Historic Newton Teachers Strike Highlights Divided MA Democratic Party

by | Feb 8, 2024 | Labor, Working Mass

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Newton Teachers Defeat Corporate Mayor After 11 Day Strike

By Oriana R. and Henry De Groot

“Jubilant” Newton Educators Return to Classroom

NEWTON, MA – The strike of more than 2000 Newton Teachers Association (NTA) public school educators ended last Friday night with a tentative agreement, making it not only the largest, but now the longest teachers strike in recent Massachusetts history. The strike lasted eleven days, six days longer than the 2023 Woburn educators’ strike. 

The strike is the latest in a series of wins by the increasingly assertive Massachusetts Teachers Association, and a dramatic demonstration of the growing collective power that member-led internal organizing is cultivating in schools across the state.

Monday will be a first day of school unlike any other in Newton’s history, as nearly 12,000 public school students return to their classrooms following the state’s longest teachers strike in decades. https://t.co/prMWen2SvC

— The Boston Globe (@BostonGlobe) February 5, 2024

Teacher Mike Schlegelmilch’s spirits soared as he walked into his beloved classroom this Monday on the heels of an embattled strike victory. Schlegelmilch, an English teacher at Newton North High School, was greeted by fellow educators with hugs and a bouquet of flowers. 

As the co-chair of the Contract Action Team and a building rep, Schlegelmilch had worked tirelessly for over a year building up to this moment. His elation was shared by everyone in the building, sharing that “people are so moved by what they accomplished together. And people are talking about the deeper connections they have with their colleagues, people from other schools, people from other roles. I think people feel an immense sense of caring for each other. The mood in my building today was jubilant.” 

The NTA did not take the strike lightly, knowing they would be up against a court system ready to fine them hundreds of thousands of dollars, a legal system and politicians who have made their right to strike illegal, and the most anti-union school committee and mayor that Massachusetts teachers have gone up against in recent history. NTA educators bargained for more than 16 months and worked without a contract since this summer, before finally taking the step to strike earlier last month. 

“Even a year ago, I’m not sure I believed that this could happen in Newton. Do the work, learn the organizing skills, they really work.” 

No one expected the strike to last as long as it did, but teachers knew they would have to be steadfast in their commitment when the first week of the strike ended with little progress at the bargaining table. The administration had made it clear that their strategy was to stall until they broke members’ willpower as court-imposed fines piled up, threatening to bankrupt the local’s finances. But even the local judge seemingly recognized Mayor Fuller’s failure to bargain in good faith, ruling one week into the strike to halt the practice of doubling fines on the union each day and suspending fines entirely for three days.  

Such a long strike was only possible based on the enduring morale and high participation of the NTA members. The success of the strike is testament to the years that union activists have spent organizing their peers behind the scenes, and especially over the last months as the contract campaign continued to escalate.

This is what a +2000 rally of fired up @NewtonTeachers educators looks like (with support from @MassNurses @DemSocialists and others)

Everyone united on a simple message to Mayor Fuller: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH#FuckAroundFindOut pic.twitter.com/VtpGTKpDwX

— Working Mass (@DSAWorkingMass) January 19, 2024

One Week Longer, One Week Stronger

As the strike extended into historic territory, the slogan “one day longer, one day stronger” transformed into “one week longer, one week stronger” as the educators’ union dug in its heels in the face of an obstinate administration.

Morale was at its most vulnerable at the start of the second week of the strike, as the school committee’s intractable stubbornness eroded hopes of a quick resolution. Members were cold and tired, with educators eager to return to their classrooms and their students.

The threat of demoralization was exacerbated by growing division within the community, as a small group of parents held a press conference against the union and small groups of counter protesters started to show up to their rallies. One parent and local attorney even filed a motion calling on the court to arrest the NTA’s president if the union did not end its strike. These anti-union parents found a ready audience among the anti-woke, anti-educator movement which grew dramatically across the country since the start of the pandemic; a video of the anti-union press conference shared on X by right wing accounts Libs Of TikTok and Crisis In The Classroom was by far the most retweeted in relation to the strike.

But even as this minority of parents – boosted by right wing elements nationwide – organized against the strike, other parents and community supporters stepped up their efforts to show solidarity, holding their own competing press conference to show that Newton parents continued to support the NTA’s demands. And parents were joined by community supporters including national union leaders and local Boston punk band The Dropkick Murphies who continued to lend their support through the two week fight.

We stand in solidarity with @NewtonTeachers striking for better schools, better learning environment for kids, and better jobs. pic.twitter.com/DTqmQCuzEu

— Sara Nelson (@FlyingWithSara) January 23, 2024

As the strike stretched further into its second week, educators held the picket lines, showing they would not be intimidated by cold, fines, or threats. Although a number of educators fell sick, at its lowest point attendance on the picket line still stayed above 93 percent, or some 1,850 picketing and pissed off teachers.  By midweek, the constant show of strength and solidarity undermined the confidence of some members of the school committee, which led to movement on a set of smaller agreements at the bargaining table. Building on this momentum, on Thursday the negotiations reached their height of progress with bargaining going late into the night and meeting agreements on all aspects except pay. 

