Should Massachusetts legalize teachers’ strikes?

WHEN EDUCATORS IN four Massachusetts school districts went on strike over the past year, walking out of the building meant walking into hot water with the state. Public employee strikes are illegal in Massachusetts, but they tend to be effective – teachers in Brookline, Malden, Haverhill, and Woburn walked back into their schools with new contracts.

The rising number of actual and threatened walkouts feels like a shift in the air to school administrators and lawmakers alike. But they differ sharply on whether the state should open the door to the trend or keep the current law firmly in place.

Strikes cause serious disruption to educators, families, and students, and leave a bitterness in school districts, Tom Scott, executive director of Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said on the Codcast. State Sen. Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat who has filed a bill to legalize public employee strikes after six months of failed negotiations, said teacher strikes are an important collective bargaining tool that is increasingly supported by the public.

Rausch and other progressive lawmakers think the time may finally be ripe for strike legalization, which the state’s largest teachers union, Massachusetts Teachers Association, is pushing strongly. But it sets them up for a clash with more moderate colleagues, including the state’s new Democratic governor, who declared that she’s “not a fan” of legalizing educator walkouts.

“The right to strike is one of the most foundational rights for workers that we have,” Rausch said. “The reason that there’s a six-month period built into the bill is because I think everybody agrees that a strike should be a measure of last resort.” 

Several factors are driving the increase in local strikes, Rausch and Scott said. The pandemic brought mental health and school infrastructure concerns to the forefront. An increasingly turbulent economy of rising inflation, soaring housing costs, and crushing student loans debt are also impacting school staff. 

Rausch and Scott clashed over the effectiveness of strikes as a negotiation tool, with Scott calling their impact “marginal” and Rausch countering that “strikes and votes to strike yield better results faster for teachers and students and communities at large.”

Scott argued that the walkouts poison the atmosphere in school districts. 

“It all comes out to sort of a more heated moment in terms of how these decisions get made,” Scott said of teacher strikes. “I think they leave everybody feeling very uncomfortable, which does nothing to promote the culture of the school or the district, which I believe, and certainly from my conversation with superintendents, can have long-term damaging effects.” 

Other avenues to collectively bargain are not always being pursued, Scott said. Teachers have other ways to protest, he said, by going to school committee meetings, town meetings, “to the front steps of their elected officials,” and make their objections public.

“There are tools that we have that are not being used,” he said. “My fear, and the fear I think for a lot of people, is that if you create the law that says they can go immediately to strike after six months without using the tools that exist there, what you’re doing is just disrupting a lot of lives, most importantly the lives of children.”  

Educators and parents are very aware of the potential disruption, Rausch said.

“I am a parent of elementary-aged kids. We had to figure out what to do, particularly in those early days of Covid when nobody knew what we were doing,” she said of the pandemic shutdown of schools. “Even knowing how hard that is, the parents and communities are still by significant majorities rallying around their teachers in support of their teachers.”

Recent polling from Northwind Strategies, which generally pursues more left-leaning policy questions, found 67 percent of respondents at least somewhat supported strikes when asked, “do you support or oppose allowing public school teachers to go on strike to fight for higher wages and improved working conditions?”

With Gov. Maura Healey opposed to the idea, and Senate President Karen Spilka also signaling wariness, legalizing teachers strikes may be a tougher sell on Beacon Hill.



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