It was Jerry C. Lee's first year serving on a school board in the South Carolina Upstate when the teachers started talking about a strike. The year was 1979.

Every day after school, teachers picketed in front of the Oconee County School District office demanding a substantial pay hike after two years without a raise. The mere threat of a strike may have been enough: According to Lee, the county council caved to pressure and gave them a raise in the next year's budget.

Rarely a hotbed of union organizing or labor demonstrations, the state of South Carolina nevertheless has a rich history of activism by its public school teachers. With or without a union, teachers have led charges to raise education funding, expand access to kindergarten, cap classroom sizes and occasionally topple their political enemies.

Now, 40 years after teachers started threatening to strike in the mountain enclave of Oconee County, a statewide coalition of teachers plans to march on the Statehouse Wednesday. Organized largely on social media under the hashtag #AllOutMay1, the one-day protest has the potential to become one of the largest statewide teacher movements in South Carolina history.

Their demands are not much different than the ones their forebears fought for: Better pay, smaller classroom sizes, duty-free break time and full funding of the state's promises to students.

While the demands are familiar, the tactics — which have so far caused two school districts and a charter school to shut their doors on Wednesday — are new to South Carolina, at least in the last half-decade. Recent teacher walkouts and strikes from West Virginia to Los Angeles have served as inspiration for parallel May Day protests in North and South Carolina, with encouragement from the National Education Association teachers' union.

Kathy Maness, executive director of the non-union Palmetto State Teachers Association, said that in her 26 years of advocacy for South Carolina teachers, she has never seen a walkout or a protest that threatened to disrupt school. Her group has not endorsed the protest but has said it supports the teachers' right to make their voices heard.

"I think for many years teachers have been a sleeping giant, and we have just not stood up for ourselves," Maness said. "The sleeping giant is waking up." 

Charleston County teacher picket, 1980

Charleston County public school teachers picketed for a 22-percent pay raise in March 1980 with support from the Charleston Federation of Teachers. File/Evening Post archives

Teacher power

Activists, teachers and labor historians interviewed by The Post and Courier could not recall any examples of a statewide teacher demonstration that disrupted South Carolina schools on the scale of this year's May Day event, which was organized by the teacher advocacy group SC for Ed.

Instead, activism tended to take root at the local level through county education associations, which proliferated across the state until the 1980s.

Hannah Timmons taught for 30 years in Columbia area schools and was active in the Richland County Education Association until her retirement in 1985. The group, which collected dues but did not have collective bargaining power, sued the local school district over equal pay for women and transparency issues on the school board.

"We sued, but we couldn't strike," Timmons said. "There was certainly no way in Richland County to pull off a strike."

The 1970s saw a wave of teacher strikes across the country, but not in South Carolina. But the S.C. Education Association, a non-union group affiliated with the National Education Association, did a bit of saber-rattling in 1979.

"Strikes can occur, with or without a (collective bargaining) law. The SCEA's position is that a strike is a legitimate weapon, if all else fails," SCEA Executive Director Michael Fleming said in a January 1979 News and Courier article about a state school budget package.

Some of the SCEA's demands in that budget season will sound familiar to the teachers who are preparing to march in Columbia: Duty-free lunch periods. Unencumbered planning periods. More counselors for elementary schools. Better pay.

Timmons, 85, says she has been watching the news about this year's SC for Ed event, a far milder protest than other states' teacher strikes and walkouts of 2018. She said she doubts teachers here will ever pull off a true strike.

"I don’t think a strike is going to be effective in this state, not in my lifetime," Timmons said. "They have an anti-labor attitude, which is what you find in a feudalistic society, which is what we still have. The old plantation bit, we still have a lot of that attitude."

Oconee County teacher strike, 1979

Teachers in Oconee County, S.C., came close to striking in 1979. File/News and Courier archives

No unions here

"I don't like unions," teacher Rose Cashin told The Associated Press in a March 26, 1979, story. "I've had bred in me that strikes were just not done."

