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Massachusetts Educators’ Joint Strike Wins Historic Common Good Demands

Above Photo: Hundreds rally outside Malden City Hall during an MEA bargaining session after a day on the picket lines.

Members of the Malden Education Association and the Haverhill Education Association have ratified new contracts won through a simultaneous strike last week. After one day on the picket line in Malden and four days in Haverhill, educators secured significant gains including higher wages, increased parental leave and commitments to housing justice. Students, community members, and workers came together in the hundreds to support striking educators across Massachusetts.

MEA and HEA, both locals of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, announced their strikes in a joint statement after their respective School Committees refused to consider common proposals “to address staffing shortages, racial and social justice, safety in schools, adequate time for educators to prepare and collaborate, and wages that have been chronically suppressed … We are saying enough is enough,” the joint statement concluded, “Our students deserve better, our communities deserve better, and we deserve better.”

Although public sector strikes are illegal in 39 states, including Massachusetts, teacher unions have been pushed to risk breaking the law to address the dire issues in public schools that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated. Earlier this year, Brookline Educators Union went on strike to win a contract after working for three years without one, and both Belmont Education Association and Somerville Education Association won their contracts with the threat of a strike.

“There haven’t been two education unions in the Commonwealth that have gone out on strike together in at least four decades,” MEA President Deb Gesualdo told Liberation News, “but our bargaining platforms were so similar, and our timelines were similar, so on October 14 we took our vote at 4:00, they took their vote at 4:30 and we did a joint press conference.”

Although separated by 30 miles, workers from both communities supported each other from the weekend leading up to the strike to the picket lines. “People from Malden went to Haverhill, people from Haverhill went to Malden,” Gesuldo said, “There’s now a bond between HEA and MEA that’s so strong, and that’s never going away. I think it also shows other unions that you don’t have to do these things alone and you don’t have to do this with other locals that are adjacent to you, all you have to do is build relationships with people and move forward.”

Wins for teachers, paraprofessionals and the common good

The gains won in the joint strike are significant. Tim Briggs, president of the HEA, stated in a press release that their new contract is, “closing a damaging wage gap between Haverhill educators and educators in other districts. We won language that addresses student safety. We won language to develop a more diverse teaching force.” All of these are tremendous benefits to the 8,000 students in Haverhill public schools.

In Malden, in addition to achieving teacher wage parity with surrounding communities, the new contract won an entirely new pay scale for Education Support Professionals — also referred to as paraprofessionals — who previously started at $23,000 a year. “It’s not as high as we would like,” Gesualdo said of the new pay scale, “but now no paraprofessional in the City of Malden will make less than $30,000 per year.”

The new contract also guarantees ESPs defined lunch schedules, whereas ESPs in some buildings were forced to take lunch at times as early as 8:45 a.m. prior to this win. Most significantly, the contract raises ESPs’ benefits to match with other educators’ benefits, overcoming a two-tier system common in public education, which creates a hierarchy between different job titles.

Gesualdo says a strong focus of their bargaining was common proposals from across the MEA units, which helped win gains such as equal paid parental leave for all bargaining units — a first for Massachusetts educators.

“Aside from any language and monetary gains,” Gesualdo told Liberation News, “I think the most important thing is that for the first time ever we settled a whole contract as one union instead of three separate units.”

MEA also won historic language around housing, adapting a draft of the Boston Teachers Union’s common good demands in their recently won contract. “If anyone gets it in [the contract], then it helps other unions in the future,” Gesualdo explains, “We wanted to have it as a specific article, but just getting it in as an appendix is huge.”

The housing justice appendix contractually obligates the Malden School Committee to collaborate with the MEA on a number of initiatives to combat student homelessness and soaring housing costs, two problems that plague the city. Since 2019, the average rent went up by 15.3%, displacing longtime, working-class residents and exacerbating discriminatory housing in one of the most diverse cities in Massachusetts.

To address the housing crisis in Malden, one program in the new MEA contract will identify unused city-owned buildings that can be converted to public housing. Another will advocate for a ban on evictions and foreclosures during the school year. Another will launch a pilot program to house homeless families, with a goal of eliminating student homelessness in the city.

“I looked through our files, as far back as 1981,” Gesualdo said, “and I can’t find any contracts that were bargained with language as strong as what we won.” Regarding the housing programs, Gesualdo also made it clear: “It took us taking the strike vote to make that happen. They only accepted those proposals the Saturday after we authorized the strike.”

