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Massachusetts Teachers Are Making Waves and Winning Demands With Illegal Strikes

Public school workers can't legally strike in Massachusetts, but that hasn't stopped these teachers.

Striking Andover teachers gathered on the Town Common in Andover, Massachusetts, on November 13, 2023.

A wildly successful, illegal three-day strike by the Andover Education Association in November has reverberated statewide for educators in Massachusetts.

The lowest-paid instructional assistants got a 60 percent wage jump immediately. Classroom aides on the higher end of the scale got a 37 percent increase.

Members won paid family medical leave, an extra personal day, fewer staff meetings, and the extension of lunch and recess times for elementary students.

Andover is 20 miles north of Boston, and the strike involved 10 schools.

For 10 months and 27 bargaining sessions, the Andover School Committee had insisted that none of these demands was possible. But by the end of the first day of the strike, they had ceded many items. By day three, they agreed to almost all of the union’s demands.

Public school workers can’t legally strike in Massachusetts — but Andover’s is just one of a series of school unions that have struck over the last four years, defying the ban, and in some cases paying heavy fines as a result.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association is pushing for legislation that would legalize public sector strikes after six months of bargaining.

Opening Up Meetings

The wins at Andover come after years of building rank-and-file power and democracy within the Andover Education Association (AEA).

When President Matt Bach and his slate won leadership in 2019, they startled the district by refusing to meet privately with the superintendent, insisting that all meetings would include at least one member.

The new leaders opened up union meetings and budgets. They shared union budget details, including that coffers had been significantly depleted by leadership travel to conferences. They encouraged discussion of critical issues, and the union started organizing building by building.

The first big fight was at South Elementary School, where a bullying principal was targeting teachers. The new union leaders sent out a survey about the school climate, but the recently deposed union leaders alleged that those asking for the survey were themselves the bullies.

Siding with the former union leaders, the district began an investigation and interviewed dozens of teachers. Instead of being intimidated, members got angry and organized a rally to call out the bullying. Under this pressure, the principal and the head of human resources were removed by the superintendent.

Lawn Chair Day

In the return to work mid-pandemic, AEA members refused to enter the school buildings for a professional development day until their safety could be assured. Instead they set up lawn chairs and their computers outside.

This action was deemed a strike by the state. The members were unprepared for an actual strike, so they returned to the buildings the next day. However, the action secured them a new air filtration system and helped lead to the resignation of the superintendent.

When the district received American Rescue Plan Act funds in the midst of the pandemic, AEA insisted that some of those funds be used to pay bonuses to the lowest-paid workers in the district, including cafeteria and other workers not in the union. The district balked, so the union worked with the community to bring the question to the Andover town meeting, which in some towns in Massachusetts is the town’s governing body. The goal: let the residents decide if they wanted to use the funds as bonuses.

School lawyers insisted that the motion was illegal and the issue was between the union and the district. At the town meeting, though, the community voted to support the motion as an advisory decision. (The district re-opened negotiations, and the issue remains unsettled.)

Opening Up Bargaining

Each of these actions added a layer of educators ready to take on the district during contract negotiations. But not everyone was convinced.

Kate Carlton, a special education teacher at Doherty Middle School, told me she kept the union at arm’s length, because of negative past experiences with unions.

She said she didn’t believe the dire reports sent by Bach during the pandemic negotiations: “The language in his emails, I was like, no way. This is charged language, opinionated words. It cannot be that bad.”

Carlton started to attend negotiations to see for herself. “I heard and saw the way our town talked about teachers and what we do,” she said. “I was watching them and thinking, your child uses special ed! Your child uses special ed and you don’t respect what educators do? Feeling the ugliness. Then they speak out of the other side of their mouths and write these emails about how much they value us.”

Dan Donovan, a 15-year science teacher, was reluctant at first to join the strike vote — but changed his mind after he, too, witnessed negotiations. “It was informative to see how our side wanted to discuss and reason and go through things and we were just talking to a stone wall,” said Donovan. “When the School Committee sends out a press release or an email, they say one thing, but when you go to the bargaining session it is clear what is really going on.”

“The Price Is Right”

The School Committee resisted having union members in the room during bargaining — and the room could not hold the 100 to 200 members who wanted to attend each time.

While the union could have filed an unfair labor practice charge alleging that the district was not allowing the union to choose its own bargaining team and not meeting in a mutually agreed-upon space, it took an organizing approach instead.

Fifty members sat in the room as negotiations took place. Then the union would call a caucus and meet with those members and more who were in the auditorium next door. After discussion, a new group of 50 members would return, and negotiations would continue. Every time the union called a caucus, new members swapped in.

After one session when the School Committee objected to this swapping, members got more fired up than ever. Bach said enthusiasm was so great, “it was like ‘The Price is Right.’ People were rushing to be the ones to get in the room.”

Top Tip: Listen

What moved members to strike? Everyone I spoke to said members witnessing bargaining was central, but what made the most difference was listening.

Carlton identified members in her building who she knew had had issues with the union in the past. “I just say, ‘Hey, can I talk to you?’ I’m not going to tell them what to do. I am going to listen.”

Beth Arnold, a high school math teacher who was on the bargaining team, said the creation of communication teams of 10 members to one leader in the high school allowed people to engage in more conversations with each other, to hear from voices other than “the loudest,” and not rely just on emails or the word of the leadership.

When she talked with members about the illegality of the strike, and their fears, Arnold emphasized that the choice to strike was a shared decision — not one to make alone.

Passing It On

The strike wave among Massachusetts educators started in April 2019 with the Dedham Teachers Association. It was the first teachers strike in Massachusetts since 2007.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that even using the word “strike” constitutes “inducing, encouraging or condoning a work stoppage by public employees.” Union leaders who do so risk fines — personally and as elected leaders — and even jail time.

The Dedham educators voted to strike on a Thursday, were out one day, and had a tentative agreement in time to return to work Monday. They faced minimal fines.

The Brookline Educators Union struck in May 2022. They were out one day and were willing to pay a $50,000 fine imposed by the school district on the union.

The wave built with Haverhill, Malden, Woburn, and now Andover. Melrose Teacher Association members authorized a strike, but won all they demanded before they could walk out.

Some unions faced fines of up to $50,000 a day; others did not. In Woburn the community held a bake sale to help pay the fine. Some people paid $100 a cookie.

“Nothing Different About Us”

Educators in Massachusetts are not only seeing each other strike and win, but also teaching each other how to do it.

Barry Davis, president of the Haverhill Teachers Association, which struck in October 2022, says the lessons were first forged in the Merrimack Valley bargaining council, an informal network of six teacher locals that meet regularly to share contract issues and organizing strategies. After the Haverhill and Malden strikes, organizers from those locals reached out to or were contacted by members of other locals.

“We’d go out and talk to members in these locals, and they realized that we were just like them, that there was nothing different about us that made us able to strike,” Davis said. “When you are a third grade teacher with three kids, and a third grade teacher with three kids shows up to tell you how to do this, you realize much more is possible.”

AEA members have been transformed. “I don’t recognize these people,” said Bach shortly after the strike.

Originally Donovan said that he would do anything to support the union, except break the law. Now he says, “I’ve come around. Not all laws are just, and that is an unjust law. Teachers deserve the right to strike for just wages.”

This story was originally published by Labor Notes.

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