Over 900 Brookline Educators Union (BEU) members picketed in front of the various public schools to begin their strike for a fair contract on Monday, May 16. The strike follows months of contract negotiations, in which the Brookline School Committee (BSC) and the BEU have been trying to reach an agreement.
Educators gathered at all eight K-8 schools and at the high school beginning at 8 a.m., carrying signs, chanting and using an array of noise-makers to draw attention. They then all convened at town hall at 1:30 p.m.
The BSC released a statement that said the closure of schools is creating several problems for students and their families.
“We are seeing and hearing of children’s anxiety about this situation, magnified by memories of what they face during extended pandemic school closures. Our most vulnerable learners, including students in special education and those with disabilities, are disproportionately impacted by school closures; for some food-insecure students, school is where they receive their only meals,” the BSC’s statement said.
In the statement, the BSC also said the BEU should stop striking and instead work to resolve the issue in conjunction with the BSC.
“We again call on the BEU to cease and desist all strike activity so that we can focus our joint efforts on bargaining toward successful resolution,” the statement said. “Brookline students must not be the victims of this situation any longer than they already have.”
Why is the BEU striking?
The failure to reach an agreement and exhaustion amongst teachers from working without a contract have led the BEU to feel that striking is their last option, according to BEU President Jessica Wender-Shubow.
“This is a last resort. You only strike when you have tried everything else,” Wender-Shubow said. “We will have a strike tomorrow if there is no agreement tonight.”
Many BEU members, including Guidance Counselor Darby Neff-Verre, said they were unsatisfied with the BSC in negotiations meetings.
“I feel like people, particularly teachers, although also support staff, have gone way above and beyond over the last two years. It’s a disrespectful slap in the face that the BSC still refuses to negotiate [directly] with us. It’s just not okay,” Neff-Verre said.
Computer science and robotics teacher at the high school David Petty said the BSC has not been willing to negotiate directly with the BEU.
“We were hoping that the BSC would stop speaking through their lawyer and actually negotiate with the negotiations committee, but it was only through the threat of a strike that they even started talking with us,” Petty said.
Other educators were striking because the BSC has not fulfilled all their demands for a contract. According to math teacher at the high school Shoshanna Kostant, it is hard for educators to trust that the BSC will fulfill their promises.
“There is no trust that they are going to do what they say they’re going to do with respect to the other asks apart from the monetary ask,” Kostant said. “The fact that they’re just promising to look into something is not the same as an action. The trust that they would take that action has eroded a lot because they have been forced to negotiate and they said that the union walked away when they didn’t even want to meet.”
Spanish teacher at the high school Pedro Méndez emphasized the importance of the diversity clause in the BEU’s proposed contract.
“I want to see a change in Brookline Public Schools. I’ve been here 16 years and I can still count with my fingers how many people of color we see. I know that BHS and the district have done a lot of work, but it is not enough,” Méndez said. “Look at [the crowd] and count how many people of color are there. When you see our student population, you don’t see the same. You see a more diverse student body.”
English and African-American and Latino Scholars Program (AALSP) teacher at the high school Emma Siver said she is fighting for a fair contract to ensure that a diverse set of students can feel represented by their teachers.
“I’m a teacher of color. Representation matters for my kids,” Siver said. “We’re emotional mentors, we’re coaches, we’re people that these kids can come to. Without the right to a fair contract, we can’t do the job that these kids deserve.”
Literacy coach at the Lawrence School and Public Schools of Brookline (PSB) parent Dianne Muendel said she is disenchanted with Brookline.
“I’m very disappointed in my town,” Muendel said. “I thought I bought a house and sent my kids to school in a progressive community but progessive communities support workers, so I feel like people are that way in theory, but I know they aren’t in practice.”
Math teacher at the Lawrence School Katy McGraw said she is striking to improve the caliber of the school.
“I have been in Brookline Public Schools for 41 of my 52 years. I have watched Brookline schools be the best and I am watching them disintegrate and it makes me want to cry,” McGraw said. “I have a very big commitment to this school and to its quality, so I have to do everything I can.”
Science teacher at the high school Wen Sailer said her students remain a priority.
“I hope students understand that we are not doing this for us and that we care about our students. This is not easy. We are not doing this because it’s fun. We are not doing this because we don’t want to work. We just want to be empowered to do our jobs well so that we can be better teachers for our students,” Sailer said.
Méndez said he was initially worried that there would only be a small group of educators who would come to protest.
“I was concerned that nobody was going to show up or that they were going to be afraid. There is a lot of disinformation, a lot of fear, especially among new teachers, whether or not they were going to be fired. There was a lot of fear,” Méndez said.
Candidate for state representative Raul Fernandez said it is important for unions to self-advocate and that he adamantly supports the BEU’s fight.
“We are in this place right now where working people need to do everything they can to stand up for their rights because people aren’t thinking enough about them. The question shouldn’t be why am I standing out here with them. The question should be why aren’t more people standing out here with them,” Fernandez said.
According to chemistry teacher and BEU negotiator Julia Speyer, the outcome of the BEU’s strike will impact other labor disputes in other districts.
“I think [the School Committee’s] goal was to end the Union. This is an act, somewhat, of desperation, because they have been bargaining unfairly,” Speyer said. “But it’s bigger than Brookline because other school committees will do the same tactic. If it succeeds here, they will try it everywhere else. This is really for the future of public education, which is why I’m striking. It’s not about me; it’s not even about Brookline.”