Union and community solidarity leads to victory

These common good demands reflect the unity of the students, families and workers in both Malden and Haverhill, which was front and center when school workers walked the picket lines on Oct. 17. “The community support was wild,” MEA president Deb Gesualdo told Liberation News, “The narrative from the boss is that strikes are divisive, they drive the community apart, and we saw the exact opposite happen. Families were dropping off water and baked goods, or they were on the picket line with us.”

Local churches offered child care to striking workers, and other unions showed support in a variety of ways. “There was tremendous solidarity,” Gesualdo said, “Firefighters opened their doors to us so we could use their restrooms. School clerical workers were ordered to go in to work, but they joined us on the picket lines before and after business hours. We had elevator repairmen who refused to [cross the picket line] and fix the elevators. UPS drivers, letter carriers, and the milk delivery person all refused to deliver to the schools.”

“I spent pretty much all day at the picket lines,” said Malden High School student Lovely Gerochi, describing scenes of around a hundred people marching and chanting at Malden High and at one of five K-8 schools in Malden, Salemwood School. Gerochi stated, “It just doesn’t seem right. The School Committee is not doing its job and it’s not treating the educators respectfully, especially because they’re the foundations of the city. Without them we’re not going to get an education, we’re not going to have a future.”

Gerochi knows from experience how her school district has been struggling with understaffing, one of the core concerns of Malden educators’ contract bargaining: “On my schedule a lot of my classes say TBA. There are a lot of students now that don’t have teachers.” Gerochi shared how this impacts the students, “A lot of the students are in study halls. There’s people who have AP classes with no teacher and they’re screwed for their exams in the spring because they’re just sitting there, doing work for other classes and not learning.”

These unfilled positions are the result of the shocking layoffs of over 100 educators in May by the Malden Superintendent, and are central to MEA’s demands for living wages, manageable class sizes and student safety. Many see these layoffs as the start of the Malden contract struggle that culminated in last Monday’s strike.

“It was a union bust by attrition,” says Jacob Augenstern, one of the teachers whose contract was non-renewed, “They wanted to weaken the union as we were about to begin contract bargaining, so the superintendent, with the School Committee’s blessing, found reasons to get rid of people, many of whom had a reputation for being pro-union.”

Gesualdo agrees, crediting actions fighting back against the non-renewals, organized by MEA and the Boston Liberation Center, with more MEA rank-and-file militancy. “That was what really spurred people to take action,” she told Liberation News, “It’s so different now than it was before. As we started doing more actions, people saw that if we all stand together that’s where our strength comes from, that’s where our protection comes from, and people started bonding over that.”

Strategic escalation builds power

Between May and October, MEA members engaged in over 25 escalating actions, including weekend rallies, before- and after-school standouts, multilingual community flyering, working-to-rule, and a coordinated Friday walkout at the contractual end-of-day, when most school staff are forced to stay late due to a lack of planning time. At one school, the Malden Superintendent forced educators out of the lobby to pre-empt the Friday action. “It was like a lockout,” Gesualdo said, “but once they were outside, the staff surrounded [the superintendent] and chanted her down.”

Animosity from the School Committee has been a consistent roadblock to MEA’s bargaining efforts, coming to a head at the Oct. 11 bargaining session when the city’s only proposal was to remove the position of union president. All of MEA’s proposals were ignored or rejected, including a proposal to provide a first aid kit in each classroom to ensure student safety.

“I didn’t expect that to be the thing that did it,” says president Gesualdo, “but that was the tipping point for people who were on the fence about going on strike. It became really clear that people wanted to take action. That was the will of the rank-and-file.

Malden and Haverhill educators both voted overwhelmingly with over 95% support, first to authorize their strikes and then to ratify their contracts won by their strikes. “We went into this together and we’re going to celebrate it together,” Gesualdo says, “We’re going to keep up the organizing momentum, but we also want to make sure we have opportunities for people to enjoy each other’s fellowship. It was beautiful to see on the strike line people having fun with one another, people taking care of one another. This is why public sector strikes are illegal, because they don’t want us together making those bonds.”

With the strike victoriously behind them, Gesualdo says the MEA is ready for anything in the future: “We have a whole structure that we’ve tested. We have picket-in-a-box kits ready to use or to lend out. Hopefully [the School Committee] smartens up, but if they don’t, we’re here to remind them that they don’t hold the power.”

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