voice are the kids and then the public doesn't feel particularly represented — the ones paying the taxes," she said. "So it was the school board versus the teachers' union. I always thought there had to be better ways to settle it."

She also knew there was one group who didn't benefit during the strike — the students. She said she had left behind lesson plans for a detailed study of John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath."

"When I came back two weeks later," Dinkins said, "there were little booklets with pictures. They had spent the time drawing pictures."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, friend him on Facebook and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.

Scar tissue