By Eli Gerzon
Haverhill and Malden public school educators both went on strike on Monday, October 17 — the first time in decades that multiple educators’ unions have coordinated strikes in Massachusetts. Educators struck for one day in Malden and for four days in Haverhill, and union members in both districts secured new contracts and major wins.
Reflecting on the strike, Tim Briggs, president of the Haverhill Education Association, recalled that there was “more joy and tears than ever before in a four-day period!”
Educators’ unions in several other towns in the Commonwealth are now facing major contract struggles and have been inspired and helped by these two successful strikes. If they follow the example of the Haverhill and Malden strikes — by uniting educators and education support professionals, building community and student support, testing strike-readiness through carefully planned preparatory actions, coordinating strikes with other districts, and engaging members in militant direct actions to keep pressure on management — they are sure to win fair contracts which improve conditions for students and workers alike.
Underfunded and Disrespected
For decades, educators in Haverhill, Malden, and other Massachusetts gateway cities have been underfunded. Gateway cities are working-class urban areas with high immigrant populations. Educators in these cities have been underpaid on top of confronting significant issues such as class sizes, caseloads, staff retention, and safety. Haverhill educators are paid about $10,000 less than the average public school educator in the state. In 7 of the last 20 years, they did not receive raises.
Safety has been another major issue for educators in both Haverhill and Malden. Some young students can be violent with adults and cause real harm even at the age of six or seven. High school students sometimes get into physical fights, and it’s up to the educators to intervene. Sometimes that leads to teachers getting hurt.
Educators spoke about wanting the school administration to hire more educators so that class sizes will be smaller, more manageable, and safer.
Teachers at Constantino Middle School in Haverhill told Working Mass that there are rats moving around the school during the day, doors don’t lock, ceiling tiles fall off, rooms flood, and the heat doesn’t work in some rooms — to the point that kids have to wear winter coats in the classroom.
Educators in both school districts expressed frustration about the school committees using delay tactics during contract negotiations for several months this year.
Deb Gesualdo, president of the Malden Education Association, has been on the union’s negotiating team since 2004 and described the delay tactics as, “The worst I’ve ever seen.”
Preparing to Fight Back
In Malden and Haverhill hundreds of rank-and-file union members attended the bargaining sessions as silent members — many of them for the first time. Workers were frustrated with how the school committees in both cities conducted themselves in these negotiations. After months of delays at the bargaining table, educators in Haverhill and Malden started to escalate their tactics.
In the fall both Malden and Haverhill organized rotating work-to-rule actions. And they organized days where educators would wear union swag: shirts, pins, and so on that would send a message of solidarity. Every morning in Haverhill, one out of their 14 schools held a rally before school started. They handed out flyers and spoke to community members.
Cliff Ashbrook is a Programming and Web Development vocational teacher at Haverhill High School. In the union, his role is Contract Action Team (CAT) co-chair. CATs set up communication networks so rank-and-file union members are informed about contract negotiations and can coordinate actions. In the case of Haverhill, that means coordinating 1,000 educators.
Ashbrook said those rallies were also “to show strength and solidarity. It was really good practice: we needed actions where we could work as a team.” Many unions use these types of rallies as test runs for when workers actually go on strike.
Another simple form of solidarity and escalation, pins, led to some dramatic results. In September, teachers and other educators started wearing pins to school reading “FAIR CONTRACT NOW #NoMoreBusinessAsUsual.” In smaller letters at the top, the pins read “EDUCATORS ARE THE HEART OF HAVERHILL” with HEA highlighted to represent the union’s initials. Educators also wore the Spanish version of the pins: “CONTRATO JUSTO AHORA.”
High school students like Ricardo Galloway noticed teachers wearing these pins. Students started asking around and learned more about the plight of Haverhill educators. They learned that Haverhill teachers have been underpaid for decades. Galloway was not impressed with the school committee’s offer of 1.5%, 1.5%, and 2% raises each year. “When we see inflation at 8%, we’re talking about a wage reduction rather than a wage increase right now. And so just based off that, it’s unacceptable.”
Galloway noticed some of the issues personally in his education: in the span of four years he had 8 different art teachers. He said this lack of continuity hurt his education. “The teachers, they want the students to have the best teachers, the best education possible. How can you expect that when you can’t pay our teachers competitive wages?”
