By ERWIN FREED
On Monday, May 16, public school teachers in Brookline, a suburb of Boston, went on strike after negotiations with the local school committee broke down. Workers held lively pickets outside of Brookline’s nine public school buildings and on street corners throughout the town. Decked out in “Red for Ed” t-shirts with slogans like “United Mind Workers” and “Proud Union Member,” teachers paid homage to modern and historic struggles of the working class while demanding a contract, better pay, more diverse hiring, and guaranteed preparatory periods.
The action followed nearly three years in which Brookline Educators Union (BEU) members worked without a contract. BEU members voted on Thursday, May 12, to authorize a strike if negotiations the next Saturday fell through. The vote was well attended, with BEU members telling Workers’ Voice strike supporters that over 80% of the 1000-member bargaining unit attended the meeting and well over 90% voted to strike. The Brookline school committee, the management body negotiating against the teachers, was moved by the strike to come to an agreement with the union. Teachers went back to work on Tuesday, May 17, and are deciding whether or not to ratify the proposed contract.
Wages, conditions, and racial justice
Around 37% of Brookline teachers have gone without a raise since 2020. The rest have missed out on cost of living adjustments, and salary increases have not kept up with inflation. The greater Boston area is one of the most expensive metropolitan regions in the country. The tentative agreement made early Tuesday morning accepted the school committee’s final wage proposals. In prior negotiations, the union had proposed 7.5% raises from 2020-2023 and 9% in 2023-2026. The school committee told the press that the tentative contract includes a 6% wage increase, followed by an 8% increase over the period of September 2023 through August 2026, with an additional 1% boost in August 2026.
Another main area of negotiation was over prep time. This is a crucial bargaining question for educators all over the country as staffing shortages accelerate in public schools. According to the Boston Herald, there are “567,000 fewer teachers in America’s public schools than there were before the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And nationally, the ratio of hires to job openings in the education sector currently stands at 0.57 hires for every open position…” The staffing shortage is even more severe with substitutes. School boards and other managerial figures are attempting to “fill in the gaps” by forcing full-time teachers to substitute on an ad-hoc basis instead of paying more to incentivize substitute teachers and retain long-term staff.
A basic part of the workday for K-12 teachers is, in the words of the United Federation of Teachers, time set aside “to write lesson plans, grade papers, analyze student data, research a lesson topic, meet with parents or colleagues, or do other professional work of your choice.“ Prep periods are considered a fundamental right for educators only to be sacrificed on short-term, emergency bases. Instead, schools are forcing teachers to work in various capacities through their prep times, causing huge disruptions for educators and students.
The BEU demanded 40 minutes of prep time per day, minimum, while as of Sunday May 15, the school committee had no counter-offer. After the strike, the tentative agreement continues to guarantee K-5 teachers 40 minutes of prep time/day, 6-8 grade teachers will now have at least 40 minutes/day, high school teachers have one unassigned bloc, and “specialty” teachers will begin to have one unassigned bloc in 2025.
Public education in the United States has a major problem of racial composition. Due in large part to structural racism, there are disproportionately low numbers of teachers from marginalized communities, especially Black educators. The fight for diversity and racial justice has been central in the Brookline contract negotiations. While the school committee made no real suggestions for hiring and sustaining more Black, Latina, and Indigenous professional staff, according to a summary graphic of contract demands, the union fought to put together a plan for “granting … [professional teacher status] to historically underrepresented educators as soon as is allowed … in order to recruit and retain educators of color by giving them protected voice.”
A summary of the TA published by WGBH News indicates that the language provisionally agreed to by the bargaining parties “acknowledges that the Superintendent has authority to grant PTS to educators, including educators of underrepresented groups” and “defines a ‘Working Group on Workforce Diversity and Underrepresented Staff’ to ‘identify strategies and specific action steps to be taken to enhance the District’s ability to attract and retain a diverse workforce.’” These steps would appear to be left purposefully abstract and their effectiveness will certainly be determined by the ability of the BEU to mobilize for meaningful affirmative action-type measures.
BEU shows a successful strike!
As BEU educators mull over whether or not to accept the terms of the tentative agreement, the entire labor movement should look at what they have been able to accomplish with a single day’s strike. In the first place, the BEU made a huge gain for public-sector workers in Massachusetts and nearby states like Connecticut by showing that even though laws on the books may outlaw teachers’ strikes, mass action by essential workers can still bring victories. Second, the problems of the Brookline school district are the problems of schools all over the country and throughout the region. By going on strike, BEU provided an important example proving that the best way to fight for better pay, control over the work environment, and combat institutional racism are through workers’ action and especially strikes.
Workers’ Voice stands with BEU and hopes teachers all over the country learn from Brookline’s heroic experience!
Photo: Erwin Freed / Workers’ Voice