School officials and teachers unions in Malden and Haverhill are spending the weekend in last minute contract negotiations. Union members in both communities have authorized strikes on Monday if deals can't be penned in time.
"Nobody wants to go on strike," said Deb Gesualdo, President of the Malden Education Association. "Nobody wants to take an illegal action. But we feel that we are backed into a corner and have to. It's very serious."
Malden started the school year without a contract, while Haverhill has been negotiating since May. The unions are asking for higher wages, more staff, smaller classroom sizes, and better support for students following two school years of pandemic learning.
Gesualdo said both units are organizing together to provide more than just emotional support for members.
"I think it does send a larger and stronger message that we are not going to be stuck in these toxic cycles of endless, disrespectful bargaining that are not just disrespectful to the educators, but are disrespectful to our students, their families and the community," said Gesualdo.
Under Massachusetts law, it's illegal for public employees and employee organizations, including teachers, to go on strike. The Haverhill School Committee said in a statement if a strike happens, they would file action against the Haverhill Education Association in Essex Superior Court. Additionally, last Wednesday, the School Committee filed a request with the state Department of Labor Relations, asking for an investigation into a possible strike by the Education Association.
Ligia Noriega-Murphy, superintendent of Malden Public Schools, said in a statement: “This maneuver by leaders of the Malden Education Association may be intended to send a message to school district leaders, but ultimately, it is our students and families who suffer the consequences of these tactics." In that same statement, Malden Mayor Gary Christenson said negotiations were not at an impasse, and the city would continue to negotiate in good faith.
In a statement to WBUR, Scott Wood, Chair of the Haverhill Teachers Negotiating Subcommittee, wrote: “Striking does nothing to bring us together to come to a mutual decision on a contract which is fair and equitable for our teachers, Haverhill families and taxpayers."
Both districts said they had already alerted parents that strikes on Monday were possible.
In support of the last minute bargaining, teachers, families and other community members rallied on Saturday in Malden and Haverhill.
Haverhill middle school teacher Dan Sullivan was one of them. He says he doesn't want to walk off the job, but will if it comes to that:
"We all plan on being at work on Monday, we don't want to do this," said Sullivan. "This is us making a stand to make an investment for our kids in the future."
Seven unions in Andover, Tewksbury, Somerville, Brookline, Wellesley, Burlington, and Belmont have come out in support of teachers in Malden and Haverhill. And many of them were represented at Saturday's rallies.
The Brookline Educators Union went on a one day strike in May. Union president Jessica Wender-Shubow said people are constantly thanking her and the union for that strike because it showed other districts and teachers what's possible. She said the educator community is small, so it only makes sense to come together.
"It is, frankly, an old style, long term solidarity," said Wender-Shubow. "I've got your back. I understand your experience. It's familiar to me. I am also seeing this happen in my school district. We shouldn't be isolated and alone."
And that support is extending beyond fellow unions, says Deb Gesualdo, President of the Malden Education Association.
"It brings me to tears when parents reach out and say, we support you withholding your labor because it's what our students need," said Gesualdo. "And if it takes two days, two weeks or two months. We support you because this is the only way our students are going to get what they need and deserve because they're not getting what they need from our city."
Kelly McNulty is one of those parents. She has a fourth grader in Haverhill Public Schools. McNulty says while she doesn't like the idea of her daughter being out of school for a long time, she supports the teachers in her district.
"If we don't have happy teachers what are they going to do? Are they going to go somewhere else?" said McNulty. "So we'll just have teachers that don't care? Teachers that don't want to teach? Teachers that are just there for whatever it is that they are offering?"
If both districts do go on strike, it's estimated that roughly 14,000 students would be impacted.