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Will Massachusetts teachers strike this fall? One local union is sounding an alarm

Teacher union leaders in Quincy decided against endorsing the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s resolution to continue with remote learning at the start of the school year.
Teacher union leaders in Quincy decided against endorsing the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s resolution to continue with remote learning at the start of the school year.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

In a sharp rebuke, teacher union leaders in Quincy decided against endorsing the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s resolution to continue with remote learning at the start of the school year, accusing the state’s largest teachers union of potentially orchestrating a strike.

The Quincy Education Association’s executive board was particularly troubled by a request last week from the MTA that implored local affiliates to refuse to enter school buildings until the state and districts met building safety and public health benchmarks. The MTA did not specify what that criteria would be.

“After considerable time spent reading the MTA statement and trying to understand its language, intent, and purpose, the executive board determined that the MTA statement is essentially asking us to commit this union to a strike,” the letter dated Aug. 1 stated. “As a rationale for such a work action, it is shockingly vague.”

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The dissent highlights friction among teachers about the best approach to take in ensuring schools are safe this fall for students and teachers. While teachers unions in other parts of the country have been threatening to strike, it is illegal for teachers in Massachusetts to take that action under state law.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association’s effort to coordinate union negotiations in districts across the state is considered unusual. In Massachusetts union negotiations are hyper-local affairs in which each union hammers out its own contracts with local districts — unlike in many states where a statewide or countywide union secures a single contract.

Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, emphasized the organization respects the autonomy of its individual affiliates located in more than 350 districts statewide, but added that many members were turning to the MTA for guidance.

“That is why we are spending the entire week to get all affiliates to move to a position where we will start the school year remotely,” she said. “This isn’t just about educators being afraid about going back into buildings. There are many families who are afraid to send their kids back into buildings too.”

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Asked if the MTA is laying the groundwork for a strike, Najimy noted that public sector employees in Massachusetts don't have the right to strike. The MTA, she said, will watch negotiations unfold in local districts, including whether unions are able to reach agreements with districts on remote learning. She was confident locals would have success.

Already several districts, including Franklin and Somerville, are planning to start their school year remotely or are leaning in that direction.

In an interview Tuesday, Allison Cox, president of the Quincy Education Association, said the executive board believed the MTA was overreaching in trying to organize a statewide strategy, but emphasized that her board supports the overall goals of what the MTA is seeking to do — ensuring safe learning environments for students and adults.

“It was a difficult decision,” Cox said.

One concern that emerged in the deliberations was this: If Quincy teachers joined a coordinated effort, would members be obligated not to return to their own buildings if teachers in other districts still had unsafe buildings. The executive board also worried that agreeing to language in a resolution that they interpreted as a threat to strike could undermine their ability to negotiate in good faith with Quincy school officials. Those talks just began on Monday.

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“It is worth emphasizing that a strike is best defined as the failure of negotiation,” the letter stated. “A strike should be the very last option in times of deep desperation. The executive board finds it inexplicable that the MTA would ask locals to seemingly commit to such an action when most locals are at the very beginning of bargaining or, even worse, have yet to even had the opportunity to begin.”

Quincy teachers reached a point of desperation in 2007 when they went on strike for six days after 16 months of contract talks broke down. The union incurred significant fines that caused union dues to go up and union leaders received cease and desist orders with the possibility of arrest.

Cox said the union has not taken a formal position on which school reopening plan it will endorse. The state has instructed districts to craft three plans — a full return, remote learning, or a mix of both, which most districts are gravitating toward. Union membership has been split on the issue in the last two surveys and she is hoping a third survey, which wraps up on Wednesday, will bring greater clarity.

Dozens of other local unions have already united to back a phased-in approach to reopening schools, which the MTA is calling for, and would begin with remote-only learning. Those unions include Belmont, Brookline, Burlington, Gloucester, Malden, Nahant, Wakefield, and Winchester, according to a letter posted on the MTA’s Facebook page.

Jessica Wender-Shubow, president of the Brookline Educators Union, said she didn’t view the MTA’s resolution as an attempt to orchestrate a statewide strike.

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“I have not heard anyone say we are not prepared to work,” she said. “Educators want to do good teaching and hit the ground running.”


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.