Newton teachers’ illegal strike persists amid building fines
Massachusetts law prohibits public employees from going on strike. Now, the NTA is restarting conversations about whether it is time to change the law.
Since Jan. 19, the Newton Teachers Association has been on strike with increasing pressure to return students to school as soon as possible. 98% of NTA’s members voted to strike after reaching an impasse in contract negotiations with the Newton School Committee. Every day, union members march outside City Hall along with students, parents, community members and fellow educators from neighboring school districts. Due to Massachusetts law prohibiting public employees from striking, hefty fines are lodged against the NTA, starting at $25,000 on the first day and doubling with each subsequent day. As of Jan. 26, fines amassed to $375,000 for canceling six consecutive school days. A Middlesex judge ruled that fines will continue at a lowered rate of $50,000 for every day past Jan. 28 if a deal is not reached.
One of the NTA’s key demands is 60 days of paid parental leave, the same amount the Commonwealth of Massachusetts requires for private sector employees. Furthermore, they are asking for elementary preparation time to be increased by 40 minutes per week so that teachers have more time to consult teaching assistants and behavioral therapists regarding lesson plans. The NTA also wants livable wages for teaching assistants and behavioral therapists, whose starting salary is currently $27,000, as well as adequate payment for substitute teachers, who are currently paid $97 per day. In addition to fair wages, students’ mental health is another major focus of the strike, with the NTA demanding a social worker in all school buildings including preschool, elementary, middle and high school.
In a written statement released on Jan. 23, Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller addressed the NTA: “Please don’t continue with this strike. The School Committee negotiating team will continue bargaining in good faith, and I will continue to support our terrific teachers with the funding for a competitive and sustainable contract.”
However, in a Jan. 26 interview with The Justice, Denise Cremin, a Spanish teacher at Newton North High School and a member of the NTA for the past 28 years, said that Fuller and the School Committee “have not negotiated in good faith for almost a year-and-a-half.”
“What we usually do is we bargain each element of the contract separately.” The contract, which has been in negotiations since October 2022 with approximately 10 different iterations, has not had a lot of “back-and-forth,” Cremin said.
After a full day of negotiations on Jan. 24, the NTA was hopeful for a resolution. However, the next day, the School Committee rejected all of the NTA’s counter proposals. “We’re still struggling with the fact that they don’t want to negotiate with us.”
According to the School Committee, there are not sufficient funds to meet the NTA’s demands. In a Jan. 22 interview with Fig City News, Matt Hills, former chair of the Newton School Committee and current vice chair of the Board of Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, stated, “The City can’t significantly and sustainably increase its schools allocation without causing distress in other parts of the budget … You can’t just ignore all other city services that 100% of our residents depend on.”
Meanwhile, proponents of the strike argue that the funds exist but that Fuller withheld them. “The Newton Public Schools have been chronically underfunded, at an arbitrary amount that [Fuller] sets at 3.5%” of the annual budget, Cremin stated. According to Superintendent Anna Nolin, they need at least 5% to 6.5% of the budget to adequately fund the schools.
“There is actually a close to $50 million surplus that the mayor does have at her discretion and is unwilling to use,” Cremin said. The system is “backwards,” she added, because Fuller is pre-emptively restricting the budget instead of the School Committee determining the budget based on how much money is needed for necessary programming for the students.
In a Jan. 28 statement, Superintendent Nolin specified that the biggest obstacle during negotiations between the School Committee and the NTA are the costs linked to “various proposals” from the organization. “All of these proposals have to work in tandem to ensure a balanced and sustainable budget through the life of this contract,” Nolin wrote. “I cannot endorse a budget that makes cuts to our current level of services or to our current employees to fund this contract and budgets for the years of the contract.” The Superintendent wrote that the School Committee already supports several of NTA’s demands such as an increased number of social workers, high school staff, an expansion of parent leave, higher salaries for Educational Support Professionals and several other items; however, unsettled motions include but are not limited to restructuring the elementary school schedule to increase educator planning time, a district day dedicated to professional development and factoring cost of living into educators’ salaries.
Cremin added that the School Committee is “even rejecting pieces of the contract that don’t cost them any money.” For instance, one of the denied demands is to include language in teachers’ contracts to ensure that the duties that they fulfill in volunteer positions are separated from explicit job requirements.
“These kinds of negotiations are tipped toward management,” Cremin said. “We’re being fined for withholding our labor. And the School Committee hasn't been negotiating with us. They’re withholding that labor, yet they are not being fined for the negotiations process … These fines are meant to be coercive and not punitive. And they are, I think, somewhat outdated.”
The NTA strike has reinvigorated debates to overturn the law prohibiting public employees from striking in Massachusetts. Since 2022, teachers unions in Brookline, Andover, Haverhill, Woburn and Malden have all declared strikes. Cremin explained that part of how the NTA covers the fines is through financial contributions from national organizations and other teachers unions that they have similarly supported in past years.
Lawmakers in both the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the State Senate have proposed bills that would allow public employees to strike legally in Massachusetts after six months of negotiations, with the exception of public safety employees. Representatives Erika Uyterhoeven of Somerville and Mike Connolly of Cambridge co-sponsored a bill in the House while State Senator Becca Rausch of Needham filed a bill in the Senate. Leaders from the Massachusetts Teachers Association testified in support of the legislation before the Joint Committee on Workforce and Labor Development at the State House last fall.
Governor Maura Healey, whom the NTA endorsed on the campaign trail, voiced opposition to overturning the law in a CBS News interview last year. Healey wants workers to get the compensation they deserve, but “it's still paramount that our kids be in school.”
For every canceled school day due to the strike, another school day is added to the end of the school year to minimize the impact on the students.
“As a parent and long-time teacher, I am heartbroken that the failure of negotiations has led to this moment. This is detrimental to the health and well-being of our students, and they should always be our first priority,” Nolin wrote in a Jan. 18 email to NPS families.
“I would much, much, much rather be in my classroom with my students,” Cremin told The Justice. “However, the strike is important. It’s important to advocate for students’ mental health. It’s important to advocate for [teaching assistants and behavioral therapists] to have a living wage. And it’s important to advocate for ourselves because we can’t put students first if we’re last in line all the time.” Cremin emphasized that the NTA is prepared to strike until they receive a fair contract.
In spite of their differences, the NTA, School Committee and Mayor Fuller all claim to have one common goal: returning 12,000 Newton students to their classrooms.