EARLIER THIS YEAR, Woburn educators, addressing the grossly unfair pay offered to highly valued paraprofessionals, won a 40 percent starting-pay increase for the district’s paras. The Woburn Teachers Association further took on the ever-growing problem of educator shortages by establishing a new minimum salary for classroom teachers that meets the goals of US Sen. Bernie Sanders’ proposed legislation to establish a $60,000 minimum salary.
This past fall, the Malden Education Association won a nearly 50 percent increase in the pay of paraprofessional educators – taking them from poverty wages to something approaching a living wage. The union also won a commitment to address the growing housing insecurity of the families of their students in that gentrifying suburb of Boston.
Educators in Haverhill were able to help recruit and retain teachers by narrowing the huge gap in pay between their Gateway City and neighboring communities. The Haverhill Education Association also secured a contract with language aimed at curbing student behavioral issues in schools and won a college scholarship fund for students.
Last year in Brookline, educators ended a three-year standoff with the town’s School Committee and secured, among other gains, important racial justice initiatives that will benefit students and educators.
These groundbreaking achievements are all the products of labor strikes. Educators were forced into withholding their labor after months – or in the case of Brookline – years of fruitless contract negotiations because they could no longer tolerate what was happening in their schools and to their students.
These unions – and those in Somerville, Tewksbury, Belmont, Melrose, and elsewhere that were prepared to strike – quickly resolved long, drawn-out conflicts to the betterment of their schools and communities.
But these acts of public service were, in Massachusetts, illegal. Not only are public sector unions not allowed to strike, but they also can’t “induce, encourage, or condone” a strike. Free speech appears to be a constitutional right enjoyed by everyone except public servants.
Twelve other states have laws allowing public sector workers to strike. All private sector workers in the United States under the purview of the National Labor Relations Act have this basic human right. The Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Massachusetts AFL-CIO are supporting legislation which will allow for strikes by public employees (excluding public safety workers) after six months of good-faith bargaining. Two recent polls show that two-thirds of Massachusetts voters favor such a law.
Currently, educators and other public sector workers come to the collective bargaining table stripped of any real power. When management refuses to bargain over legitimate proposals, educator unions can do little more than publicly protest. And even when such actions build public support for fair contract settlements, we are seeing various mayors and school committees adopt a playbook of “ignore and delay” tactics. Unions can file an “unfair labor practice,” yet that process can take years before coming to a resolution and often the remediation is little more than a public mea culpa by management that it needs to do better. Limitations on bad behavior by employers are, in a word, toothless.
But even in the face of such unfair odds, even in the face of unjust penalties, we see educators rising up and saying, “Enough.” Met with tiresome resistance several unions have decided to exercise their human rights.
Workers do not go on strike because they want to. Our educators only want to be in school. And they know a strike can be hard on parents. But they do so – rarely, and only when forced to – in order to achieve the public schools their students and fellow educators deserve. Strikes are not the problem; the conditions leading to strikes are.
Everyone should have had the privilege, as we did, to see the powerful solidarity of educators in Malden and Haverhill this past fall, and Woburn last month. They acted out of love for their students and their schools. They cried at the sight of hundreds of parents and students showing up in support of their respective strikes. And they celebrated when they won improvements to their schools – despite the organized opposition of the school committees, superintendents, mayors, the Department of Labor, the districts’ anti-union lawyers, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the courts, and much of the press. Parents and the wider community trust educators and their unions when it comes to their public schools. As one parent recently said at a rally in Quincy: “If you, our beloved educators, are demanding something, we know it is right and needed for our children.”
It is long past time to fix this flawed law. Bringing fair balance to the collective bargaining process will produce better working and learning conditions. And making employers come to the table ready to bargain might smooth our collective bargaining process – and might, ironically, lead to fewer strikes.
Steven Tolman is the president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. Max Page is president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.