‘We are not replaceable!’ — Woburn, Mass., educators win strike

After 5 days on strike, the workers of the Woburn Teachers Association have won a contract that includes significant pay increases for teachers and paraprofessionals and smaller class sizes for 4th and 5th grade students. Despite the fact that public sector strikes in Massachusetts are deemed illegal under state law, the educators of the WTA took militant action to fight for their students, their coworkers and for public education as a human right. They ratified their new contract on Feb. 5 after a protracted struggle.

Throughout the week, hundreds of educators, students and community members gathered on the Woburn Common to rally, march and show unity in the face of Mayor Scott Galvin’s attempts to divide, belittle and disrespect members of the Woburn Teachers Association. When members of the bargaining team came out to talk with the workers, workers encouraged them with rousing cries of “Hold the line!” As educators chanted, “2, 4, 6, 8, Our paras deserve a living wage!,” “Union rights are human rights,” and “united, not divided,” the solidarity of the crowd and their willingness to put their livelihoods on the line for their fellow workers was clearly apparent.

The basic call, heard over and over again on the picket line, was for respect, especially after the mayor, during negotiations and in front of a large room full of silent representatives from the union, called the educators of the WTA “replaceable.” One sign on the picket line read, “If we are replaceable, why is school canceled?” At one of the rallies, an educator got on the mic to speak directly to Galvin, the school committee and the superintendent: “This is for the kids, this is for the paras who work with the most vulnerable students in our system. Scott Galvin, when you tell us we are replaceable, the kids are watching. When you say nothing, the School Committee, the kids are watching. When you, the superintendent, remain silent when Scott Galvin calls us replaceable, the kids are watching. You do not respect us and that stops today.”

One of the major victories in this contract is the significant increases in pay for paraprofessionals. From teachers, to students, to other union leaders, to the paras themselves, the injustice of para pay was the issue of the contract fight. Paras in Woburn make on average $22,000 per year, and many have to work second or third jobs to survive. The poor pay has led many to quit the profession, resulting in a dire paraprofessional shortage in the district. Without militant action on the part of the WTA, this trend would only continue. The new contract includes a 40% increase in pay for paraprofessionals over the next 4 years and a 13.5% increase for teachers, which is likely to amount to the rise in inflation over that period.

David, a paraprofessional in one of the Woburn elementary schools, explained, “If Scott Galvin spent even five minutes in one of our classrooms, he wouldn’t last. Right now, we have half the paras we need. We are doing the best we can, but it is not safe for these students with very high needs to be in understaffed classrooms. I took a pay cut just to work with these young people. If I didn’t have savings, I would have to move, but I care about Woburn and I live here. I pay rent to live here and after one of my paychecks, after I pay my rent, I have three dollars left over. Other paras have two other part-time jobs to make this work. What it comes down to is that Scott Galvin and the school committee, they are telling kids that they don’t need teachers, they don’t deserve support. It’s disgusting. It takes a weak person to attack children. Scott Galvin is forcing teachers out, which means he is forcing more and more kids into unsafe conditions.”

Other important issues are lowering class sizes and ensuring that elementary school students get at least 2 days a week of physical education classes. Christy Nickerson, a teacher with the union for 22 years, summarized the demands of the union in negotiation: “We are really not asking for anything incredibly hard. We have done a lot of research into the city’s financial health, and we believe the money is there to fund these changes.” The WTA has noted that the city has close to $70 million in unspent tax revenue and funding, based on public records.

Despite the fact that the city could easily afford to fully fund public education, the ruling class elite has been determined to crush this strike, from the elected mayor to the state legislature to the judge who issued an injunction ordering the union back to work. The people’s victory has been met with disgusting retaliation on the part of both the city government and the state. In addition to the $85,000 in fines that WTA is being required to pay the state for violating the ban on public sector strikes, Mayor Scott Galvin has also demanded a ransom of $225,000 from the union to pay for costs incurred during the strike. One of those “costs” is $95,000 towards police to “guard” the schools. Earlier this school year, when another Massachusetts teachers union, the Haverhill Education Association, went on strike, they also were forced to pay the city up to $500,000 for costs incurred, clear examples of retaliation against the workers for daring to stand up for themselves and their students.

Ultimately, the lessons of the strike for the workers remain powerful: Together workers have the power to stop the system and demand their fair share, because workers are the ones who make our society run. “We want to be in our classrooms, but I am feeling like we are really standing strong, standing together to fight for what we believe is the right thing. And that is so powerful,” said Christy. Para educator David said, looking at the crowds chanting, “I am very proud I got to be a part of this movement.” In the face of continued disrespect and injustice, the workers of the WTA stood strong and took the most militant action possible for workers under capitalism — the strike — and they won their demands!

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