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Massachusetts teachers unions push for the right to strike

Malden teachers and supporters protested outside Malden City Hall after the educators went on strike in October. The Massachusetts Teachers Association is seeking to change state law so educators can leave their classrooms for the picket line.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

The state’s largest teachers union is seeking to change state law so educators can leave their classrooms for the picket line, after a series of illegal strikes in recent years led to some hefty fines but also new contracts.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association says giving educators the legal right to strike is necessary to break logjams in contract talks and compel local school committees to bargain in good faith. Currently, many school committees do “sort of an intentional slowdown and don’t really come to the table ready to negotiate,” said Max Page, the association’s president.

“We believe that the right to strike is a fundamental labor and human right and that it is wrong to exclude public sector workers from that,” said Page, emphasizing a strike should be a last resort. The MTA represents 115,000 educators and support staff in most school districts in Massachusetts, including Cambridge, Lexington, and Newton, and most public colleges.

The move comes as Massachusetts schools struggle to overcome learning losses from the closure of classrooms during the pandemic. Tensions also remain high following the acrimonious reopening of school buildings, with a growing number of districts and unions locked in contentious contract negotiations. A few of the MTA’s local affiliates in recent months have broken state law and gone on strike in Haverhill, Malden, and Brookline. Contract deals quickly followed.

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The legislation, which is expected to be filed this month, would extend the right to strike to all public sector workers except those in public safety.

The effort has sparked a backlash since the MTA unveiled it on Dec. 8 as part of its legislative priorities, which also include securing more state funding for public schools and public colleges. State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley recently blasted the push for strikes.

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“I want to be clear I’m a supporter of collective bargaining rights, but I just think this is a bridge too far at this time,” Riley said at a December state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting.

“Our focus needs to be on the kids. The kids need to be in school.”

Mary Tamer, the Massachusetts director at Democrats for Education Reform, accused the MTA of putting adult interests ahead of students.

“Further disrupting their education would be so detrimental and harmful to their well-being,” she said.

The MTA is making its push as the labor movement nationwide resurges with workers organizing in such businesses as Amazon and Starbucks to secure higher wages and safer working conditions. Teachers strikes also have been on the upswing, with unions in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Minneapolis conducting work stoppages in recent years.

In many ways, the pandemic has mobilized Massachusetts educators to advocate for better safety measures and higher pay. The MTA urged members not to enter school buildings to teach in the early days of the pandemic until officials could prove conditions were safe, creating showdowns in some districts.

The Boston Teachers Union, which belongs to the American Federation of Teachers, supports legalizing strikes.

“Strikes certainly should be a last resort, but sometimes it’s necessary, if you have tried all other means to advocate for what you know your students need,” Jessica Tang, the Boston union’s president, said in a statement.

Just 12 states, including California and Vermont, allow educators the right to strike, according to the MTA. Massachusetts has forbidden public sector workers from striking since at least the 1960s, when the state granted them the right to unionize. Unions that strike face hefty fines from the state for each day of the strike.

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The Haverhill Education Association, for example, is facing a $110,000 fine for its four-day strike in October and the MTA could be penalized $50,000, according to Essex Superior Court filings on Dec. 19.

Superintendents are increasingly on edge about more illegal strikes and fear changing state law could embolden more union members to walk off their jobs, said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

“We have a number of districts right now where tension points around collective bargaining could facilitate a strike,” Scott said.

Local unions say the strikes quickened contract settlements and garnered support of families.

The Malden Education Association said it fought for basic considerations like first aid kits for classrooms, a livable wage for paraprofessionals, and updated bereavement policies to reflect what family units look like today.

“We had really gone into bargaining having done our homework and we had written proposals, but we were met with so much silence from the people who we were supposed to be bargaining with,” said Deb Gesualdo, the union’s president. “We didn’t start to see movement until we took a strike vote.”

The strike lasted only one day, with a new three-year contract deal being reached.

The Malden deal emboldened Haverhill teachers, who also began striking on the same day. On the picket lines, some members wanted what Malden got, said Tim Briggs, Haverhill’s union president.

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Briggs said the strike was 15 years in the making, as teachers repeatedly forwent pay increases to avert layoffs. Average teacher pay there is about $10,000 less than the state average. Ultimately, teachers secured the best contract in years, he said.

Students and parents “recognized what we were fighting for was not just salaries but the future of Haverhill Public Schools,” said Briggs.

“We would have never gotten close to what we ended up with without the strike,” he said. “We would still be bargaining.”

Toni Sapienza-Donais, vice chairperson of the Haverhill School Committee, disagrees, saying that “at no time do I think a strike is appropriate.”

“The only ones in the end who get hurt are the children,” said Sapienza-Donais, who worked four decades as a teacher and principal and found the strike unsettling. “We just didn’t have all the truths come out. People ran with information and words that were not fully accurate. . . . We should have been able to come together on an agreement without a strike.”

Changing state law faces a murky future on Beacon Hill, where past attempts have failed.

“I would say there’s a better chance that I will be quarterbacking the Super Bowl this year” than the Legislature legalizing strikes for public sector workers, said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

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Senator Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat, plans to file the bill to legalize strikes. It will be her second attempt.

“Every teacher in every corner across the Commonwealth will have the same right to not only stand up for themselves but also stand up for their students,” Rausch said. “We have definitely seen the need for it, the need for employers — the government — to pay attention to worker safety and child safety and housing and all sorts of other things.”

The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.



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