You’re Pregnant, You’re Fired – Why Teachers Have Unions…For Now

Dr. Ken Noble followed his Depression-era parents into the teaching profession in Royal Oak, Michigan four years before Governor Romney (R) signed a law permitting collective bargaining for public workers.  In 2010, Ken shared his perspective with teachers struggling with the need for a teachers union in a district that would eventually impose an historically severe retroactive pay-cut on its teachers.


I have been out of the classroom and away from the negotiating table for so long I do not know how much my thoughts will help you, but since you asked . . .The evolution of teacher duties and compensation is actually quite interesting.

Promising Obedience

Before collective bargaining each teacher had an individual contract and served “at the will” of the school board.  In the late 1930’s my parents had contracts about the size of a current postcard.  In each contract the teacher acknowledged that the “right to locate and transfer you or to readjust your position at any time is reserved by the Board of Education.”

Teachers also took an “acceptance oath” whereby they agreed to “promise obedience to the rules and regulations for teachers now or hereafter prescribed by the Board of Education.”  These types of contracts allowed a lot of flexibility for the school board.  Men teachers were often paid more than women.  High school teachers often made more than those in the lower grades.

“Merit pay” allowed Fred Fuhr [one of our former colleagues] to be one of the highest paid teacher as a first year teacher in a Missouri school district.  His “merit” was that he was head football coach.  Obviously in any dispute the teacher had no third party to which to appeal.  Job performance was often rated by favoritism and non professional standards.

One can often find in school museums the “rules for teaching.”  One I picked up was for 1872.  I’ve used it below to allow me to make some observations and comments.


  • Teachers each day will fill lamps, and clean chimneys. (This was replaced by requirements of student supervision outside of the classroom.  Teachers had assigned “guard duty” before and after school and supervised the lunch room before we had collective bargaining.  Elementary teachers were especially grateful to have “duty free lunch time.)
  • Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session.(Negotiations cannot take credit for central heating, but we did get into contract language that teachers would be provided parking spaces, break time, access to a public phone.  We also had the school district pick up the tab for the first computers used in classrooms)
  • Teacher should make pens carefully whittling nibs to the individual taste of the pupils. (Isn’t it something that even today teachers provide many school supplies out of their own pockets?)
  • Men teacher may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly. (It should be noted that teachers were often required to live with one of the school board members or one of the leaders of approved churches.  Women often had even more restrictions including how many times a month they could leave town.  When I graduated from college in 1961 one of my colleagues was openly denied school employment because she was Catholic.)
  • After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books. (Ten hour school days have been reduced, although we know that a good teacher is often working 16 hours a day.)
  • Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed. (I have a copy of my mother’s 1937 contract with the Lansing public schools that states: “If you are married at the date hereof, this offer shall be void and your marriage thereafter shall automatically terminate this contract.”   Sure enough.  She married one of the business teachers at her school and was removed from her position.  I am not sure, but I think my Dad got a bonus for being the “head of a family” even though I did not come along until 1939.  Eventually this clause was replaced by one that released a woman teacher from her position if she got pregnant and provisions that she would not be hired until the child entered school.  My wife Linda was removed from her assignment at Kimball High School in January, 1964, because we were openly looking forward to Rick’s birth in August.  It was another few years before the law and the master contract granted maternity leaves.)
  • Every teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earning for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.  (One provision we negotiated into local contracts was the creation of TSA options, so teachers could implement this provision.  The MEA was instrumental in getting a state retirement program created and funded.  Although the defined benefits system is about to be replaced, it was good while it lasted and I think the union will have some effect on lessening the reductions.)
  • Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.  (I’ll let this one speak for itself.)
  • The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five cents per week in his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.  (Because teachers were often provided meals by the parents of their students, there was very little monetary compensation.)

Obviously there was little power that an individual had over wages and working conditions.  In the 1930’s teachers formed “clubs” that were attempts to provide mutual help and organize a collective voice.  They were mostly social in nature, and frequently were led by friends of the Superintendent.  But the one in Royal Oak was instrumental in creating the credit union and getting the tenure law passed.

