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Teachers in 2 Mass. Districts Test Whether Walkouts Really Are Against the Law

Striking teachers and unions in Haverhill and Malden will almost certainly come away without paying a price for their supposedly illegal actions

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One of organized labor’s favorite slogans is, “There is no such thing as an illegal strike, only an unsuccessful one.”

We are seeing this play out this week in Haverhill and Malden, Massachusetts. Teachers in both school districts went on strike Oct. 17 after fruitless contract negotiations. The Malden union reached a tentative agreement with the district after a single day on strike.

State law is explicit on the question of public employee strikes: “No public employee or employee organization shall engage in a strike, and no public employee or employee organization shall induce, encourage or condone any strike, work stoppage, slowdown or withholding of services by such public employees.”

Despite this, Massachusetts teacher strikes have occurred more frequently in recent years after a lull of about a decade. Teachers in Dedham went on strike in 2019, as did some in Andover and Sharon in 2020, as well as those in Brookline last May.

I have long opposed no-strike laws for public school teachers. Enforcement is rare, consequences even rarer, and the unions don’t take them seriously at all. Brookline union officers give seminars on their illegal strike, and their advice appears to have made its way to Haverhill and Malden.

The Haverhill School Committee got wind of a possible walkout last week and immediately petitioned the state labor relations board to prevent it from taking place. The evidence the committee presented included a list of frequently asked questions that was apparently generated by the teachers union in preparation for the strike vote.

With the bold headline, “DOCUMENT FOR UNION MEMBERS ONLY, NOT TO BE POSTED,” it explained that in previous strikes, “not one person lost their job, and return-to-work protections were negotiated.”

It also noted, “The penalty for strikes is typically a monetary one leveled against the union, not individual educators.”

Surely the teachers are smart enough to know that any union penalties will be paid by members with their dues money. The statement also flies in the face of the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s assertion that “rank-and-file members are the union.”

The state union released a press statement that said, “In Malden and Haverhill, our members are fighting for the common good.” However, the Haverhill FAQ document puts that claim in doubt.

In answer to the question, “What about children with special needs?” the union responded, “This is a matter for the District to handle. Imagine if there were a hurricane, except this is one of the district’s own making — same thing, the District has to make a plan.”

And to the question, “During a strike, what things are in place to support those children who rely on school for safety and necessities like food?” the union replied, “It’s like a snow day. If the school district chooses to arrange something, they can do that without the labor of school employees and those exercising solidarity with their collective action.”

The district and the state labor relations board filed a court complaint and a superior court judge issued a temporary injunction against the Haverhill strike. The union, however, remains defiant.

“Haverhill Public Schools teachers and the HEA have chosen to do what is moral over what is legal,” said Haverhill Education Association vice president Barry Davis. “Until a tentative agreement is reached, we will be on the picket lines.”

The union will bank on getting all charges and penalties dropped as part of the contract negotiations. Any settlements will almost certainly require making up instructional days lost to the strikes, so no one will lose any pay. Both teachers and unions in Haverhill and Malden will almost certainly come away without paying a price for their illegal actions.

Teachers want students and the community to get the message that striking, even if illegal, is the right thing to do for everyone’s benefit. That’s all well and good, but people might also apply that lesson elsewhere, like challenging election results, or even ignoring provisions in teachers’ contracts that are detrimental to students. You can’t flout the laws you don’t like and still expect firm enforcement of those you do.

Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears most Wednesdays; see the full archive.

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