But just as pay was finally settled on Friday, the School Committee pulled back and attempted to renegotiate non-economic components of the agreement. This was a pivotal moment for the bargaining committee and the union members to test their resolve and the strength they had built; having come this far, would the strikers continue to stand on their demands. 

Bargaining committee members were able to hold the line because it had become clear through the two weeks of bitter struggle that the 2000 members they represented were ready to continue the strike if needed, as nothing Mayor Fuller could whip up was strong enough to break the Newton Teachers Association. Rejecting a renegotiation, the bargaining committee finally reached a tentative agreement with the School Committee.

While the school committee had previously leaned on financial considerations to justify their rejections of the union’s demands, the last minute renegotiations by which they threatened to keep schools closed even further focused instead on teaching time and the learning agreement. The endurance of the striking teachers’ solidarity was apparently matched only by the enduring arrogance of the school administrators. As Schlegelmilch pointed out, the last-minute maneuvering was “just about trying to control us and take away our professional autonomy.”

Dropkick Murphys support striking Newton teachers with special performance https://t.co/BWah4bWyq5

— Boston.com (@BostonDotCom) January 31, 2024

Organizing Work Pays off in Tentative Agreement Wins

The NTA’s contract priorities focused on four categories of demands. 1) student mental health; demanding at least one full time social worker for every school and paying Social Emotional Learning interventionists a professional salary, 2) Special Education; give educational support professionals a living wage 3) Improved Daily Instruction; improved substitute coverage, increase elementary prep time, and provide adequate IT support and 4) Respect for Educators; Pay a reasonable Cost of Living Adjustment, equitable longevity payments, parental leave pay, and teaching and learning conditions. 

The Tentative Agreement critically includes wins from each of the four pillars of union’s contract priorities. Under special education, the pay increase for Unit C, teaching aides, increased from a minimum of $28,270 to $36,778 per year, a 30% increase. This was done by eliminating the bottom steps of the wage-scale throughout the contract years so that starting pay goes up for the bottom tier, as well as adding flat sums to annual salaries each year. 

Cost of living adjustments came out to a minimum of 12% over four years for all units. The agreement also includes improvements to the parental leave system, including twenty days of paid parental leave, after which teachers must use their sick days for pay as in the current policy. 

While the union did not win a complete victory on one of their core demands for a social worker in every school, they made meaningful progress towards this goal in the area of mental health. These wins include a district promise to hire five more elementary school social workers, and puts in place a recognition of the need for increased mental health support from the School Committee. There is also a series of commitments and a forum for increasing social worker staffing throughout the contract. The agreement additionally includes working condition protections and improvements, such as ensuring any changes to time and learning be negotiated. 

The NTA outlined members’ financial situations and their proposals for the current contract in a 2022 report, showing that their own COLA proposals were modest and low, not covering the 6.5% loss of real wages since the beginning of the previous expired contract. Their COLA proposals did not factor in the increase in cost of living in Boston, nor increased mortgage rates, factors that have undoubtedly contributed to the increased financial squeeze felt by educators since the pandemic. The City of Newton has decreased the percentage of the total budget it spends on schools since Fiscal Year 2007, which if it would have stayed the same in 2022 would offer the schools $7 million more to meet educator and staffing needs. 

Although many of these results fall short of educators’ full aspirations, they represent a marked improvement from the retrogression proposed by the School Committee in the lead up negotiations. The members were able to show true solidarity and strength over the protracted contract battle by no accident. Only through concerted action by the joint work of rank and file members, shop stewards, elected leaders, and union staff the resolve built. The contract action team was formed about a year ago and it took numerous thankless actions that finally paid off. Beginning actions that elicited grumbles from teachers were those such as wearing union blues every Tuesday, ranging to more difficult actions such as work to rule and staying silent during faculty meetings. Schlegelmich attributes the long and slow buildup to the strike for the members’ unyielding resolve, sense of community, and practice. 

To fellow union members and hopefuls, Schlegelmich says “Even a year ago, I’m not sure I believed that this could happen in Newton. Do the work, learn the organizing skills, they really work.” 

Strike Highlights Divide Among Massachusetts Democrats

As the strike wore on, it became increasingly clear to the community that the continuation of the strike was due to the stubbornness of the Newton School Committee and Mayor, with the crowds of educators and community supporters mocking the Mayor more and more with each passing day. 

