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Undaunted By Fines, Massachusetts Teachers Defy Strike Ban

Above Photo: Public employees strikes are banned in Massachusetts. But “at some point, you have to choose between doing what is right and doing what is legal,” said Haverhill Education Association Vice President Barry Davis. HEA.

Massachusetts – Two more illegal strikes have hit Massachusetts! On October 14, members of the Haverhill Educators Association voted to strike. Malden educators voted to strike just a few hours later.

After four days out, Haverhill educators won their demands for school safety and commitment for diverse hiring; those in Malden settled their contract with a one-day strike.

The school committee in Haverhill had dragged its feet and walked away from the table again and again. On the last night of the strike, hundreds of striking teachers, along with students, parents, and educators from nearby districts, stood outside city hall chanting “Do your job” and “Settle this now.”

“What settled the contract,” said Deb McCarthy, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, “was the members outside of city hall.”

$10,000 Behind

Haverhill and Malden, north of Boston, are among the state’s poorer cities; they’ve been sorely underfunding their schools for decades. Teacher salaries in Haverhill are $10,000 less than the Massachusetts average.

As students returned to school from the pandemic lockdown last year, there were fewer teachers, larger classes, and a plethora of students who were anxious, confused, and struggling to manage their emotions after the disruptions of the pandemic.

Yet in the spring, when the city received funds from the American Rescue Plan Act—funds designated for schools and educators—Haverhill’s mayor took those funds for the city instead, and cut its contribution to the school budget by $600,000.

Over the last 20 years, Haverhill Education Association members had accepted seven years of 0 percent wage increases, falling further and further behind their counterparts in other districts. This time they said, “No more.”

Not Alone

The three-year agreement in Haverhill raises salaries 3 to 4 percent each year. It also sets terms for HEA and the district to develop practices to hire a more diverse staff.

School safety, which was a critical issue for teachers and a sticking point in negotiations, will get a task force to develop protocols to report and respond to violence or threats.

The district fought for language that would have allowed it to retaliate against strikers, but the members won contract clauses securing no retaliation.

In Malden, the strikers won a $7,000 raise in base pay for paraprofessionals and 12 weeks of parental leave for all members.

They also won a contractual commitment that the district and the union will work to secure housing for students and their families—including demanding that the city ban evictions during the school year.

The unions, both chapters of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), built their courage through an informal coalition of unions and community members in the Merrimack Valley.

The coalition includes unions from Tewksbury (where educators won a contract earlier this year just before taking a strike vote), Andover (where educators in a 2020 job action refused to enter their classrooms and instead worked remotely outside of the school buildings), and some American Federation of Teachers locals (MTA chapters are locals of the National Education Association, NEA).

“The coalition is a place where we are teaching each other not to take concessions,” said Matt Bach, president of the Andover Education Association, “to raise the bar for our demands, and to be ready to use the full force of our collective power to win.”

Beyond the Merrimack Valley coalition, educators in Brookline, just south of Boston, won an illegal strike in May. Educators in Dedham struck and won in 2019. Those in Belmont were strike-ready this year before they settled a winning contract.

In September after the MTA’s all-presidents meeting, representatives from Brookline, Dedham, Belmont, and Tewksbury led a workshop on preparing for a strike.

And recently members from Haverhill, Malden, Belmont, Brookline, and Tewksbury were invited to a general meeting of the union in Worcester, where they’re gearing up for their contract campaign, to talk about how they built their contract campaigns and got themselves strike-ready.

“The tone was amazing,” Brookline Educators Union President Jessica Wender-Shubow said. “There has been a huge shift in thinking. Now everyone understood that this was not about persuasion, but about power.”

Open Bargaining

The unions in Haverhill and Malden invited not only members, but also people from the community to observe bargaining. Bargaining sessions were packed with members, educators from other locals, and people from the community. Everyone got to observe the disrespect the district showed members.

In Malden, on the Sunday after the strike vote and before the members walked out on Monday, NEA President Becky Pringle joined the bargaining as a silent observer.

The lead-up to the strike in Haverhill was a five-year process, said HEA Vice President Barry Davis. It started when teachers decided to take on the austerity budgets and refuse to accept that there was no funding available for the schools. Through many individual conversations, they increased members’ expectations for what they could demand.

Three years ago the union was able to win raises—minimal, but more than it had in many years.

But this year, “after about 10 sessions it was clear the district was not willing to engage with us,” Davis said. “When they brought in a hired gun lawyer whose job was to distract and delay—who said, ‘Take these offers and be happy with it’—we said, ‘We’ve had enough.’”

The attorney representing the Haverhill School Committee and the Malden School Committee, David Connolly, advertises himself as able to provide “union avoidance.”

He has also been appointed to represent the state in school districts which have been put under state control—where workers have therefore lost some collective bargaining rights.

‘Students For Teachers’

In September, 200 students walked out of Haverhill High School in support of their teachers. The students coordinated through an Instagram group called “Students for Teachers: Haverhill.”

“Our teachers have supported us throughout our education,” said high school senior Sheeba Nabiryo, “and when the school committee does not value teachers, they are not valuing the students.”

The school committee and the mayor portrayed the strike as a burden to the community. But “the school committee and the mayor are ignorant about how passionate this community is,” Nabiryo said at a rally on the steps of city hall during the strike.

“When we go back to school after the contract is settled, we will be going back to schools that are better equipped to take care of us and give us what we need.”

What Is Right Vs. What Is Legal

“Massachusetts likes to describe itself as a progressive state,” Wender-Shubow told a rally in Malden.

“But a state that says workers cannot decide to withhold labor together once they have signed on to a job—well, that state has no right to claim it’s progressive. It can’t even lay claim to being a true democracy.”

The union in Malden settled without the district imposing any fines. But in Haverhill, in order to get the schools open, the union agreed to pay the district $250,000 for what it characterized as “specious claims of extraordinary costs associated with the strike,” plus a court fine of $110,000 for refusing to return to work when ordered back. Fifty thousand dollars of the fines will be used to establish a scholarship for Haverhill graduates attending public colleges.

The MTA was also ordered to disavow the strike and refused, on principle, to do so. The court fined the MTA, too, $110,000 for refusing this order.

While these are significant fines, no one I spoke to was deterred.

“At some point, you have to choose between doing what is right and doing what is legal,” Davis said. “We chose what is right, and that is to stand up for our students.”

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