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Teachers increasingly willing to put up with costs of strikes to gain better pay

Striking Newton teachers rallied outside the Newton Education Center on Wednesday.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

More than 40,000 students in Massachusetts have missed one or more days of school due to illegal teachers strikes over the last two years, disrupting classroom time for students and forcing their parents to scramble for child care.

Teachers say that cost, while unfortunate, is necessary to force school administrators to agree to improved working conditions. And the strategy appears to be working for them: teachers unions are winning better pay and other benefits they say will keep them in the classroom.

And with the latest walkout, in Newton on Jan. 19, five teachers unions have gone on strike in the last two years — the biggest uptick in decades. Two other unions voted to strike but then secured 11th-hour contract deals.

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For many school committees and superintendents, the strikes seem unstoppable: Not even court-imposed fines for violating state law that prohibits public employees from walking out are enough to get teachers back into classrooms.

In Newton, the union is seeking a 13 percent cost of living increase over three years and better pay for instructional aides; the School Committee has offered 8 percent, according to a School Committee analysis prior to the strike. If the Newton teachers are successful, it could prompt others to raise the threat in their own contract negotiations, said Erin O’Brien, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

”What Newton is doing is suggesting that even if it’s illegal on paper, it can and will be utilized. And that is frightening to administrations, to mayors, to superintendents,” said O’Brien, founding chair of the university’s Department Chairs’ Union, which is part of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

In asking for bigger paychecks, striking unions cite rapidly rising inflation in an already expensive state, and the need to keep salaries competitive with other districts. Teacher pay in Massachusetts was the second highest in the nation in 2022, at an average of $90,240, according to the US Bureau of Labor statistics, which lists Rhode Island as the highest at $111,010.

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The strikes have taken on a festive air, with giant rallies, thumping music, and appearances from politicians. On Thursday, the Newton Teachers Association took their picket line to Beacon Hill in search of Governor Maura Healey, who wasn’t in.

“It really is more of a political move than anything else,” said Mary Tamer, Massachusetts director for Democrats for Education Reform, a group critical of teachers unions. “Going on strike doesn’t put children first. It throws a wrench into people’s lives. I can’t imagine as a working parent having to find full time child care for when your children should be in school.”

The strikes come as the Massachusetts Teachers Association is lobbying Beacon Hill lawmakers to change state law so all public employees, except those involving public safety, can legally strike. Massachusetts is one of 37 states that doesn’t allow teacher strikes, according to an analysis published by EdWeek.

MTA leaders insist they are not encouraging local unions to break the law, emphasizing the decision to strike is a local one.

“The local associations that voted to go on strike were doing so to provide better services for their students — including support for student mental health and well-being — and to lift up wages for paraeducators making poverty wages,” the union said in a statement.

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In Haverhill, for example, teachers secured a 10 percent increase over three years after striking for four days in October 2022. That was a big boost for teachers who earned well below the state average. Under their previous contract, their cost of living increase was 5.55 percent over three years.

Going on strike carries risks for local unions, too. The longer a strike persists, the more public support can wane. It also can drain the local union’s savings.

The union in Haverhill was fined $110,000 for defying an Essex Superior Court judge’s order to return to the classrooms and the Haverhill School Committee also charged the union another $200,000 for police details and other costs associated with canceling school, and then sued over another $500,000 in strike costs. The School Committee voted last August to drop the lawsuit.

Barry Davis, president of the Haverhill Education Association, said the fines and fees were a good investment to get teachers a better settlement than what the city was offering.

“That was our big issue and it was a big fight,” said Davis, noting low pay was driving teachers to other districts. “We are still losing teachers because we are still underpaid, but not as much.”

A stable workforce also can benefit students by providing them access to veteran teachers.

In Andover, a three-day strike this past fall resulted in new contracts with raises and paid parental leave. But now layoffs are now on the table, with the settlements among “several factors” contributing to a $2.7 million budget deficit, said School Committee Chair Tracey Spruce. More than 30 full-time positions may be cut, according to a School Committee presentation.

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Matt Bach, president of the association, said he disputes any implication by the district that the strike is to blame. Threatening cuts is “public posturing,” he said.

In Woburn, educators struck for four days in early 2023. Woburn Teachers Association president Barbara Locke said that the district cut positions following the strike, but that they’re slowly being restored.

Locke said school districts use cuts “to get the community against the teachers.”

“It backfired,” she said. “Our community was behind us.”

While the strike resulted in higher starting salaries for new teachers and instructional assistants, it nonetheless “put a lot of people in some really lousy positions,” Locke said.

“But we did what we had to do, what was best for Woburn Public Schools, and I know Newton is doing that now.”

Brookline educators were close to reaching a deal before they went on strike in May 2022. They had agreed to a financial package that acknowledged the town’s fiscal issues, but other items, such as guaranteed daily prep time for teachers and measures to attract and retain educators of color, remain unresolved, according to a letter the union sent members the day before the strike.

In Newton, both the teachers union and Mayor Ruthanne Fuller recently reported progress in negotiations. But it remains unclear how big of a gap remains.

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Earlier in the week, Superintendent Anna Nolin released an analysis of how much the proposals each side was offering would cost taxpayers over three years, and the gap was huge: The union’s proposals would total $63.6 million , compared to the School Committee’s proposals, $27.3 million.

Fuller has said the city cannot afford to fund everything the union is seeking, while the union and its supporters say the city has the money if it prioritizes education. Average teacher pay in Newton in 2021 was $93,000, according to the latest state data, putting them in the top quartile in Massachusetts. The per capita income in Newton in 2022 was $91,282, according to the US Census Bureau.

By failing to call off the strike Thursday night, Newton teachers face a $200,000 fine for violating a temporary injunction issued by a Middlesex Superior Court judge. They’re scheduled to be called back into court on Friday.

The Newton union has $486,229 in cash on hand and $756,836 in total assets, according to court documents.

John Hillard of the Globe staff and correspondent Maddie Khaw contributed to this report.



James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him @globevaznis. Mandy McLaren can be reached at mandy.mclaren@globe.com. Follow her @mandy_mclaren.