Unions say ruling against Andover teachers won’t curb activities
Unions continue to pressure school districts on reopening
AS SCHOOL DISTRICTS and teachers’ unions continue to debate whether teachers must report to work in person, a decision by the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board condemning an “illegal strike” by the Andover teachers’ union threatens to curb unions’ options.
But union representatives say the decision does not necessarily mean an end to workplace actions designed to pressure school districts to delay reopening until it is safe.
“Educators will continue to have the democratic discussions through their unions that they have been having, and they will make local decisions on what actions they’re going to take,” said Massachusetts Teachers Association president Merrie Najimy. “They’re not going to be silenced by a bad decision of the labor relations board. They remain committed to fighting for the health and safety for their students and the entire education community.”
The 35-page ruling, issued Tuesday night by the board that deals with public employee labor relations issues, stemmed from a dispute between the Andover School Committee and the Andover Educators Association, the local MTA affiliate.
During a professional development day on August 31, the union conducted a “work safety action,” where teachers set up outside the school buildings and did their professional development outdoors. In response, school officials docked their pay. The Andover School Committee filed a petition with the Department of Labor Relations asking for an investigation of a plan to strike. Under state law, public employees are not allowed to strike.
The decision by the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board concluded that the action constituted an illegal strike, because the teachers could not perform all their required duties outside the school buildings. The board ordered the union to cease and desist from any strike or work stoppage.
Gov. Charlie Baker, at a press conference Wednesday, voiced support for the Andover School Committee. Baker said the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education made the “unprecedented” decision, in a concession to the state’s teachers’ unions, of taking “10 precious educational days of the school year and applying them to training.” The state education department delayed the school year start for students to allow more time for teachers and districts to prepare for delivering instruction amid the pandemic.
“I think Andover made the right decision by arguing that a deal’s a deal, that there was an agreement that those 10 days would be spent conducting the training that was necessary for however that school district was going back in,” Baker said.
Baker has been a strong proponent of districts resuming in-person education, as long as they have low levels of COVID-19 infections. He said a majority of Massachusetts communities “are way below the norms that almost everybody anywhere in the world would apply for determining whether or not you can go back in and teach and educate kids.”
He added: “I think the DESE decision, which is that it’s OK to teach and to be in a basically empty building, is an appropriate decision.”
Union representatives say they disagree with the board’s decision – and they see potential legal opportunities for getting around it.
Potentially, unions could make that argument in another case.
Additionally, the decision noted that Andover is a “green” community on the state’s color-coded map, indicating low COVID-19 infection rates.
Other communities with higher infection rates may be in a different category. For example, the teachers’ union in the high-risk city of Lawrence has been holding standouts and considering its options to get the district to change its plan to require teachers to teach from inside school buildings, even though all students will be learning remotely.
Beth Kontos, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which the Lawrence teachers are affiliated with, said the Lawrence union has not made any decisions yet, but could go ahead with an action similar to that taken by Andover teachers depending on the outcome of negotiations.
“Their living situation [in Andover] is significantly different than one town over in Lawrence where we have a much more dense population, and I wonder if they might judge differently if it had been a different district,” Kontos said of the state employment relations board.
Najimy said a similar situation to the one in Andover is pending in Sharon, where the union voted to start remotely and the school committee voted for a hybrid plan. The Sharon school committee has also filed a complaint with the state labor relations board, accusing teachers who refused to enter school buildings of striking. That complaint is pending.
Najimy said the MTA “vehemently disagrees” with the labor relation board’s decision. “It aligns with the Baker administration reckless drive toward normalcy in times that aren’t normal,” Najimy said.
She said unions in communities like Haverhill, Revere, and Tewksbury are also contemplating what actions to take amid continuing disagreements with school committees.
In Haverhill, for example, the union and district remain far apart on issues related to COVID-19 testing and whether teachers should be required to teach simultaneously groups of students who are in class and at home. The union is waiting on an HVAC assessment for buildings, and has not yet agreed to a proposal regarding when to move from remote to hybrid learning.
Haverhill Education Association president Anthony Parolisi said the union has been paying close attention to what other districts have been doing “and having a lot of conversations locally about what actions we might be willing to take if the district can’t prove to us the buildings are safe.”Parolisi said the Andover decision gives the union “context” by expanding the definition of an illegal work stoppage, as his union plans an emergency meeting for Thursday to determine its next steps. “Having the decision certainly provides some more context for educators who are considering something like that throughout the Commonwealth, but ultimately our members have to decide whether or not they’re going to agree to follow an unsafe directive to work in buildings that may or may not be habitable,” Parolisi said.
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, which is still negotiating with the district, said she is “disappointed” in the ruling. “However, this ruling will not influence the BTU’s decisions on how we continue with our bargaining and negotiations processes,” Tang said in a statement. “What will influence our decisions is how best to prioritize the health and safety of our students, their families, and our educators.”