State law says teacher strikes are illegal in Massachusetts, but what does that mean practically for the Dedham educators who voted overwhelmingly Thursday for a work stoppage?
Here’s the relevant statute in the Mass. General Laws:
“No public employee or employee organization shall engage in a strike, and no public employee or employee organization shall induce, encourage or condone any strike, work stoppage, slowdown or withholding of services by such public employees.”
The statute then outlines the next steps, which could culminate in court proceedings.
“Whenever a strike occurs or is about to occur, the employer shall petition the [state labor relations] commission to make an investigation,” the statute says. “If, after investigation, the commission determines that any provision ... of this section has been or is about to be violated, it shall immediately set requirements that must be complied with, including, but not limited to, instituting appropriate proceedings in the superior court for the county wherein such violation has occurred or is about to occur for enforcement of such requirements.”
Asked to comment Friday on the legal implications of the strike, the Massachusetts Teachers Association provided a statement that went out Thursday night, backing the Dedham crew.
“The MTA strongly supports the members of the Dedham Education Association in their fight for a fair contract,” the statement said. “We call on Superintendent Michael Welch and the Dedham School Committee to come back to the bargaining table immediately and resolve all issues so that our members can focus on the thing that matters most — providing a high-quality education to every student in every school.”
For almost two years, the statement said, the Dedham union “negotiated without success with the superintendent and School Committee ... The members of the Dedham Education Association are fighting to preserve the dignity and professional voice that public school educators deserve as they dedicate their lives to ensuring the success of their students.”
Welch didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment Friday.
On Thursday, he released a statement saying the school district had already “received a ruling from the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations. They have ruled that this strike is illegal and our educators should return to work. We take the concerns of our educators very seriously and we have been working hard over the last 21 months to reach agreement on a fair contract.”
Welch said the parties “have already agreed on an arbitration date of November 19, but we want to make real progress before that time.”
The 18-page ruling from the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board says in part that Friday “is a scheduled work day for all bargaining unit members” and that “teachers at the high school are required to be at work in their building by 7:30 a.m.,” while arrival times for other schools are later.
According to the ruling, the Dedham Education Association previously engaged in a one-day strike in 1990 and several “non-full days of unlawful walkouts in 2005.” The ruling ordered the union to “immediately cease and desist from engaging or threatening to engage in a strike or work stoppage, slowdown, or other withholding of services.”
The employment relations board filed a civil complaint on Friday in Norfolk Superior Court seeking to have a judge enforce its order, legal filings show.
Earlier Friday, Timothy Dwyer, president of the Dedham Education Association, criticized the school administration’s efforts to obtain the ruling from the state board that ordered the teachers to return to work.
“They would have been better off bargaining,” Dwyer said.
Rachel Dudley, union secretary and chair of the bargaining team, noted that the state’s first teachers strike in 12 years is illegal but not criminal.
“We teach our kids to stand up for themselves, and this is a time we decided to stand up for ourselves,” Dudley said. “We’re committed to be out until we receive a fair contract.”
In addition to disagreements over pay, the union officers said, the Dedham Education Association wants language addressing the problem of sexual harassment inserted in the contract.
State Representative Mike Connolly, a Democrat representing parts of Cambridge and Somerville, said Thursday via Twitter that he’s working to change the law barring public union strikes.
“#Solidarity with public school teachers who are going on strike in Dedham tomorrow!” Connolly tweeted. “Also: I am the lead sponsor of H.1602, “An Act protecting the right to strike,” which would legalize public sector strikes here in Massachusetts.”
Connolly doubled down in a follow-up tweet Friday.
“Thought for the day: the most important things we can teach our children are lessons in #justice, #solidarity, and collective action — because our survival as a species will depend on today’s youth internalizing these concepts,” he wrote. “Thank you #Dedham teachers for all that you do!”