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EDITORIAL

Judge should raise fines on Newton teachers union

Last week’s decision to dial back the fines to $50,000 a day may have emboldened teachers to continue their illegal strike.

Newton educators cheered as the bargaining team could be seen through the windows of the Newton Public Schools Administration Building on Feb. 1, as the Newton teachers strike stretched into its 10th day.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Judge Christopher Barry-Smith may have had the best of intentions when he scaled back the daily fines against the striking teachers union in Newton last week. But events have proven that he misjudged the impact of that decision. By lightening up on the fines, a move that was supposed to encourage a resolution, Barry-Smith seems to have only emboldened the union to continue its illegal strike.

On Thursday, with the strike about to enter its third week, the Newton School Committee asked the judge to resume raising the fines, which had reached $200,000 before Barry-Smith knocked them back to $50,000 daily. He should do so. This is a serious matter, with the well-being of 12,000 children at stake. The court’s job is to coerce the teachers into obeying the law — with or without a new labor contract.

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There’s no shame in shifting gears. Figuring out the proper level to set fines is an inexact science. As Barry-Smith himself said in one of his initial rulings, “this court and the public will only really know the efficacy of a coercive fine if and when the strike ends.” By the same token, we’re only learning as we go what doesn’t work.

According to Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, the union took 26 hours to fully respond to one of the city’s recent proposals. That does not indicate that the union feels any particular urgency about ending the strike under the current fines.

In addition to seeking higher fines on the union, the committee also asked the judge to start fining individuals. Barry-Smith should also consider fining the statewide Massachusetts Teachers Association — as the judge who handled a teacher strike in Haverhill did in 2022. Those fines would need to be commensurate with the extreme hardship that has been created by the strike.

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And in case it needs it, the court now has plenty of evidence of just how much harm is being inflicted on innocent third parties — children and their families — for every day the strike continues. In a series of remarkably raw letters and emails to the judge posted on the court’s website on Thursday, parents and students described the hardships the strike had created for them and pleaded with the judge to take stronger action.

“This cohort of children has already been fundamentally damaged by two years of COVID shutdowns,” one parent wrote. “They are now being damaged again by a union whose demands are solely focused on what is good for their members rather than what is good for the children of Newton.”

“While the fines are no longer growing at an exponential rate, the impact on Newton families is,” wrote another.

“I am also a public (state) employee who knows what it’s like to go years without a contract,” wrote another parent. “The difference is, we don’t go on strike — the jobs we do are too important. It’s just completely unacceptable.”

Teachers in Newton are already among the most highly paid in the state, and the city has made a competitive offer that would keep them that way. In the face of the voluminous testimony from parents about how much damage the strike is doing to their kids, it’s nothing short of insulting to hear the union claim it’s continuing the stoppage for the sake of the children. It’s similarly galling to hear them accuse the city of failing to bargain in good faith. Who are they to talk? What would be a more bad-faith kind of bargaining than illegally inflicting such a hardship on Newton’s kids, and threatening to continue inflicting more of it, until teachers get their way?

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Late Thursday, the state’s Employment Relations Board suggested that the judge order the sides into binding arbitration, an option in state law for public safety workers. Even if the judge somehow decides he can impose binding arbitration on a non-public safety union, that’s a lengthy process, and would only kick the can down the road, since binding arbitration isn’t truly binding on municipalities, which can still decide against accepting deals they consider unaffordable.

In any case, while of course it would be ideal if the sides reached a settlement immediately, that shouldn’t be the court’s objective, and it’s a bit of a sleight of hand for the state to suggest that the lack of a deal is the problem in Newton and that “further steps are necessary to ensure the parties reach agreement without further delay.” The problem is the strike. Further steps are needed to stop the strike. Failing to reach a deal by an arbitrary deadline isn’t against the law, but striking is — and Barry-Smith’s goal should be to enforce the law.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.