Over the past nine months, Brookline and Malden educators went on strike for one day amid protracted contract negotiations and hours later secured a new deal. Haverhill and Woburn teachers boycotted their classrooms, for four and five days respectively, and they soon won favorable contracts too.
Melrose educators merely threatened to strike and got an acceptable contract.
Although it’s illegal for public employees to strike in Massachusetts, Greater Boston educators are increasingly willing to break state law and ignore court injunctions, recognizing that the benefits of striking exceed the hefty financial penalties, which can surpass a quarter-million dollars.
Educators are securing higher salaries and better working conditions, such as smaller class sizes and more time to plan lessons. They also have been winning public support, including politicians and parents who shuttled coffee and food to picket lines.
School district leaders are increasingly wondering if there’s anything that can be done to stop future strikes.
“There is a mindset among a lot of districts: Who’s next?” said Tom Scott, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents executive director. “Usually you see a strike once every five or ten years. That’s what’s abnormal here.”
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Teachers Association is pushing to legalize strikes, giving teachers in contentious contract negotiations a statewide platform to coordinate efforts. Both the Haverhill and Malden strikes kicked off on the same day, and the educators issued a joint press release announcing their strikes.
A variety of factors are fueling the labor unrest and the increasing willingness to strike: lingering tensions over the sudden switch to remote learning during the pandemic and the acrimonious reopening of school buildings; explosive debates over the teaching of race, sexuality, and gender identity; the deteriorating mental health of many students and staff; and escalating inflation, housing prices, and student loan debt that is stretching educator salaries thin, especially for low-paid classroom aides.
Union leaders say if school districts want to prevent strikes they need to negotiate instead of stonewalling at the bargaining table. And they need to understand there’s immense post-pandemic fatigue and frustration among rank-and-file educators who are increasingly leaving the profession, said Max Page, the Massachusetts Teachers Association president.
He said it is demoralizing for educators to receive weak contract offers after going “through the pandemic and being deemed heroes.”
”There’s a sense of ‘wait a second, I thought we just did this incredible thing’ and now the response from the district does not reflect” that, he said.
Tim Briggs, Haverhill Education Association president, said the financial penalties of his union’s four-day strike in October were worthwhile. The union has paid off its $110,000 in court-ordered fines for violating state law and agreed to reimburse the city $200,000 to cover the cost of the strike, including police details, and give $50,000 to a scholarship fund. But now the city is seeking more, he said.
He bristles at the criticism striking teachers have received from some political corners and noted teachers are exhibiting a form of protest any time they leave a district for a better-paying job.
“For some of the [politicians] coming out and calling teachers union thugs, they might want to find a mirror and ask, ‘Why is my kid’s second-grade teacher standing in 20-degree temperatures for a fair contract,’” he said, adding his teachers went several years without raises.
A fissure is emerging among Democrats over strikes. During the recent weeklong Woburn strike, the longest in decades, progressive Democrats, including US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and US Representative Katherine Clark, issued statements supporting strikers.
That put them at odds with Woburn Mayor Scott Galvin, a Democrat who was negotiating the contract with the School Committee, and it emboldened the teachers. Union leaders later blasted him for pushing the union to cover $250,000 in strike-related costs, writing in a press release, “Mayor Galvin demands the blood of educators.” The union ended up agreeing to pay most of that.
Meanwhile, Governor Maura Healey didn’t condone the strike. When a group of Woburn teachers showed up at her office on the fifth day of the strike, an aide rebuffed their efforts to meet with her. Two days later, Healey voiced her opposition to legalizing strikes, telling WBZ-TV, “Every day when I see kids out of school because of a strike, my heart just breaks because kids have been through enough in terms of learning loss and the like.”
Galvin said he was disappointed in the politicians who sided with the union because teachers were breaking the law and creating disruptions for families. Ultimately, the agreement that was reached, he said, wasn’t much different than what was on the table.
Galvin and the School Committee offered the union a 10.75 percent salary increase for teachers over three years prior to the strike declaration; the union wanted 15 percent. Ultimately, they agreed to 13.75 percent over four years.
“We said from the beginning we weren’t going to let them use the strike or the threat of a strike as a bargaining chip,” he said.
Keri Rodrigues, who has three children in Woburn Public Schools and is president of Massachusetts Parents United, a parent advocacy organization that’s often at odds with teacher unions, said closing schools added to the pandemic learning interruptions.
“It was hard for my kids who were in the middle of school projects,” Rodrigues said. “The kids were confused and frustrated and couldn’t understand why this was happening.”
Rodrigues took a lot of heat on social media when she questioned why teachers were striking, noting their average annual salary of $85,000 was on par with the state average.
Other parents, however, joined teachers on the picket lines. Sarah Bergman-McCool brought her two children, a first- and third-grader, and turned the strike into a civics lesson. She also wanted to show appreciation.
“I wanted them to know they are valued and that was not the message they were getting from the mayor and School Committee,” Bergman-McCool said. “Our teachers showed up every day for our kids during COVID and literally put their lives on the line so parents could go back to work.”
In many ways, the broader political dynamics around public education over the last few decades nationwide have fostered a climate for strikes, said Jack Schneider, an education policy expert and associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“We’ve really seen what I think can be fairly called an attack on the teaching profession, and it was kind of a bipartisan activity,” that has increasingly left teachers feeling disrespected, he said.
“It was really damaging because one of the things that educators have counted on as part of their total compensation over the years has been what sociologists would call the psychic rewards” of teaching, Schneider said.
A national wave of strikes began before the pandemic. In Massachusetts, the first teacher strike in 12 years took place for a day in Dedham in October 2019, setting off the current trend. About a year later, three other unions in Sharon, Andover, and Brookline stopped working to protest pandemic safety concerns.
Paul Toner, a Cambridge city councilor and former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said one alternative to strikes that legislators might want to consider is allowing binding arbitration. Under such an arrangement, the parties agree to go with whatever the arbitrator decides.
“If we are looking for ways to solve problems rather than put people in difficult positions that’s the way to go,” he said.
However, the results of binding arbitration may leave parties unhappy.
At the end of the day, many educators have had enough, said Jessica Wender-Shubow, the Brookline Educators Union president.
“We are at a turning point,” she said. “When a law is so out of sync with what the majority of the population wants, it loses its credibility, like prohibition.”