By Brandon Hill
Spurred by the demands of teaching through a pandemic and still facing contract stalemates, teacher’s unions in Massachusetts have been organizing. They join a surge in union activity and membership spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and the entrance of the service industry into union membership amid an unprecedented new labor movement.
Massachusetts teachers’ unions have had a busy year. Years of unsuccessful bargaining over new contracts and the unique demands of education during the last years of the COVID-19 pandemic have made teachers’ unions a hotbed for the activity of organized workers in the last few months, continuing a trend of heightened union growth and activity in Greater Boston.
“You can’t have a broken system and not change it,” said Eric Schiff, lead negotiator for the Brookline Educators Union in an interview. He’s a guidance counselor at Brookline Public Schools where earlier this year the educators went on a strike — an action that is illegal in Massachusetts for workers in the public sector.
The union had been unsuccessfully bargaining over a new contract with the school committee for the last three years. But after the town’s nearly 1,000 educators didn’t show up to work on May 16, the contract was resolved within 24 hours. Brookline’s kids, certainly eager to return to the classroom with a fresh perspective on labor movements, were back in school by May 17.
“They had a process in town that was completely devoid of any kind of meaningful teacher voice,” Schiff said in an interview. “We have a collective bargaining process that needs to be respected. It really should have been the experts sitting in on [our] collective bargaining versus the teachers sitting in on the experts, because we’re the experts on what goes on in schools and what goes on in the classrooms.”
The strike’s success not only secured a better contract for teachers in Brookline but also encouraged and provided increased leverage for a series of freshly active teachers’ unions across Greater Boston. In Belmont, teachers successfully rallied for fair contracts under the threat of strike and Malden’s teachers still remain in the midst of a storm after 105 teachers and support staff were let go this May.
Brookline’s success may have given the dominos a nudge, but they were first brought close enough together, ironically, by the COVID-19 pandemic and the conditions it imposed on schools and educators.
“The last three years have been the most difficult any educator has lived to deal with,” said Marc Lefebvre, a Belmont science teacher, at a June 1 union rally in front of Belmont High School. Lefebvre cited the difficulties of hybrid teaching to the needs of students both online and in person. Even after a full return to the classroom, educators are operating under the demands of helping students catch up while working to maintain the same standards as before two hectic years of hybrid education.
Anyone with children or recollection of their own primary education is likely aware of how much extra work teachers perform outside their scheduled hours. One speaker at the rally, who introduced herself as Lizz, spoke about how she pays for her own children to attend an after-school program so that she can stay and provide assistance to students after class. She said that since the current teachers’ contract only allocated a 2.1% cost of living increase, and the cost of her kids’ after-school program was going up by 12%, this could be assistance she would no longer be able to provide.
Both Belmont and Brookline cited the high rate of post-COVID inflation as evidence that the cost-of-living increases in their existing contacts would be more accurately defined as a pay cut. In combination with the job’s increasing demands, the economic squeeze pushed teachers to action when they were met by unmoveable school committees at the bargaining table.
Before striking, Brookline first tried a collective action called “work-to-rule,” where the teachers only performed the duties specifically outlined by their job, like staying after hours and performing tasks like writing letters of recommendation for students off the clock. They hoped that the action would demonstrate just how much of their time and lives they give to students voluntarily — unpaid labor that they believe is one justification for a healthier contract.
“That was hard to keep together,” Schiff said, “because you just don’t want to stop doing stuff that helps [the students], but if you’re doing it to make the school run… that makes it tough.”
Whether within the Brookline contract demands or voiced at the Belmont rally, the teachers’ concerns for their students was never far from the subject. A core demand from the Brookline Educators Union was contract provisions that would protect teachers of color, which is proven to be a necessary boon for diverse classrooms.
“We had 360 layoffs in the Spring of 2020,” Schiff said. “The district had actually done a lot of work recruiting staff of color and they laid them all off. We wanted those voices at the table with the superintendent when these decisions were being made.”
For reasons like that, the Brookline teachers were reluctant to resort to “work-to-rule,” because of the negative impact it could have on students. When even that tactic failed to budge the school committee on negotiations, they soon organized the strike.
“Well, once you’ve done ‘work-to-rule’ it’s either settle or strike,” Schiff said.
When the Belmont Education Association was met with a similarly immoveable school committee, Dan Barry, a Belmont Team Meeting Member who spoke at their rally, said in a video interview that he believed the community’s attitude towards teachers during the previous years of the pandemic helped push the Belmont teachers to a place where they were also willing to go on strike for better working conditions.
“Starting maybe around January/February [of 2021] you started seeing lawn signs all over town that said something like, ‘schools, not screens,’” Barry said. “And something like three lines, ‘my child, my tax dollars, my choice,’ which I found to be extremely obnoxious.”
Noticeably absent from the signs, and the argument they presented to the community, was any mention of safe working conditions for the teachers, who were experiencing the same pandemic that put many of the parents bearing the signs into work-from-home conditions. Educators in Brookline shared a similar sentiment.
“People felt really disrespected and gaslit by the school committee and some of the parent groups in town,” Schiff said. “[They were] trying to force teachers into sick buildings and really not taking teacher voice into account when it came to how to get back into the classroom safely and effectively.”
In Malden, educators were rewarded for their work during the pandemic with 105 layoffs this May. The layoffs were handed down by the new superintendent of the school district, Superintendent Ligia Noriega-Murphy, and came at the tail end of a series of 18 grievances that the Malden Education Association felt were either handled improperly or almost complete ignored.
In response, the union organized to pass a “vote-of-no-confidence” against the superintendent with an overwhelming majority. In a public display at a meeting of the Malden School Committee, they voiced their grievances from a city chamber packed with Malden educators, students, parents and a select few dissenters. The union said that within her first year, Superintendent Noriega-Murphy had made many changes that were in conflict with the union contract without consulting or renegotiating. The many changes ranged from sudden new dress codes to altering evaluation criteria and withholding payments on stipends for teachers earning requisite credits.
Deborah Gesualdo, president of the Malden Education Association, said that she’s worked with the last superintendents and that filing more than five grievances in a given year would have been unprecedented.
“We have had to fight tooth and nail this year to even get hearings scheduled with the superintendent,” Gesualdo said. “There’s a contractual process to how grievances are handled, and [she] doesn’t even have enough respect to meet with us?”
Like in Brookline and Belmont, the pandemic years prior had set the right conditions for the union to more readily organize.
“It became easier, in a way, for people to take part because it was as simple as, ‘click join that Zoom meeting,’” Gesualdo said. “That  summer, as we were bargaining a safe return [to the classrooms] we were getting like 500 to 600 people in a meeting. We used to struggle to get a quorum in a meeting and all of a sudden we’re having these hundreds of people register. And they’re not just sitting in the meeting, they’re interacting.”
The union meetings became town halls for the teachers’ concerns about COVID-19 and how its handling would impact their job, but also the students and their families.
“All of a sudden it all connected for everyone and they really understood bargaining for the common good,” Gesualdo said, “how a contract doesn’t just impact the workers. You can use a contract to lift up your students and lift up their families and lift up the community as a whole.”