The scope of the strike extends beyond the current state of the town, according to many BEU members.
Fourth grade teacher and co-chair of the BEU contract action team Justin Brown, who has worked for 17 years at the Lawrence school, said the fight for a fair contract will secure improved working conditions for other educators in the future.
“We are doing this for the future,” Brown said. “We are doing this for future educators, future union leaders and future students of Brookline to make sure that the parts of contracts that really affect what happens in the classroom, our working conditions, remain something to be bargained for.”
Sailer said the experience of being a teacher is unique, thus difficult for others to understand.
“I wish [people who do not support the BEU] knew what it was like to teach and to teach well. To have to care for 100 students on a day-to-day basis and how much that takes from you personally. It’s something that you don’t understand if you don’t do it,” Sailer said.
Sixth grade Social Studies teacher at the Lawrence School and union member Kevin Mackenzie said the strike reflects a broader unity amongst educators.
“This was an overwhelming decision. We overwhelmingly feel this way. It’s not just a few loud voices,” Mackenzie said. “You can see that really today with how much turnout we have. It is everybody. We all feel this way, we’re all on the same page and we are all united. We are clearly the union. We are the union everyday and we continue to be the union.”
Kostant said many teachers are worried about the strike’s impact on their students.
“It takes a lot to strike. This is my first time striking, and I’ve been here for 26 years. It is a heartbreaking thing to have to do. Some of us here are crying. This is a very, very sad, somber moment for many of us,” Kostant said. “We know this has consequences on our students, and are heartbroken that it has come to this. And I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel that way. I would so much rather be teaching today.”
METCO adviser Loring Greene said he hopes students can learn from this experience.
“I hope students understand that when they go out into the workforce, they have the opportunity to advocate for themselves. I hope this can be a model for them,” Greene said.
Fernandez said beyond the contract, the town needs an override along with the passage of the Fair Share Amendment on the upcoming November ballot.
“We’re fighting amongst ourselves, in part because there’s not enough money in our school system and in our town, even in this town of tremendous wealth. We are not capturing all that wealth and putting it where it needs to be. That’s education and social services,” Fernandez said. “We need to get this contract done, but the other thing that we need to do is pass a local override so we can actually bring in more revenue and put that towards the schools and social services. We’ve spent a lot of money on buildings recently, and not enough money on the people in them.”
The strike and cancellation of schools inevitably caused a disruption in the town.
Junior Zoe Raybould said the BEU’s response has made it harder for her to talk to teachers and get work done.
“Due to work to rule, I haven’t been able to communicate with my teachers outside of school in months, and with the strike, I have assignments and tests that I have not had sufficient class time to prepare for. Regardless of who is in the right, the inability to come to an agreement negatively impacts all students, and it would benefit the entire Brookline community to have this issue resolved,” Raybould said.
A parent of a student at the high school, who chose to remain anonymous for “fear of retribution,” said he does not understand why the BEU has chosen to strike.
“We’re pro-union, educators are in our family, everybody’s pro-union. And I think the BEU’s demands are absolutely ridiculous. They’re unfair to the students. Especially at this time in the school year and especially when we’re finally getting out of COVID,” the parent said. “They are already among the highest paid teachers in the state of Massachusetts, they are teaching in schools that aren’t even ranked in the top 20, and yet they are already asking for more money. And, they are trying to enact legislation that is actually illegal according to the Department of Labor Relations.”
Junior Iris Liebman said she appreciates her teachers and hopes the strike will end soon.
“Our teachers are working so hard to provide us with amazing educations and it’s horrible that they are unable to work with the safety of having a fair contract. I hope that the BEU and BSC will be able to come to an agreement soon before it becomes too detrimental to the students’ health and learning,” Liebman said.
Freshman Emily Snyder said the strike is affecting students’ education at an especially pressing time.
“It’s important for teachers to be able to speak their mind and advocate for themselves. I think that the timing isn’t the best just because there’s MCAS tomorrow and seniors only have two weeks left in school,” Snyder said.
Third grader at the Lincoln school Jack Copple, son of a BEU member, said he was upset that educators were pushed to the point at which they felt they needed to strike.
“It is very wrong to not pay teachers enough money because teachers have a very important job. Their job has helped so many people but the BSC is pushing it too far. Pay my mom and every other teacher fairly,” Copple said.
Fernandez said he hopes members of the community support the BEU and encouraged those who don’t to make an effort to understand the union’s platform.
“[People who don’t support the BEU] need to come out here and talk to some of these educators. This is your perfect opportunity to learn what their position is and not through union leadership or anything like that, you can talk to educators and they’ll tell you what their experience has been and why it is so important to them that they have put themselves and their families on the line to be out here,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez also said the work of teachers deserves to be recognized.
“It is important to stand with our educators. They do so much for our community. They educate, they socially and emotionally develop our kids. They take care of our kids. I don’t know another more important group of folks to our community than the educators right here. Frankly, what they are asking for is very reasonable,” Fernandez said.
Copple said the conflict between the BEU and BSC has disrupted his school experience, even as a third grader.
“It makes the school feel torn apart,” Copple said.