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  • Writer's pictureMike Zilles

Threatened Work Stoppages

Dear Colleagues,

Below, as promised....

Threatened Work Stoppages

So, the Newton School Committee is more specific in its remarks on our actions in the July 25 Negotiations Update. This presents us with an opportunity to provide needed clarification about what our planned actions are for the fall, specifically, to clarify what form “modified work to rule” will take. The school committee characterization is very inaccurate, although they are very accurate about one thing: They say that “The NTA’s own public communications describe how it is already planning work stoppages and actions for the fall.” That is true. We aren’t trying to hide what we’re doing, and want our members and the community to understand the actions we have planned for the fall.

I will start by explaining the “spirit” of modified work to rule.

With work to rule, what we want to do is:

  • slow down or halt district initiatives;

  • challenge “non-aligned” administrators’ (central administrators and principals) ability to do their every day business when they rely on our voluntary contributions to do this business;

  • keep up the good work we do with students, and continue to adhere to our own personal standards of excellence for ourselves and our students;

  • build solidarity within our membership and have all NTA members, PTS and non-PTS, and from all units, participate.

We want to avoid:

  • gumming up the important work of educators with their students;

  • making our own jobs more difficult;

  • rupturing our relationships with our students, the community or our colleagues;

  • alienating or dividing our members from each other or the community.

This means our "modified" work to rule will take a different form from traditional work to rule.

Under traditional work to rule, salaried educators:

  • arrive at the contractual time they are required to be in school and leave at the contractual time that their school day ends;

  • do no emailing, preparation, grading or phone calls outside of contractual hours.

Under OUR modified work to rule, as salaried educators, you will (or won't):

  • You WILL continue to grade and prepare for classes outside the contractual day.

  • You WILL arrive or leave when you need to every day to prepare for the day, or do whatever work you need to do. BUT when you are in your building, you WILL close your door if you can, and put up your “do not disturb” door hanger to send a message: “I am here for my planning and other work that I need to do, and that is all."

  • In general, and when possible, during times you are not teaching, you WILL put the door hanger up when you are prepping. (Of course, this will differ at different levels and for different jobs.)

  • You WON’T do consults or IEP meetings outside of contract hours.

  • You WILL meet with your grade level team or colleagues before or after school if you all agree to it, but, you WON’T do collaborative planning outside of contract hours that someone else tells you to do (principal says “I want you to do this committee meeting, meet with your mentee at this time, etc”).

  • You WILL engage in electronic communication during contract hours only.

    • Emails: Write answers to emails at your convenience, outside of contractual hours if that is what works best for you, but schedule any emails you send to parents or supervisors to go out during contractual hours.

    • Texting: Don’t do work related texting before or after the contractual work day, particularly with supervisors, except when required (reporting absence).

    • Schoology and other online platforms: No teacher presence in the evening/outside of contract hours.

  • You WON’T schedule extra help for students during your contractual hours, unless it is simply impossible to do this because of your own schedule or your student’s won't allow it.

  • You WON'T do bus duties outside of contract hours unless there are prior agreements in your school for some members to stay late and receive a stipend.

One last thing: NTA members WILL continue to write letters of recommendation.

School Committee Negotiations Bargaining Team member Paul Levy debated MTA President Max Page on whether public educators in Massachusetts should have the right to strike, and in that debate, Paul said that public sector unions do not need the right to strike because they have many other means of advocacy at their legal disposal, including work to rule. He also suggested that as part of work to rule, unions could organize their members to refuse to write letters of recommendation.

The MTA legal advice that I have received is clear: Paul is wrong. Writing letters of recommendation is a professional obligation, and in that sense, not voluntary. Of course, an educator always has the discretion to say to an individual student that they cannot write that student a positive letter of recommendation that would support their application. This sometimes, though rarely, happens. But educators cannot refuse to write letters of recommendation as a work to rule action. If they do, the district would have “just cause” to discipline them, and if a union organized this as an action, the district would have a right to seek an injunction to stop the union, and fine it.

