Massachusetts educators win big through successful strike

Educators in Andover, Massachusetts won a major victory on the evening of November 14, 2023. After a five day strike, which canceled three days of classes, the Andover Education Association (AEA) and the school committee reached a tentative agreement (TA). The TA sets out a living wage for Instructional Assistants (IAs), raises for all educators, paid parental leave, family and medical leave, longer lunch and recess in elementary schools and much more. None of this would have been possible without the massive show of solidarity between AEA members and the working class across eastern Massachusetts. 

Prior to the strike, the AEA educators were working under an expired contract for more than 2 months. They had engaged in almost 30 rounds of negotiations with the school committee that led nowhere. In mid-October, workers voted to initiate a work-to-rule action, meaning that they would only do exactly what is stated in their contracts, and nothing more. This action highlighted the many important ways school districts depend on the often unpaid and unrecognized labor of educators. Striking was a last resort and not taken lightly. Andover educators showed their unity in voting to strike, and their actions were enthusiastically supported by the community. Educators and community members gathered in support at the Andover common, the Massachusetts State House, and on picket lines. Schools were closed Friday, Monday, and Tuesday, meanwhile bargaining continued over the weekend. Students enthusiastically supported their striking teachers. 

Negotiations stalled over the weekend, and district courts ruled that the AEA would have to pay escalating fines, but the educators were relentless. They had the people on their side and they knew it. They returned to the table on Tuesday and won the majority of their demands. Educators returned to schools on Wednesday November 15 having made historic gains at the bargaining table.

The first pivotal event of the strike was a kick-off rally on Friday November 10. A few hundred people gathered under frigid cloudy skies to emphatically demonstrate solidarity. Tuba interludes warmed the crowd of a few hundred supporters, as chants of “Pay IAs” and “Do your job!” rang out. Andover educators, Massachusetts Teachers Association leadership and leaders from other unions all spoke strongly in support of educators. AEA president Matthew Bach spoke on the difficulty of closing schools, but concluded that, “it’s the right thing to do and if we didn’t do it I wouldn’t be able to go back to my classroom and look my students in the eye.” Dayshawn Simmons, president of the Somerville Educators Union, offered words of solidarity: “In Somerville, we often found ourselves second guessing if we did the right thing. Should we have settled? Looking at where we are right now, we were right to trust ourselves… trust in yourself that you are doing the right thing for your students, families and yourselves.” Woburn Teachers Association co-president Barbara Locke pledged to stand with the AEA as long as it took and told them, “Your fight is righteous… You are showing your students what it means to be brave, what it means to stand up for what is right.”

Parents and students also addressed the crowd. Andover parent Maura McCurdy-Santiago read a letter to the school committee, where she castigated them for “kick[ing] the can down the road”. She pointed out that Andover educators were fighting for more than just a pay raise. “This contract is not just about the money. Our teachers are asking for you to get rid of old literacy programs, as well as extend lunches and recess for our students, extensions that only match CDC guidelines.” The support from community members would prove critical. As the school committee went on the attack, teachers knew that families had their backs. 

Public sector strikes are illegal in Massachusetts, but what does that really mean? Governor Calvin Coolidge banned public strikes in 1919. This law has been used regularly to try to crush the labor movement, and similar laws are on the books in the majority of states.  The law, however, has not stopped teachers from tapping into the power of the working class. Many teachers unions in Massachusetts have gone on strike over the years, most recently Haverhill, Woburn, Brookline and Dedham. In reality, as Susan Geco, an IA and AEA member shrewdly pointed out, it is only illegal to strike if you lose. She went on to say that, “Teachers like to follow the rules and a lot of people needed to see the school committee in action… to see the disrespect, see how they argue over pennies and sick days.” 

Essex County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Karp contributed his own share of disrespect and levied heavy, escalating fines against the AEA on the first Monday of the strike. If teachers had stayed on strike through that Friday, they would have had to pay over $300,000 in fines. This intimidation could have cowed Andover educators, but they refused to back down. 

Supporters rallied again, this time at the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill. Over one hundred people came out at noon on Tuesday including both educators and students from a student group, Respect Our Teachers! There were short speeches and press coverage, and workers were feeling fired up and positive that the strike was leading to movement at the bargaining table. Mere hours later, a tentative agreement was reached. 

The list of contract wins is a lengthy one. Andover educators won a living wage for IAs, salary increases for all educators, 12 weeks of paid parental leave, and paid time off to help with sick family members. These concessions would not have been won without the massive outpouring of community support. Within 12 hours of striking, a local network of support was mobilized and on the ground. The AEA picked a strategic day to begin the strike, Veterans Day. Many schools were not in session, but Andover had classes scheduled. This allowed them to cancel class and also have educators from other districts present. Simmons predicted this victory, and left the crowd with a prediction.  “When you win it will go beyond any specific contract proposals. To find and seize your power will be transformative for you as individuals, as educators, as unionists, as community members, as citizens.” This strike was nothing short of transformative for educators in Andover, statewide, and nationwide. 

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