The Massachusetts Teachers Association wants to legalize teachers' strikes in the face of opposition to the idea from Gov. Maura Healey, but unions are simultaneously racking up contract wins with a series of strikes that violate state law.
Educators in Woburn spent five school days on strike before they achieved a deal with the district Sunday night, the latest in a series of such labor actions in the past year that have generated massive attention, some fines for unions and, in each case, a contract agreement.
In May, Brookline educators struck for one day before reaching a contract agreement. Teachers were on strike in Malden for a single day October, the same month that Haverhill teachers went on strike for four days. And last month, Melrose teachers voted to strike, then quickly agreed to a deal with the city to avert actually shuttering schools.
Massachusetts is one of dozens of states where public employees and public employee organizations are prohibited from striking, and advocates for years have been unsuccessful at convincing a critical mass of lawmakers to support changing the status quo.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association targeted an end to that ban as one of its priorities for the 2023-2024 session, arguing that a lack of ability to strike legally puts educators at a disadvantage in contract negotiations with districts who are able to stall talks.
In the meantime, unions have opted to proceed with strikes, aware that such action violates state law and could carry financial consequences.
Last year, the Haverhill Educator Association agreed to pay the school committee $200,000 as part of its return-to-work agreement. The agreement in Woburn also features a $225,000 reimbursement payment by the union, the Boston Globe reported, while outlining 13.75 percent raises for teachers and about 40 percent pay bumps for paraprofessionals, who typically start at a salary of $22,000 per year.
"No educator wants to be on strike, no local says this is a great thing to do. It becomes necessary in their minds to do so. They recognize that it is not easy on anyone to not have schools open. It's not their ideal at all," MTA President Max Page told the State House News Service. "By the same token, they also do it because they feel like for the near and long term, to win parental leave or to win fair pay for underpaid paraprofessionals and to lift the profession in that way — ultimately, they make the calculation that it's worth it to achieve that for the long term."
Any effort to reverse the public-sector strike ban in Massachusetts figures to run into opposition from the corner office.
Healey, a Democrat who earned the MTA's endorsement on the campaign trail, said in an interview on CBS Boston that aired Sunday that she does not support the union's push to authorize educator strikes.
"I think we should be doing everything we can to support our educators, particularly in this time and what so many have been through with COVID — a lot of strain on our educators, also a lot of strain on our kids and families. So every day, when I see kids out of school because of a strike, my heart just breaks, because kids have been through enough in terms of learning loss and the like," Healey said. "My strong encouragement has been to resolve this labor matter. Let's get the kids back in school. Let's give them what they need, and find ways of course to support our educators and our schools."
When host Jon Keller asked if that meant Healey would veto a bill permitting teachers unions to strike if it reached her desk, she replied, "I'm not a fan."
"There's a reason why that is in place," she said of the existing ban. "While I have a lot of sympathy and want to make sure that workers, in this case educators, are getting paid what they should for the important work they do, it's still paramount that our kids be in school."
Page said the Mass. Teachers Association "disagree(s) with her opinion" and plans to work to "educate her about exactly what this legislation does."
Reps. Mike Connolly of Cambridge and Erika Uyterhoeven of Somerville as well as Sen. Becca Rausch of Needham, all Democrats, filed legislation (HD 588 / SD 317) in the new session that would allow some public employees to launch a strike after six months of collective bargaining agreement negotiations.
"If you listen to her full comments, she also says $22,000 a year for a paraprofessional is not enough to live on, and educators need fair pay and good working conditions in their schools," Page said of Healey's interview. "I think the governor understands the issue. Where we may disagree is simply this right may actually allow for better, quicker bargaining."
Connolly and Uyterhoeven sought a similar bill in the 2021-2022 session, but top Democrats sent it to a dead-end study without it emerging in either chamber for a vote.
"This bill would remove the grotesque and outrageous prohibition against the full organized labor and strike potential for public-sector workers," Connolly said on Friday. "Like everyone, we want our kids in school, so I call on everyone to negotiate and to get this resolved. But there's one point I do want to make, and that is the wonderful education that children are getting when they see their teachers stand up and demand dignity and respect in the workplace."
Healey's stance is similar to that taken by her predecessor, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. In October, when teachers were striking in Malden and Haverhill, Baker said it's "obviously against the law to strike" and warned about impacts on students.
The debate has revealed an early point of tension between Healey and organized labor interests.
After rallying outside the State House on Friday, Woburn educators entered the building and requested a meeting with Healey. An aide declined to make the governor or Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll available, saying both were in meetings.
"The state should show it's standing up for people who take care of our children and are making $22,000," said Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steve Tolman, referring to the starting salary for Woburn paraprofessionals. "They don't get paid (for) three months in the summer, so it's nine months. Divide that, it's about $13.50 an hour. I ask you: do you think that's right?"
With reporting from State House News Service reporter Sam Drysdale.