NEWTON – More than 2,000 members of the Newton Teachers Association (NTA) launched a strike on Friday morning.
The strike is the latest in a wave of illegal – and successful – teachers’ strikes in Massachusetts, the largest in the state since Quincy teachers walked out in 2007.
Teachers are demanding higher pay, especially for low-paid support staff, and an end to the chronic underfunding of Newton Public Schools (NPS). The Newton School Committee has hired a union-busting law firm and condemned the strike.
High Spirits on the Picket Line
As the 9am strike deadline approached, hundreds of teachers converged on Newton Center with union shirts and signs. Passing cars blared their horns in solidarity while teachers chanted: “What do we want? FAIR CONTRACT! When do we want it? NOW!”
Despite the freezing temperatures, the sidewalks were loud and cheerful as students, parents, and other community supporters bolstered the teachers’ picket lines.
“Newton teachers are fantastic,” said one parent as she helped hand out coffee and donuts. “The fact that they don’t get respect pisses me off.”
She described how for years, local politicians have touted the district’s “competitiveness,” pointing to building improvements and new school construction. But teacher pay has failed to keep up with spiraling living costs, turnover is high, and conditions for teachers and students have gotten steadily worse.
“It’s not about buildings, it’s about the teachers who work there,” she argued. “They’re the ones who take care of the kids. If they’re not treated right the whole system falls apart.”
Teachers agreed, noting that the district has been underfunded for years. Teachers endure hour-plus commutes, unable to afford Newton’s rising housing costs. Understaffing is rampant since teachers can find higher pay in most other suburban districts. And lower-paid support staff are forced to work second and third jobs to make ends meet.
Multiple NTA members told Working Mass how excited they were to fight back after years of neglect from the district.
“We haven’t felt this disrespected in a long time,” said one Newton South High School teacher. “We’re out here because we mean business.”
One of the most popular picket line chants was about the city’s Democratic mayor, Ruthanne Fuller: “Hey hey, ho ho, Mayor Fuller has got to go!”
Although the Newton community seems fully in support of striking educators, the Newton political establishment is firmly against the teachers’ demands.
Fuller, a former business consultant, has condemned the strike. The Newton School Committee – which includes a corporate consultant, a hedge fund manager, and the former CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess – has stonewalled the NTA in negotiations, ignoring teachers’ demands over more than a year of negotiations.
According to a longtime NTA activist, as the union has gotten bolder and more organized in recent years, the district has become openly hostile in negotiations and shut down even moderate proposals from the union.
“It’s part of their strategy,” he told Working Mass. “They want to use the strike to break the union.”
Unions, community groups, and local socialists are all supporting the teachers. Boston DSA members, including NTA and other union activists, came out to bolster the picket lines.
Rallying for Better Schools
The first day of the strike culminated in a mass rally at Newton City Hall, where thousands of teachers and supporters gathered to flex their power.
Newton teachers, Boston Teachers Union (BTU) president Jessica Tang, and supporters from the Somerville Educators Union (SEU) and the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) all spoke.
MTA president Max Page kicked off the rally by praising Newton teachers’ dedication. “Today you are an inspiration to all of us: to your students, your families, and to unionists all across the state and all across the country.”
Leo, a Newton high school student, condemned Mayor Fuller’s letter to students and families, which claimed the strike “would harm our children.”
“Mayor Fuller, I don’t know where you get the audacity to claim that our teachers are hurting us. When’s the last time you set foot inside a Newton classroom?”
“What’s really hurting the schools, what’s really hurting the students, is having classes of 37 students. What really hurts us is when teachers have to balance childcare and coming to work. What really hurts us is when we can’t get access to a social worker when we need it most.”
In a passionate speech, Ashley Raven, a preschool teacher in the Newton Early Childhood Program (NECP), described the special burden on underpaid Unit C staff. She dared Fuller and the School Committee to work as support staff in Newton schools for just one week.
“At the end of that week, you tell us if you felt fairly compensated. You tell us if you felt respected for the work you did.”
The rally ended with a chant that had been heard all throughout the day: “Enough is enough! Enough is enough!”
Preparing for the Long Haul
The longest recent teachers’ strike, in Woburn, lasted five days. Based on the stubbornness of Fuller and the School Committee, informed sources told Working Mass the NTA is digging in for a multi-week strike if necessary.
Members seem ready to hold the line. “We didn’t pick this fight,” said an elementary school teacher as the day wrapped up. “But if they want one, we’ll give it to them.”
Strike actions are planned for this weekend. All community supporters are encouraged to come out to the Newton Education Center (100 Walnut St) from 10am-1pm and City Hall (1000 Commonwealth Ave) from 1-4pm, on both Saturday and Sunday.