Galloway said that ultimately, “This isn’t just about getting the teachers a fair contract. It’s about making education in Haverhill better overall? We want good teachers, long-term teachers who care about the schools.”
Inspired, Galloway and other students helped organize a student walkout at Haverhill High School in support of teachers on September 20.
“We had 220 kids walk out. That’s 10% of the student population,” said Galloway.
Multiple students and teachers who spoke with Working Mass believe that student participation in the walkout would have been even higher if not for an email from school administrators before the walkout threatening to suspend those who participated and bench student-athletes. Security guards and school administrators blocked doors and told students they couldn’t walk out.
Another high school student, Russell Leung, said, “I was scared because I’ve never really been in trouble. Walking out and facing the repercussions was scary… But you know, I just had to do what was right.”
In the end, school administrators gave all 220 students detention. But none of them were suspended from school, as the emails had threatened.
Ready to Strike
After several months of delays by both school committees, on Friday, October 14, both unions in Haverhill and Malden independently voted to authorize a strike. They then coordinated staggered rallies on Saturday to turn up the pressure and prepare for the strike: 1 p.m. in Haverhill and 4 p.m. in Malden.
Local teachers, teachers from other districts, students, state Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven, and members of City Life/Vida Urbana all spoke at both rallies. A large truck from Teamsters Local 25 was there in solidarity at both rallies. They circled around the block in Haverhill and Malden blasting pop music, eliciting cheers, and forcing people speaking at the rally to pause as the truck passed. The current international president of the Teamsters, Sean O’Brien, started his career at Teamsters Local 25.
Lauren Sanguedolce, treasurer of the Haverhill Education Association, spoke powerfully about the experience that has been typical for many educators in Haverhill. Her speech got so many cheers, jeers, and laughs that it’s worth quoting at length:
“We work for much less than the state average, struggling to pay our bills, but continue to hope that maybe the next contract will be better. We endure large class sizes because too many positions aren’t filled. We struggle with higher caseloads that take hours away from our family. We juggle classrooms without special education support because they’re used as substitutes. We work in old buildings that have no AC but have plenty of mice.”
“Members grumble and gripe because of a disappointing lackluster ride on the mayor’s contract train. [Jim Fiorentini]’s train doesn’t bellow a happy, ‘CHOO CHOO!’ It’s more like a pathetic cry of ‘CHEAP CHEAP!’ and ‘LIES LIES!’” she said to laughs from the crowd.
Sanguedolce also spoke about the things educators had to do in order to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic: teaching students on Zoom, teaching parents to use Zoom, following up, keeping track of everything on spreadsheets, and so on.
“That was so difficult. We persevered. We did it all. And for what? To hear the power on the other side of the negotiation table say, ‘No. No. No.’” Sanguedolce paused while people booed before continuing, “… and to lie about what’s really going on at the bargaining table in press releases and so on.”
Sanguedolce concluded by saying, “We are the heart of Haverhill and we are the strongest we’ve ever, ever been.”
Despite the union strength on display, many educators were understandably hesitant to speak on the record. One educator who wanted to remain anonymous was holding a sign reading, “15 HOURS UNPAID” referring to the unpaid overtime work she does in a typical week.
Merrie Najimy, former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, started her speech in Haverhill by saying, “I’m going to say something that I wasn’t able to say when I was president of the MTA: I support you going on strike!”
Both unions tried to negotiate late into the night on Sunday but finally chose to go on strike late on Sunday, October 16. Hundreds of teachers and community members showed their support on Sunday for the bargaining committee. Max Page, MTA president, and Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, were also in Malden for several hours to support the workers, making clear that the significance of this struggle extends far beyond Massachusetts.
Many educators were nervous about taking this step. As former MTA president Merrie Najimy told Working Mass at the Haverhill rally on Saturday, “We have seen throughout history, that when laws are immoral or unjust, you just have to break them.” As president of the MTA she was not allowed to directly discuss strikes with her members. But under Najimy’s leadership, the MTA did provide trainings for teachers to learn to organize and prepare for strikes — while avoiding saying the word “strike.”
Gesualdo said, “I’m one of the few people who had been to any picket line. I told people they’d be smiling at the picket. They didn’t believe me. But they did! So many smiles.”
After one day on strike, Malden educators reached an agreement. After negotiating until 11 p.m. on Sunday, what changed on Monday?
