Dedham public school teachers, embroiled in drawn-out and contentious contract negotiations with the district’s administration, went on strike Thursday afternoon, prompting officials to cancel school for Friday.
The action marks what is believed to be the first public teachers’ strike in Massachusetts in 12 years. It comes in an era of ramped-up union activity; locally, Stop & Shop workers went on strike earlier this year, while nationally tens of thousands of General Motors workers walked off factory floors last month.
The Dedham Education Association voted 275 to 2 in favor of a strike at a meeting held at the American Legion on Eastern Avenue, said Timothy Dwyer, the union’s president. Instead of showing up to work on Friday, teachers plan to picket outside the town’s five elementary schools, the middle school, and the high school, Dwyer said.
Dwyer said negotiations with the school district are at an impasse, saying, “The administration needs to sit down and bargain with us. We remain open to negotiations any time, any place.”
School Superintendent Michael J. Welch said the district was “saddened that our educators have chosen to consider this drastic and harmful action,” according to a statement from the school district.
Nearly 2,700 students were enrolled in Dedham Public Schools last year, according to the most recent state data. Although classes are canceled Friday, all school “employees and educators are expected to report to work,” the statement said.
Teachers’ strikes are illegal in Massachusetts and are uncommon in the state. In 2007, Quincy public school teachers walked off the job. That strike lasted four days.
The state’s employment relations board ruled Thursday that the Dedham union’s strike violates state law and ordered the union “to immediately cease and desist from engaging or threatening to engage in a strike.”
Key issues dividing the two sides include health care coverage, salary adjustments, and policies covering sexual harassment and student cellphone use, according to Dwyer.
The union said it wants a fair contract that takes into account “the financial impact on educators who switched into the town’s new high-cost insurance plans,” according to a statement from the group.
The average salary for a Dedham teacher in 2017 topped $82,000, according to the state.
The school district said it has offered a salary increase of between 11.5 to 12.3 percent by the fourth year of the contract for union members who are on the top step of the pay scale and a 9.2 percent increase in base pay over four years for educators not “on the top step,” which would be in addition to an automatic salary increase of 4 percent.
Dwyer said the union wants members who are still working through their salary steps to get a 12 percent increase during that time frame, while those already atop the pay scale would see a 15 percent increase.
About half of the union members are at the highest step on the union pay scale, while the other half are still working through their step, Dwyer said.
The district’s administration said that increasing the school budget “as currently sought by the DEA would create a gap that could not be met within current budget parameters and property tax levels set by the town.”
In the statement, Dwyer, who teaches social studies at Dedham High, indicated that the union was “pushed into taking this extreme step and want to return to the bargaining table so we can get back to the classroom.”
According to Dwyer, bargaining teams have not met since Aug. 1.
“They were looking for concessions during good financial times, making us work more with little or no compensation,” Dwyer said during a brief phone interview on Thursday.
He said the union is prepared to strike “until we have a fair contract.”
“We’re tired of it, tired of having negotiations where the bosses expect us to give things back,” he said.
According to the school district’s Thursday statement, the administration “has urged that educator contract negotiations not seep into the classroom and distract our students from their education.”
The strike comes weeks before both sides are slated to meet with an independent arbitrator for a fact-finding session, in an attempt to reach a “fair and equitable contract,” the administration said.
The School Committee said in the statement that it is charged “with finding a balance between what our budgets can sustain year over year and what our teachers so rightfully deserve.”
“We take the concerns of our educators seriously and have worked over the course of the last 21 months of negotiations to offer consideration and negotiated agreement to dozens of requests presented by the DEA at the outset of negotiations,” Welch said in the statement.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association released a statement Thursday supporting the Dedham union, saying that for almost two years of contract negotiations, educators’ concerns and needs were ignored.
“With their inadequate proposals and their snail’s pace of bargaining, the superintendent and School Committee have sent a clear message: We do not value the educators who teach our children,” said MTA’s president and vice president in a joint statement.
The Dedham union is not the only group of local public school teachers to be dissatisfied with contract negotiations in recent weeks.
In late August, the Newton teachers union expressed frustration at what it considered to be the protracted pace of negotiations in that city, which is among the wealthiest of Massachusetts communities.