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Mass resignation by Newmarket High teachers in 1974 set record for longest strike

In this week's Remember This, Newmarket, History Hound Richard MacLeod recalls years of labour turmoil between high school teachers and the school board

This weekend on Newmarket Today, I return to the subject of Newmarket High, in particular the administration and staff who play such a significant role in the success or failure of one’s high school experience. 

Many of the events mentioned will be remembered by those who attended the school over the years. I will examine the topic up to the point of my graduation as my knowledge of those later years remains strong to this day.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, NHS maintained nine to 10 staff, and this seemed to remain at a constant level over the years with an extremely low attrition rate. Articles in local papers attested to a high degree of discipline, dignity and deportment and a focus centred on the principles of traditional academic and commercial instruction. The concept of vocational training was not to evolve until a much later date.

After the Second World War, social and economic patterns changed and there was a need for technical training to meet the demands of increased industrial development. The curriculum was expanded to include vocational training and combined with new concepts of teaching methods post war. This resulted in an expansion of staff and eventually the establishment of Huron Heights Secondary School, Newmarket’s second high school.

During the 1950s and ‘60s, the staff levels increased by more than 100 per cent and constant teacher shortages resulted in high levels of staff turnover, some years reaching as high as 25 per cent. Nevertheless, there remained a solid base of staff maintaining a general sense of stability.

Prior to 1948, all staff salaries were negotiated through the Newmarket High School Board, which was tied to the town council for financing. From time to time, there was a sense of tension as the NHS board sought to justify expenditures. The local press speaks of the mayor and councillors being extremely sensitive to increasing annual budgets.

Mr. J.B. Bastedo met with the high school board in June 1938 to request an increase of teachers salaries as it was becoming difficult to find staff replacements. Salaries had been cut by 20 per cent in 1933 due to the Depression and had remained at that level. The principal’s annual salary was $3,500, while male teachers received $2,700 per year and female teachers $2,300. Eventually an increase of $50 per year was granted in each category.

In 1941, salaries were increased by $100 per year for married teachers and $50 per year for unmarried teachers. By 1945, the principal’s salary was set at $4,000and $3,000 per year for married and $2, 700 per year for unmarried teachers and continued to rise at a modest rate of $500 per year.

The arrival of the regional government and formation of the York County Board of Education in 1969 brought centralized negotiation with the administration.

Throughout the 1970s, there continued to be unrest with the salary structure of the teaching profession. The average salary in 1972 was $8,000, with a top rate pegged at $16,000. 

There were troubled times during my high school years with walkouts, lockouts, arbitrations and bitter bargaining between the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) and the York County Board of Education. The school system was locked in a struggle to reconcile the best of the old and the new trends in education.

This was evident at an open meeting on Sept. 25, 1972 attended by teachers, parents, students and administrators with education minister Thomas Wells, York education director and the president of OSSTF.

Parents talked about the need for tighter discipline, while the teachers applauded the “new freedoms from the outmoded educational foundations.”

Principals pointed to a lack of set policies for transfers and promotions and the school board chairman lamented the lack of feedback from the public, stating, “We just do not know what the people want.” Education minister Wells warned against militancy creeping in, with student education suffering.

In the York Region, during October and November 1973, teachers threatened mass resignation and on Dec. 5, 1973, 667 of the 1,000 teachers in the region resign.

On Feb. 1, 1974, 29 of the 41 teachers at Newmarket High School submitted their resignations. This walkout lasted for 52 full days (36 school days) and set a record for the longest strike by teachers. I was at NHS for that job action.

The protest was based on pupil/teacher ratio (PTR), class size and substandard salaries. The minister of education introduced a bill enforcing binding arbitration and the teachers concluded it would be unwise to break the law, so classes were resumed on March 25, 1974.

The continuing controversy attracted the public’s attention. Granted, the staff at Newmarket High School was a small percentage of the total number of teachers involved, but I felt that the resulting effect on our education was significant.

The years of the '70s continued to be tumultuous with hard and sometimes bitter negotiations between the teachers federation and administration board. After long delays, a contract for 1975-76 year was finalized in June 1975 granting a 25 per cent increase in salaries and in December 1977, a new contract was signed, raising the top salary to $26,818.

The teachers would reject an offer in February 1979 of a 6 per cent salary increase plus 2.4 per cent increment yearly for 1978-80 and in protest imposed “work-to-rule” action beginning June 29, 1979 just before the end of the school year. In retaliation, the board of education closed the schools on Sept. 4-5 at the start of the fall term 1979.

By Sept. 7, the teachers agreed to lift the work-to-rule action and have the disputes settled by arbitration. In December 1979, an arbitration award was finally handed down, allowing a 12.5 per cent salary increase for two years.

We all know that labour relations between teachers and the government continue to plague us to this very day. I thought that perhaps this short look back at the issue may be appropriate and prove interesting. 

The student/teacher relationships are essential ingredients during our high school years. Apart from their primary function of instruction, my teachers establish a rapport with the students in and out of class.

In my later years, my predominant recollection of the events and experiences associated with my years at NHS are filled with high regard for their devotion to duty, prestige and personal character. A good teacher can make all the difference to a student’s academic career and can mentor the student in ways that only become clear years later. 

Sources: History of the Newmarket. by Ethel Trewhella; Provincial Archives, Records in York County Registry; Records of Inspector, Department of Education; Minutes of Newmarket Council; Articles from the Newmarket Era; The Phoenix 1974; Oral History Interviews conducted by Richard MacLeod

********************** brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at [email protected].


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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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