Mayor Fuller was supported by the school committee and the city council, who were nearly unanimous in their opposition to the teachers union and the strike. Twenty-two out of twenty-four city counselors came out immediately with a statement against the strike, and the school committee consistently used Newton Public Schools communication channels to spread disinformation about the state of bargaining. There were even moments where it was made clear to union organizers that police were ready to arrest teachers if they went into the street. “The statements they made in public were so contemptuous of our union, the actions they took were so clearly trying to break our union” Shelgelmich reflected.

The confrontation between striking educators and the anti-union administration in Newton is just the latest example of the growing divide between the progressive movement and the corporate wing of the Democratic party in Massachusetts and across the United States. As the labor movement regains its militancy, it cannot help but come into conflict with those politicians whose progressive rhetoric evaporates as soon as they come to the issues that impact working people. 

It is unsurprising that this divide came to a head most sharply in Newton, a wealthy suburb of Boston almost synonymous with liberal elitism where the high-performing school district helps elevate property values. To her credit, Mayor Fuller, a former management consultant and Harvard Business School graduate who sent her own children to private school, does play the perfect villain. But Mayor Fuller is just the local personification of the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, which in Massachusetts is led by Governor Maura Healey. While a number of more progressive Democrats, including Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Senators Warren and Markey came out in full support of the educators demands, Governor Healey called for the teachers to end their strike, telling teachers to “get back in the classroom.”

Gov. Healey and Mayor Fuller chose a side, and it’s not the side of Newton’s students or striking educators

That’s why the city and state were in court today, arguing unsuccessfully that fines should continue to increase until they can break the union pic.twitter.com/ZDu2OtM8Qs

— Working Mass (@DSAWorkingMass) January 27, 2024

Massachusetts residents should be forgiven if they struggle to tell the difference between their new Democratic governor and her Republican predecessor Charlie Baker. Healey has failed to back major parts of the MA AFL-CIO’s legislative agenda, and is opposed to efforts by the Massachusetts Teachers Association to legalize the right of public educators to strike. But while a number of labor leaders in the Commonwealth have privately expressed to Working Mass their distrust of Governor Healey, they overwhelmingly supported her 2022 election campaign and mostly have failed to express any public criticism of her policies, such as tax breaks for the rich, out of fear of falling out of her good graces. 

Healey’s call for the NTA to end the strike was parroted by the increasingly reactionary editorial board of The Boston Globe, who ran no less than three editorials using the talking points of Mayor Fuller. The Globe has apparently taken it upon itself to oust The Boston Herald as Massachusett’s most reactionary and anti-union newspaper, making room in its prestigious pages for columnist’s attacks on the Massachusetts Teachers Association and calls to fire teachers if they refused to return to work.

Editorial: Judge should raise fines on Newton teachers union https://t.co/8rZVYjNlYR

— The Boston Globe (@BostonGlobe) February 2, 2024

Editorial: Who won in Newton? Not the students. https://t.co/ijNi8K2pbW

— Boston Globe Opinion (@GlobeOpinion) February 5, 2024

One of the only Newton politicians to support the Newton educators was councilor Bill Humphrey, who was also involved in the Bernie Sanders campaign. Humphrey’s support is just the latest example that, as the class struggle escalates, labor unions need politicians committed to a wider political movement and not just a few key issues. The more the class struggle escalates, the less unions can rely on a handful of crumbs from Neoliberal Democrats.

Boston DSA proudly stands in solidarity with the Newton Teachers Association.
Read more in the statements below! pic.twitter.com/TCVpG3Tb42

— Boston DSA (@Boston_DSA) January 24, 2024

While Democrats were divided in their support, socialists had no such trouble picking a side. DSA members and other socialists showed up in support on the picket line, and are now planning a fundraiser to help cover the cost of the court-imposed fines.

While support for labor from progressive politicians like Pressley and Warren is meaningful and welcome, socialists know that pro-labor politicians can and should do more than issuing written statements. It is crucial that our elected leaders walk picket lines with their constituents, support pro-labor legislation, and condemn their corporate peers when they fail to side with labor. Even more so, we need elected officials who see building a movement against the economic and political elite – in the legislatures, the workplaces, and the communities – as their overall purpose. 

Ultimately, this will require the launching a new party for working people which breaks fully with the Democratic establishment. The corporate Democrats will not be won over by perfect policies or appeals to morality, but can only be defeated by an open and organized struggle waged by working people. The job of socialists is to organize within unions to push them towards a final break with corporate politicians in the Commonwealth and across the country.

As for Newton, as the educators’ contract fight comes to a close, mainstream media has focused on the pain felt by teachers, students, and parents throughout the process. It was indeed painful and difficult, as Schlegelmich stated, people’s feelings are “a little complicated because this was truly a struggle, it was truly hard.” But as classes resume, Newton educators “are holding their heads a little higher.” 

Oriana R. is an educator, union member, editor of Working Mass, and member of the Boston DSA. 

Henry De Groot is a 2014 Newton North graduate, an editor of Working Mass, and a member of the Boston DSA.

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