In spite of all that, Cashin, a 23-year teaching veteran at the time, said she had decided to walk out with her fellow teachers in Oconee County if a majority voted to do so.

Lee, who had just been elected to the school board in 1978, said a major issue was that the county council controlled the school district's budget and was not friendly to public education. He remembers seeing big crowds of teachers at every board and council meeting in 1979, usually with a throng of TV news crews in tow.

"We had no problems as far as violence or ugly comments. They were just very upset, and rightly so," said Lee, who now serves as school board chair. He added that the district's relationship with county council has improved in the intervening 40 years, allowing the district to pay its teachers better than the state average.

The membership and influence of American labor unions have been in decline since the mid-20th century, taking a series of legal blows over the years including President Ronald Reagan's breakup of an air traffic controller strike in 1981 and the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision of 2018.

South Carolina ranks 50th in the nation for union membership, with just 3.6 percent of its employed residents represented by a union, according to a 2018 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. State law prohibits workplaces from requiring employees to pay union dues, a so-called "right to work" law that has crippled labor unions in many states.

South Carolina law prohibits collective bargaining by state employees, but it does not specifically prohibit strikes.

1979 saw a backlash from state and local leaders against the power of the county education associations, which still held considerable power in school district politics. Some endorsed school board candidates; many advocated for higher pay during budget meetings.

An attorney general's opinion dated May 21 of that year stated that school districts "may not deduct dues from employees' compensation for the purpose of paying dues to organizations to which the employees belong." 

The S.C. Education Association reported that 58 school districts authorized payroll deductions for professional dues in 1979. Some education associations had grown in membership like Charleston County's, which represented 60 percent of the district's teachers. Today, many county-level education associations have ceased to exist, and few wield the power they once did.

Teachers at the Statehouse (copy) (copy) (copy)

Reps. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews; Chris Wooten, R-Lexington; and Seth Rose, D-Columbia; met in December with teachers advocating for higher salaries and more education funding. Like many teachers across the state who joined the group SC for Ed, the teachers showed up decked out in red. File/Seanna Adcox/Staff

The comeback

Even with their local organizations decimated, teachers have continued to shape policy. The 1994 state teacher of the year, Dodie Rodgers, led kindergarten teachers across the state in a crusade that eventually led the state to fund full-day kindergarten for all students in 1998. Among other tactics, the teachers published a children's book about the benefits of kindergarten and invited lawmakers to come read it to their students for photo opportunities.

In 2013, then-State Superintendent Mick Zais invoked the wrath of teachers when he proposed that the state eliminate nearly all caps on classroom size in the name of "flexibility." The State Board of Education, which had passed a first reading of Zais' proposal in a near-unanimous vote, turned on the idea with near-unanimous opposition after a sustained barrage of phone calls and emails from teachers across the state. A month later, Zais announced he would not seek reelection.

In 2019, the color red is a familiar sight to lawmakers. Following a trend in other states encouraged by the NEA's "Red for Ed" campaign, teachers have been decked out in red shirts, dresses and accessories at nearly every legislative hearing on a proposed education overhaul this year.

While SC for Ed has adopted the aesthetic flourishes of a nationwide movement backed by a labor union, its leaders have been careful to distance themselves from the unions. The S.C. Education Association has also denied that the May 1 rally is an official SCEA event.

Labor historian Kerry Taylor, an associate professor at The Citadel, said South Carolina's teacher movement mirrors some protests that spread across non-union states like Oklahoma last year.

"A lot of the organizing is taking place outside of the formal union structures," Taylor said. "In a lot of ways the unions are playing catch-up to the teachers who are coming together I think pretty organically, organizing on social media."

SC for Ed has said at least 2,000 people are expected at the Wednesday rally, which begins at 9:45 a.m. with a march on the Statehouse grounds.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Get the best of The Post and Courier, handpicked and delivered to your inbox every morning.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation at our Post and Courier Subscribers group on Facebook.