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Minot residents remember 1969 teachers strike

April 8, 2019

MINOT, N.D. (AP) — Tuesday, April 2, marked 50 years since more than 100 teachers who were unhappy with a salary offer from the Minot Public School District school district went on strike.

The strike, which coincided with the Souris River Flood of 1969 and a banking scandal that both also dominated the front pages of The Minot Daily News, upended the town.

“It was a hard time,” Cookie Berning, who was a teacher at Washington Elementary that year, told the Minot Daily News.

She was in a unique position because her husband, Wally Berning, was an assistant state’s attorney in the Ward County State’s Attorney’s Office. The State’s Attorney’s Office ended up prosecuting many of the striking teachers who defied a court order that they stop the strike that was illegal under state law and return to the classrooms. More than 20 of the picketing teachers were eventually arrested and sent to jail for contempt of court.

“When this broke out, I didn’t think it would happen,” Wally Berning recalled. “When the water started coming up ... we pretty much thought the teachers aren’t going to strike, they’ll do it next year, maybe.”

Wally Berning said he thought at the time that the catastrophic flood of 1969 could have given the striking teachers the opportunity for a “gracious out” because they could have said they were concerned about the community and the stress it was under and could have said they would address their grievances the following year.

“But that didn’t happen,” Wally Berning added.

The Bernings, like many others in Minot that spring, had been forced to relocate to a motel because their home had been flooded. It was the largest flood that had ever hit Minot before the flood of 2011.

“Those were hard times,” Cookie Berning said. “We had two rooms at the CP, we had a 2-year-old, a 5-year-old, a cat, a litter box, and a live-in baby sitter. And then there was the teacher’s strike.”

Their 2-year-old daughter escaped from her baby sitter at the hotel and was later found asleep in a booth in the hotel lounge.

“To hell with the liquor laws!” Wally Berning said with a laugh.

The out-of-town lawyer for the teacher’s union was staying at the hotel as well and Wally Berning had a drink with him a time or two.

In Minot, where everyone knew everybody, the strike was particularly hard because people often ended up on different sides of such an emotional issue.

″(There were) very hard feelings,” said Cookie Berning. “We were members of a church, Augustana Lutheran, and there were so many teachers there.”

″(Rudy) Zupetz was a member,” added Wally Berning.

“And Rudy Zupetz was very involved in the strike and they were very good friends of ours,” said Cookie Berning.

Augustana was a church with a number of young families and was the Minot church that had the greatest number of teachers as members of its congregation.

“These were your friends, these were people you socialize with and go to church with and all of a sudden you’ve got a barrier between you,” said Wally Berning.

On Easter Sunday, before the strike really got going, the Bernings had dinner at the home of Dr. Vern Reardon, who was a school board member.

Cookie Berning recalled that Reardon warned her that she should talk with her fellow teachers who were considering picketing and warn them that authorities would start arresting and charging any teachers who were out picketing.

By that time, emotions were high and teachers were entrenched in their positions.

“To me, the hardest thing I went through was after they started picketing and I was at Washington School and they would be out there in the alley, by the door, at old Washington, and they were yelling at me every day, ‘Cookie, how do you feel about your husband sending your fellow teachers to jail?’” said Cookie Berning. “It was horrible! I mean, I was a young teacher and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ It was just terrible.”

Cookie Berning said she tried not to respond to the hecklers, but there was one time she snapped and responded to some of the picketing teachers that she knew. She and her husband had spent the night before helping a family friend who was also a school administrator to sandbag his house.

“I said, ’You should be over there helping your boss sandbag his house, not holding picket signs!” said Cookie Berning. “So I did get a little involved. That was the only time and the rest of the time I just ducked, tried to duck it, I didn’t yell back, but I did the first day.”

Her class had grown from about 30 students to about 40, with additional students assigned to new Minot schools because their families had been displaced by the flood. Some of the children acted out because they were unsettled by the ongoing disruption.

“Kids were very distracted, especially when there were adults out there carrying signs by the school,” said Cookie Berning.

Classes had been called off at some schools during this period. At others, volunteers from the community ended up teaching classes in place of the striking teachers. One high school student was even called upon to teach a class, according to the Minot Daily News. According to articles in the Minot Daily News, on one occasion high school students ended up directing traffic. An article in the paper said administrators were concerned that graduating seniors might not be able to graduate on time if they missed the minimum 160 days of school required to be eligible to graduate. The striking teachers were warned that they could be fired and substitutes were hired to fill in for many of the teachers.

