by Mike Myslinski
Sandi (Harmening) Martin, Susan (Weld) Meschi
The photograph of two pregnant teachers on strike in 1975 gives a whole new meaning to the term “labor history.”
The photo, taken during a strike in the Mount Pleasant Elementary School District over maternity rights and other issues, shows the two friends smiling and standing proudly with their handmade picket sign in front of the CTA Mt. Hamilton office in San Jose. The sign is a pointed message to the school board about the need to settle the strike: “I hope the board delivers before I do!”
Today, as retired educators Susan Meschi and Sandi Martin reflect on the photo, the memories of that walkout and its issues remain vivid and personal.
“At the time, it was just the right thing to do,” Martin says. “There are some things that you just have to take a stand over.”
Meschi agrees. “You’re not doing it just for yourself, you’re doing it for everybody. You want to change something permanently.”
She adds that the sign was meant to lighten things during the turmoil. “We just thought of a sign that would make people laugh.”
They don’t think of themselves as union pioneers, but they were.
Educators were tired of school district disrespect. Maternity rights were sketchy. Strikes flared around California.
There wasn’t even a state law allowing collective bargaining for teachers at the time. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the landmark Rodda Act on Sept. 22, only a few weeks after the Mount Pleasant strike ended, but it would not take effect until the following year.
In the mid-1970s, Mount Pleasant and nearby school districts had policies that required pregnant women to take maternity leave if they were “showing” and therefore a distraction, recalls retired CTA organizer Jim Essman. He says the districts wouldn’t allow teachers to use sick leave as part of their maternity leave.
“At that time, you couldn’t use your sick leave,” Meschi says. “You could have your six weeks, but you couldn’t use any of your sick leave after that. So you had to come back in six weeks or be paid nothing. It wasn’t fair.”
Essman coordinated the Mount Pleasant strike in 1975 and a simultaneous one in nearby Berryessa Union School District. He says nearly all of the 120 Mount Pleasant members walked picket lines in a tremendous show of solidarity. “It was a pretty amazing time, all that was going on.” (Listen to Essman talk about the strikes on the CTA oral history page at www.cta.org/oralhistory.)
One victory of the strike was that sick leave was allowed to be used for maternity leave. The new collective bargaining contract later allowed some district teachers to be paid retroactively for additional unpaid maternity leave they took beyond six weeks that they felt was necessary for their health and families, Meschi remembers.
Maternity rights today
Pregnancy and parental leave rights for public school employees are protected today by layers of state and federal law, and by CTA collective bargaining agreements, which vary somewhat by school district.
Up to four months of pregnancy disability leave is allowed, and any sick leave that has accumulated can be used to assure that leave is paid leave. Once sick leave is exhausted, a teacher can also obtain extended sick leave, often referred to as differential leave pay, for the remainder of a pregnancy disability leave.
To help verify your many maternity and parental leave rights, check with your local primary contact staff or your union contract. Or go to this CTA website: ctainvest.org. Click on the “Insurance and Estate Planning” tab, then find the column marked “Disability and Long-Term Care Insurance” and click on the “Pregnancy and Parental Leave Rights” tab.
Essman had the 1975 photo of Meschi and Martin in his archives. He thinks it was taken by a CTA Communications staff member.
The two women, then named Susan Weld and Sandi Harmening, gave birth later that year.
“That photo brought back a flood of memories,” says Martin. Her son, Ryan, is happily married today with three children and works as a hair stylist in South Carolina. She also has twin daughters, who live in Oklahoma.
After the strike, Martin became a union site representative for the Mount Pleasant Education Association, then moved on to other Bay Area districts. She retired from teaching after 25 years and lived in Switzerland for a time before settling in her “dream house” in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Meschi’s son, Paul, works today as a surveyor. He and his siblings live in Santa Cruz County, near where she resides on three pastoral acres in Boulder Creek. She taught for 14 years in Mount Pleasant, and then 20 years in Boulder Creek.
The photo led the two mothers to reflect on their days of union activism.
“I think unions are important, definitely,” Meschi says. “It’s good to have backing. You’re stronger as a group.”
“I think that you have a bigger voice in numbers,” Martin says. “You need to have a voice, especially as a group. I believe in unions. I think you’re stronger united. You have to have some kind of empowerment.”
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