Woburn teachers rally for higher pay as city seeks injunction to stop strike
Hundreds of Woburn teachers picketed Monday after weekend negotiations between union representatives and the school committee ended without a contract.
Those talks picked up Monday with a mediator present as a noisy crowd of hundreds made its way through the city. The city also sought an injunction to stop the strike.
The Woburn strike — which closed school for over 4,200 students Monday — is the latest in a series of teacher strikes in the past year. Brookline and Malden teachers were off the job for one day, and Haverhill educators picketed for almost a week before settling on a contract.
According to a statement from the Woburn Teachers Association, Sunday's negotiations began at 10 a.m. and ended around 6 p.m. Increases to paraprofessionals' wages were among the issues the union said it wanted to raise but that Woburn leaders "were not willing to discuss."
“We could’ve gotten this contract settled tonight," said Barbara Locke, president of the teachers association, in Sunday's statement.
Starting pay for a paraprofessional in Woburn is $22,500 annually. The union is fighting to raise the base pay for the support staff to around $28,000.
In a statement Friday, the Woburn school committee called the strike "illegal, disruptive and unnecessary." Earlier last week, in anticipation of the vote, the school committee said it filed a petition with the state Department of Labor Relations to investigate an illegal strike.
The weekend impasse paved the way for a raucous Monday. A rolling rally of educators and community supporters gathered outside Woburn Memorial High School, made its way to the district's elementary schools and finally stopped on the city's common outside City Hall.
As public sector employees, public school teachers aren't allowed to strike under state law. Woburn's school committee and city leaders sought an injunction in Middlesex County Superior Court Monday afternoon. If a judge grants the injunction, it would either end the strike or hand the union hefty fines.
But in Woburn and prior cases, union leaders said those fines are a risk worth taking as they seek a better contract — and, especially, to raise wages for paraprofessionals, classroom support staff who are typically among a school district's lowest paid employees.
Several dozen students of all ages accompanied striking teachers on Monday. Among them was Dawson LeBlanc, a sophomore at Woburn Memorial High School.
"I've been here since seven o'clock in the morning. I was one of the first people out here," said LeBlanc, who himself plans on becoming an educator. "Because I care about my teachers. They've done a lot for me over the years."
Paraprofessionals in the crowd said they have been moved by the solidarity of their colleagues throughout the contract fight.
Michelle Buonopane, an elementary paraprofessional and lifelong Woburn resident, said educators like her are "severely underpaid."
"We do deserve better," Buonopane said. "My husband is constantly telling me to quit and get a real job where I could make some real money — but I do this because I love it."
Buonopane and others blamed the stalled talks on Woburn Mayor Scott Galvin, with Locke, the union president, citing lack of leadership and a respect for educators.
Galvin could not be reached for comment as negotiations continued Monday afternoon. Both sides confirmed they are now working with a mediator, but no deal had been announced as of 4:30 p.m. Monday, threatening to keep schools closed for a second day on Tuesday.
In its statement, the school committee said it had reached a tentative agreement with the Woburn Teachers Association in October 2022 but that the union did not vote to ratify it.
With reporting from WBUR's news desk.
This article was originally published on January 30, 2023.