Grace Fisher, who covered the teachers strike for the Minot Daily News, said she had been “detecting unrest” among the teachers in the school system in the years before the strike.

Fisher said she sympathized with the teachers, but also felt they had been poorly advised by union leaders.

During the strike, striking teachers gathered each morning at the Labor Temple downtown. Fisher said some of their fellow teachers “played a little bit of a game” by coming to the gathering to speak to their fellow teachers and then returning to their classrooms to teach without striking themselves. Fisher said those teachers were “being kind of two faced” about it and were instigating the others to strike. She recalls feeling sorry for one young first-year teacher “who didn’t know what she was doing” and went on strike and ended up going to jail and losing her job.

At the time there were two teachers unions, the Minot Education Association and the Federation of Teachers. Fisher said most of the striking teachers belonged to the Federation of Teachers and were among the most highly respected teachers in the district.

Most of the striking teachers were high school and junior high teachers, but Cookie Berning said there were also a few elementary teachers who went on strike.

She recalled that one striking teacher, Ingrid Billingmeier, sometimes wore a Norwegian costume while she was out picketing with a sign in her hands. Billingmeier eventually became one of the teachers who was fined and given a jail term for contempt of court after she refused to stop picketing and return to class.

Judge Roy Ilvedson told the teachers that it was illegal for them to strike and they were setting a bad example for their students, who wondered why they should have to obey the teachers if they didn’t obey the law.

“I would like to say, first, that this court has done all that it can to persuade you people to go back to your jobs,” said Ilvedson in the statement published in the Minot Daily News that spring of 1969. “I told you quite a few days ago that just two years ago the Supreme Court of this state ruled that strikes and picketing by government employees are illegal. Now, this is not eight, 10, 20, 30 years ago, or an archaic law, it’s a recent law. Two years ago, the Supreme Court of this state made the ruling, and if anyone tells you that law is archaic, it can be changed through the Legislature.”

Ilvedson said the teachers had “flagrantly violated” his court order by picketing in front of the school children. He noted that the town was in the middle of a crisis with the flood. He further claimed that “Evangelistic union teachers have dimmed your good judgment and common sense.”

Ilvedson sent some of the teachers, some of whom were his friends, to jail.

“I think there were 20 some (teachers who went to jail.),” said Wally Berning. “We had bunks ... I think there were 20 some bunks we put in the veterans room in the courthouse ... We tried to make it as comfortable as possible ...It was a diverse population, we had both men and women, young and old ... The women were bunked in the veterans room (on) cots .. it was not uncomfortable. As I recall, the men were probably secure in jail.”

Wally Berning said many of the arrested teachers were friends of the authorities. Wally Berning said he thinks the jailers tried to make the situation as comfortable as possible for the teachers who were jailed.

Still, the situation was highly volatile. According to news articles in the Minot Daily News at the time, other striking teachers, some of them wearing black arm bands, marched around the jail and the sheriff’s residence to protest the jail sentences handed down to the teachers. Some of the striking teachers sang “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” as they marched around the courthouse.

At the end of April, the Minot Daily News published an editorial coming down firmly on the side of the school board and supporting the firing of teachers who had violated the restraining order.

Three teachers, Mary Heath, Carol Dorsey, and Dwight Redfern, appealed their criminal contempt citations to the Supreme Court, which ruled against them the following year.

Wally Berning later went on to serve on the Minot Public School Board and served as a negotiator for the board during teacher contract negotiations. The former judge said he thinks the 1969 teachers strike was often on the minds of both teacher negotiators and board negotiators and neither side wanted to see the trauma repeated.

Teacher negotiations have ended in impasse in the school district over salaries on other occasions in the years since, including last year, but there has never been another strike.

The Bernings said the church congregation at Augustana was “decimated” in the aftermath of the strike. Many of the fired teachers ended up moving away. For the most part, they were able to find other jobs in other communities. Some, like the Bernings’ good friend Rudy Zupetz, who has since passed away, had successful second careers outside of education. Friends and neighbors who were on opposite sides of the conflict seem to have been able to forgive each other and move on.

“You’ve got to give the community credit,” said Wally Berning. “They came together after. I thought it was going to be a permanent scar but it was not.”

Grace Fisher said she was proud of the community when voters approved the construction of a new school — Magic City Campus — and approved flood control as well after the hardships the community had just undergone.

“I thought that was fantastic,” said Fisher.

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Information from: Minot Daily News, http://www.minotdailynews.com