Royal Oak Dondero High School (now Royal Oak Middle School) where Ken began his career

Royal Oak Dondero High School (now Royal Oak Middle School) where Ken began his career

Collective “Begging”

When I came to Royal Oak in 1961 there were two teachers’ clubs–ROEA and ROFT.  Each group would conduct research and make proposals to the school board suggesting changes in wages and working conditions.

While the board was always polite and respectful to the presenters, the board always did just what they wanted which was seldom what the teachers proposed.  Most importantly there was no real dialog. We called it “collective begging”.   I think the best part of collective bargaining is the fact that the perspective of the classroom teacher is brought together with that of the administration.  Teachers often lack the perspective of the “big picture” and administrators often are unaware of what is happening in the individual classrooms.

When salary schedules that were based on academic training and longevity were created the difference from top to bottom was very minute.  In 1962 the BA started at $4,850 and went in $291 increments to reach $7,469 at the top.  The MA salary started at $5,050 and went up in a straight line of $297 increments to reach a maximum of $8,004.

Teaching, when I began, was mostly a woman’s occupation.  Men with families left after a few years, took a second job or went into administration.  For example, the English teacher and senior sponsor at Dondero at that time sold shoes at Hudson’s before he became an assistant principal.

Before grading papers that night...

Before grading papers that night…

A Fringeless Career

Fringe benefits never existed until collective bargaining.  Teachers bought their own health insurance, but often found it difficult to obtain.  Because no school district offered a plan there was not a group upon which to base actuary or fees.  MESSA was created because teachers were unable to buy insurance or were paying individual rates for Blue/Cross.

Because most of the teachers were women, the board saw no reason to provide health insurance because the women often got coverage through their husbands.  I remember the first time I negotiated health insurance, one of the teachers spoke against the contract because she would rather have the money ($298) because she got insurance from her husband’s work.  Dental, eye and life insurance were all added through collective bargaining.

There were no personal days when I began teaching.  I was best man for my college roommate at his wedding in Massachusetts and had to get to the rehearsal on a Friday night.  Linda and I were each docked pay for missing one day.  Sick leave was granted for 10 days a school year.  Before the union it was interpreted as one earned day per month taught.  (I guess that was to accommodate women and their “cycle”.)  One could accumulate unused sick days up to 100 and could be paid for half of them when one retired into the school retirement system or died while under contract. (The death benefit was enacted in 1960 by the RO Board of Education)


Through strong lobby efforts by the MEA and the MFT the Public Employment Relations Act was passed by the state legislature and signed by then governor Romney.  It was patterned very closely to the 1935 Wagner Act that gave national collective bargaining rights to the private sector.  Upon its passage Governor Romney said:

“It is apparent that public employees in our state and throughout the nation are demanding and deserve a greater voice in their working conditions than we have historically given them.”

“A government which imposes upon private employers certain obligations in dealing with their employees may not in good faith refuse to deal with its own public servants on a reasonable similar basis modified of course to meet the exigencies of public service.”

When the Public Supported Public Teachers

It should be noted that in 1965 when the law was passed teachers lagged behind the private sector in pay and benefits.  The public was more supportive of teachers and school districts could ask for tax increases to pay for contracts.  Today that is not the case, and this is leading to the impasse you face with your school board.

You are trying to negotiate when the public schools are under public attack and teachers are viewed as under achieving and over paid.  On top of these perceptions, the districts are facing a real financial crisis in income and expenses.  For example, I told you that the first health insurance policy cost the district $298?  Today’s policies run in the neighborhood of $14,000.  The current recession and state of the state economy has resulted in many of your constituents taking lay-offs, pay cuts or reduction in benefits.

The current public thinking is if they have to do it, teachers should too.


In 2006, ten years after retiring from 35 years as a social studies teacher at Dondero High School, Ken was inducted into the Royal Oak High School Hall of Fame for his outstanding service to the students and community.  (link)

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One Response to You’re Pregnant, You’re Fired – Why Teachers Have Unions…For Now

  1. Dick Rockwell says:

    Thanks Ken for an outstanding history, sociology and economics lesson all rolled into one. Your splendid and resourceful ROEA leadership paved the way for many future teachers, including myself, and we are most grateful.