“What changed is they [the school committee] saw how many people were out on the lines,” Gesualdo said. She added, “There were so many people — parents and caregivers joining their kids’ teachers and their kids’ ESPs, their kids’ assistant principals — on the picket lines, dropping off coffee and water and doughnuts and pizzas. And it was just beautiful.”
Gesualdo said she was especially proud that, for the first time, the Malden Education Association negotiated as one unit: teachers, administration, and ESPs. In the past teachers and administrative staff negotiated first. Sometimes there wasn’t even enough time for ESPs to negotiate a contract. The main differentiation between ESPs and other educators is their lack of an education degree and state licenses. Further, as Gesualdo said, ESPs have the highest percentage of people of color.
Negotiating all together was an inspiring case of cross-class and cross-racial solidarity. And it paid off: the minimum salary for an ESP has been $22,000. This new contract has a minimum salary of $30,000. That’s an $8,000 raise for these dedicated and essential educators. It’s less than the $35,000 minimum that the union was asking for and far less than the living wage of about $50,000 for Greater Boston. But it is a huge improvement that will bring economic relief and more dignity to the work of educators in Malden.
Gesualdo said they also got six weeks of paid parental leave. People who already had children or never planned to have children fought for this benefit in solidarity with their fellow workers.
It took a few more days for contract negotiations to conclude in Haverhill on Thursday. They were asking for salary percentage increases, or cost of living adjustments (COLA), over the next three years of 10%, 6%, and 6%. The school committee was offering 1.5%, 1.5%, and 2%. They got an increase of approximately 4%-4%-4%.
In separate interviews, HEA president Tim Briggs, vice president Liz Briggs, and organizer Cliff Ashbrook all teared up when talking about the outpouring of support from local community members, as well as fellow educators and others from around MA.
Everyone that Working Mass spoke with talked about this strike and this contract as a stepping stone to build on during the next contract negotiation period. Everyone expressed the belief that workers have built new power and connections that will last well beyond the strike.
Uniting Educators and ESPs
In both Haverhill and Malden, one major focus of the union struggle has been supporting educators who are often underpaid and underappreciated at schools. That includes special education, English language learning, health services, transportation, and more. In the past, some of these educators have been called “teaching assistants.” But educators now prefer the term “educational support professional” or ESP to make clear that these educators are professionals and deserve the same respect as other educators.
When speaking about the underfunding of teachers, MEA president Deb Gesualdo, who is a member of DSA, said, “It’s no coincidence that education is a women-dominated profession.” She added, “Education is a racial justice issue.” Deb pointed out that ESPs are the lowest-paid educators and have the highest percentage of people of color in their ranks.
Gesualdo said the thing she is most proud of was the solidarity between different educators, including ESPs.
“For the first time ever, we bargained with all three of our units at the table together. We came to an agreement together, and we ratified the contract together. We didn’t take three separate votes.”
In the past teachers and admin would go first. Sometimes “by the time the ESPs negotiated, they could go a year without a contract,” explained Gesualdo.
Educators in Malden started working together across bargaining units when they fought for COVID safety at the start of the pandemic in 2020. They kept that solidarity going forward.
At the rally on Saturday, October 15, Working Mass spoke with Rebecca Griffith, a special education teacher at Malden High School.
“I teach students who require 24-hour care in my case, and so my classroom cannot run; my students cannot be safe without our ESPs. And they often require extensive training and extensive knowledge in order to do their jobs and they deserve to be able to subsist on one job.”
Griffith continued: “The outpouring of support has been incredible. It’s honestly making us all very emotional that people are behind us on this and really seem to believe in what we believe, which is that all of our students, no matter where they come from, no matter what their needs are, deserve a world-class education.”
Striking Illegal for Public Sector Workers
State Representative Erika Uyterhoeven, a DSA member and DSA endorsed candidate in Somerville, spoke at the rally in Haverhill and Malden on Saturday and was at the picket line in Haverhill on Monday morning and throughout the week. We asked her what it means to see two different school districts going on strike at the same time.
“It speaks to me of a turning point that we are in desperate need of as a society,” she said.
Rep. Uyterhoeven spoke about how much austerity has hurt the people of Massachusetts and the role the State House has played in underfunding public schools in the Commonwealth. “I think that we do need to have our hand forced in the legislature and in all elected offices to turn this tide. Because what we have done is austerity, cutting taxes, cutting wages, more hours, and over and over again. People have had enough. And we need to change that.”
