Petting the Infamous Yellow Dog: the Seattle High School Teachers Union and the State, 1928-1931

Publication year1999
CitationVol. 23 No. 02


Petting the Infamous Yellow Dog: The Seattle High School Teachers Union and the State, 1928-1931

Joseph Slater(fn*)

In 1928 a Seattle labor union appealed an adverse lower court ruling to the Washington State Supreme Court. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer claimed that the matter presented "probably the biggest labor question ever faced in this state."(fn1) This case did not involve the Industrial Workers of the World, loggers, or other traditional subjects of labor history. It involved high school teachers in the Seattle public schools. This paper will discuss this case, Seattle High School Teachers Chap. No. 200 of the American Federation of Teachers v. Sharples,(fn2) and the circumstances surrounding it. Specifically, this paper will describe the formation of the teachers' union, the school board's imposition of a "yellow dog" contract on the teachers, the union's legal battle against the yellow dog rule, and the union's political battle against the yellow dog rule. More generally, this paper will comment on the effect of labor law in the public sector on unions of government employees.

I. The Historiographical Omission of the Public Sector

In recent years, a number of excellent books and articles have stressed the importance of labor law in understanding, among other things, the development of unions. But all these works look only at the private sector.(fn3) Studying the public sector provides an excellent opportunity for comparison because public sector unions have always been covered by different laws. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) has never applied to public sector unions.(fn4) Even before the NLRA was passed in the 1930s, while unions in the private sector had won some limited toleration of strikes and collective bargaining, such activities were strictly prohibited in the public sector.(fn5) Examining the public sector shows how different legal regimes have affected unions of American workers.

The omission of public sector unions from the existing scholarship is especially glaring given the unprecedented, extended rise of public sector unions. For the past thirty-five years, the rate of unionization in the public sector has grown tremendously, from about ten percent to nearly forty-five percent. At the same time, the rate in the private sector has shrunk from nearly thirty-five to about ten percent.(fn6)

Specifically, I contend that labor law was central to the size and character of public sector unions in the first half of the century, but that law had the opposite effect in the public sector that it had in the private. William Forbath and Victoria Hattam have argued that private sector labor law pushed unions away from politics and toward "voluntarism"-using only private economic muscle to obtain their goals.(fn7) Public sector labor law, by denying public workers the right to strike, bargain, or even organize, created a highly political core of unions. At the same time, the law artificially repressed the size of this core, affecting the nature of the entire labor movement and, I would suggest, American politics as a whole. This paper describes the effect of the law on one particular public sector union.

This story shows a public sector union turning toward the most direct form of politics: elections. Indeed, in Seattle, the unionized workers were literally attempting to elect their employers. This union enlisted the enthusiastic aid of the Seattle American Federation of Labor (AFL) in its political campaign, showing that the AFL in this period was not as entirely "voluntarist" as the traditional picture would have it. From 1928 to 1930, at a time when the labor movement both nationally and in Seattle was supposedly at the height of its "voluntarist" period, the Seattle AFL focused intently on school board elections.(fn8)

This story shows that public employees, generally ignored by labor historians as well as by those who study labor law, consciously thought of themselves as workers whose place was in the union movement. The AFL matched their enthusiasm, strongly backing these workers in their fight to be part of the labor movement, even though the teachers were employed by government, occupied an arguably "professional" job classification, and even though a majority were women.(fn9)

Including public sector unions in labor history not only changes our picture of labor in this era, it also casts an intriguing light on the nature of the state. First, the very organization of the state itself was central to how the law developed. The highly diffused state structure in America, combined with court deference to local administrative bodies, put the effective power to make the "law" of public sector labor relations in the hands of the local employer.

This, in turn, allowed the state to be a very class conscious employer. Between the wars and beyond, public employers often barred public workers from joining AFL-affiliated unions. Indeed, courts routinely upheld bans on public workers joining unions through the 1950s, often explicitly citing fears of "divided loyalty" and "class control" of government.(fn10)

In fact, in Seattle, the issue was the right of high school teachers to affiliate with an AFL union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The School Board imposed a ban on affiliation with labor: a "yellow dog contract." This device, one of the best known antiunion tools of the 1920s, has almost exclusively been studied as a problem of private sector employees.(fn11) Yet when the King County, Washington State Labor News observed in July 1928 that the "past year has seen more publicity on the subject of. . . 'yellow dog contracts' than ever before," it was referring to the Seattle public school teachers' battle with the School Board.(fn12)

The fight in Seattle pitted teachers and their allies in the labor movement against members of the Seattle School Board and their allies in the business community. The fight lasted three years, drew national attention, led to the Washington State Supreme Court decision in Sharples, and also caused a series of highly publicized political battles.

II. The Birth of Local 200

The Seattle chapter of the AFT, Local 200, got off to a promising start in November 1927. Florence Hanson, the National Secretary-Treasurer of the AFT, reported that the teachers "almost pushed me off the platform in their eagerness" to sign the charter petition.(fn13) Local 200 immediately signed up nearly half of the approximately 500 high school teachers in Seattle as members.(fn14)

The Seattle Central Labor Council, made up mostly of private sector AFL unions, warmly welcomed Local 200.(fn15) On the other hand, prominent businessmen denounced it on the grounds that labor affiliation would prevent teachers from being "neutral." Almost immediately after the local formed, W.C. Dawson, president of Associated Industries in Seattle, asked the School Board to fire all AFT members, as the Local allegedly would seek to "replace teachers' certificates with a union card."(fn16)

The law at this time prohibited public sector unions from bargaining. No statutes authorized it, and courts considered it an impermissible delegation of public power to a private body.(fn17) So, Local 200 lobbied the School Board for raises.(fn18) Pay for Seattle teachers at this time was last in the country for towns of its size.(fn19) In early 1928 the Board refused to make the increases that the teachers had sought.(fn20)

The Local therefore decided to support a candidate in the March 1928 School Board elections who was sympathetic to the teachers' cause. The Seattle AFL also strongly backed this candidate, John Shorrett.(fn21) Incumbent Dr. Caspar Sharples defeated Shorrett, but only by a very narrow margin: just over 1,600 votes out of nearly 85,000 cast.(fn22) The size of the turnout was a story in itself, as the average in the last few school board elections had only been about 20,000.(fn23) Commentators attributed the increased participation to publicity caused by the active participation of the Seattle AFL in the election.(fn24) Ebenezer Shorrock, another incumbent with no love for unions, became president of the School Board. Shorrock announced that he considered the election results a "public condemnation" of the activities of Local 200.(fn25)

Local 200 promised a further campaign for higher wages, through lobbying and future elections. The Local never wavered from its demands, which also included greater teacher control of the schools.(fn26)

III. The "Yellow Dog" Rule

Soon after the elections, however, on May 4, 1928, the Board passed a resolution stating that membership in Local 200 "conflicted with the best interests of the schools."(fn27) If the Local was successful, it would mean "a determination of school policies and affairs by a class organization." The union created a "divided allegiance" for teachers; they could not be loyal to both their employer and the labor movement. Along with this resolution, the Board passed a rule requiring teachers, as a condition of employment, to sign a contract renouncing membership in the AFT.(fn28) Significantly, this "yellow dog" rule only applied to the AFL-affiliated AFT. It did not apply to any of the several teachers' organizations in the Seattle schools that were affiliated with the National Education Association (NEA)...

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