In Massachusetts, it is illegal for public sector employees, including public school teachers, to go on strike. Educators have gone on strike, of course, and collective bargaining agreements signed after strikes often specify that fines be waived or the strike petition be withdrawn. But the fear of the unlawful act does scare many educators away from even considering the option of a strike.
Rep. Uyterhoeven, along with state representative and fellow DSA member Mike Connolly, has introduced a Massachusetts House bill, H1946, that would “repeal the prohibition on striking by public employees and public employee organizations.”
The agreement reached by Malden was that the strike petition be withdrawn: they didn’t have to pay any fines and were guaranteed they wouldn’t have to deal with any retaliation. In Haverhill, they did have to pay some fines for going on strike.
After the Strike
Ties between workers formed during the strike have persisted. Ashbrook said Haverhill educators are still using the same communication network: “We’re still communicating. One of our English teachers, her husband passed away after the strike. And we were able to utilize that communication to raise some funds and help out. So some pretty beautiful things came of this.”
Soon after the strike ended in Haverhill, educators in nearby Lawrence built and demonstrated their power, getting big contract wins without going on strike. Suzanne Suliveras, president of the Lawrence Federation of Paraprofessionals, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said the Malden and Haverhill strikes “had a huge impact” and were an “inspiration.” As in Malden and Haverhill, for the first time, they turned out silent members in the bargaining sessions: 150 silent members. That helped them get wins: “A majority of paras (ESPs) got a 50% increase. Someone who’s been in the system for 26 years and just went from $20/hour to $30/hour. Another from $16/hour to $21/hour. Some didn’t get raises for 7 years.”
Right now many education unions, including Haverhill and Malden educators, are organizing to mobilize workers in support of the Melrose Education Association and their rally for a fair contract on Monday, November 14, at 8 p.m. at Melrose City Hall.
Educators and Socialism
Working Mass asked MEA president Gesualdo and HEA president Briggs about how many of their members are also members of the Democratic Socialists of America and how their members feel about socialism. They each independently gave almost the same answer. Some of their members might be afraid of the term “socialism,” but socialism lines up with their beliefs.
Briggs: “But when you sat down, and you recognize what was involved with being a Democratic Socialist, they’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s me.’”
Gesualdo: “People don’t understand what the DSA is, and they have this negative connotation with socialism. [But] when I talk to them, that’s what their beliefs are. And they just don’t quite see that.”
Gesualdo said she used to be a member of DSA but her membership had lapsed. She renewed her DSA membership after our interview. Cliff Ashbrook in Haverhill said he joined DSA for the first time after our interview. Ashbrook said: “Yeah, it just makes sense for what I believe in. Wish I had heard of the organization sooner.”
Advice to Other Workers
When asked about advice for others, Cliff Ashbrook in Haverhill highlighted four important points: building community support, strengthening communication networks between school buildings to overcome isolation, developing a command structure with reps in each building and even each grade in order to connect rank-and-file members with local leadership, and taking back power at the shop-floor level by the use of “work-to-rule” tactics.
Ashbrook’s final advice: “Don’t be afraid. In most cases, your colleagues have similar concerns to you.”
Rebecca Griffith in Malden shared her advice to other educators: “Solidarity — you have to do this together. The union is not union leadership, the union is all of us. And our power is in our labor and our ability to stand together and say what we will and will not accept as our working conditions. As many have said, our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.”
Gesualdo in Malden: “Anyone anywhere, if they know that there’s a picket line and they can support workers, whatever type of job they have, go out and support workers who are striking or taking any type of job action. Because good contracts support workers in any sector, in all communities… It sets the standard for all workers and lifts up the whole community.”
Tim Briggs, the week after the strike, reflected that his fellow educators in Haverhill “didn’t know how strong they were…”
When they stood by each other,” Briggs said, “they found out that in fact, what they were doing was an act of love. I’ve never heard that word used as much as I did last week. It was amazing.”
Students and teachers alike used that word often in speeches and interviews. That love has been exploited in the past. Educators accepted mistreatment and low salaries because they didn’t want to disrupt their students’ education. But in Haverhill and Malden, that love safeguarded students’ education, bringing people together to stand up and make things better for educators, students, and workers in their communities and beyond.
Eli Gerzon is an editor of Working Mass and a member of Boston DSA.
Photos by Eli Gerzon, Cory Bisbee, Cliff Ashbrook, and Jonathan Ng.