But the legal basis of Paul Levy’s statements notwithstanding, we are not calling for our members to withhold writing letters of recommendation because it’s a bad idea. To ask members to do that would undermine the spirit of our work to rule actions. It would divide our members from each other, from their students, and from the community. And it just isn’t fair to harm students or their families in this way.

In summary, we would like members to not volunteer to do anything outside of contractual hours to the extent possible, nor to volunteer for added responsibilities during contractual hours. In short, please do not volunteer for anything that is not in the service of your direct professional and contractual responsibilities to your students. The goal here, in part, is to demonstrate to the district how much it counts on your good will, your willingness to go above and beyond for your students. At the same time, we will remain fully committed to doing our jobs well! We want the community and our students to know we are on their side--because we are. It is the community’s elected leaders who are not.

With this as background context, I can now turn the school committee’s description of our planned “work stoppages.”

First, the school committee says that being silent in meetings is “an illegal work stoppage because collaboration is essential to those meetings.”

So to be clear about collaboration: We are not asking members to be silent during collaboration periods. A partial list of such meetings would be:

  • Wednesday afternoon PLC meetings in the elementary schools;

  • team or grade level department meetings in middle schools;

  • Collaboration flex or other collaboration blocks in high schools.

During those periods of time when you are collaborating with educators as you normally would in the course of your work day and furthering your direct work with students—of course you will collaborate.

But the monthly or bi-monthly staff meetings at all levels—K through grade 12—that are supervisor directed—those are not collaborative meetings. In those meetings, you do not have to offer your perspective or judgment. We ask that you don’t. And certainly don’t volunteer to give a presentation at these meetings. Principals are on their own. And this is not personal--there is no animosity intended here towards principals.

Where silent meetings become sticky is when the administrator is a member of Unit B, and in two ways specifically.

First of all, at all staff meetings, it is often a part of a Unit B members job duties to participate in leading those meetings, and we ask that members of other units respect that Unit B members must do this.

When Unit B members are themselves in charge of meetings—primarily in department meetings, PD, or at the preschool, where there is no principal, and Unit B members run all staff meetings—Unit B members and their colleagues are going to have to work together, with the support of their respective NTA representatives, to decide on the most respectful approach, working together to find solutions. There is no one size fits all. What matters most is maintaining mutual respect as union members.

The claim the school committee makes about “collaboration” being an essential part of all meetings is, in fact, a one size fits all approach, and is overly sweeping. By framing this as a “work stoppage,” they are claiming that to be silent at meetings is a kind of strike. And they seem to be suggesting that they will seek a court injunction to make our members talk in those meetings. Good luck with that. Are they really prepared to tell you that you have to have an opinion to contribute at staff meetings?

Another claim they make is that we have encouraged members to refuse to attend summer PD. We have encouraged members to not attend summer PD in some cases, but not in a blanket form. That said, I do think many members, when they read the school committee’s email on July 20, immediately un-volunteered themselves from PD they had signed up for, angry at the disrespect they were being shown. But I am unclear about exactly what contractual obligation the school committee thinks educators have to attend professional development in the summer.

It is true that “teachers’ refusal to participate in paid summer professional development, for which many teachers had previously registered, is having a detrimental impact on the district’s ability to launch its new reading curriculum.” We encouraged members to make their own choices about participating in this professional development. But we did this in conjunction with encouraging members to pull out from volunteering for the "soft rollout" of the elementary literacy curriculum that had been planned for this year. Indeed, with this email, the school committee confirms that our actions are having the exactly the effect they are meant to have: making it difficult, if not impossible, for the district to roll out an initiative.

Our membership and the community, should be aware that it wasn’t an easy decision for us to take this action. Elementary classroom teachers have long been in need a new literacy curriculum. Many people, both educators and community members, have put in countless hours to choose the new program, which should address the district’s curriculum needs very well in the long run. The work educators planned to put in this year on a voluntary basis would have allowed them to troubleshoot and supplement this curriculum before rolling it out districtwide.

Yet we need to send a message to the district that it can no longer count on our members to go above and beyond their contractual obligations to support the schools when district and city leaders are so brazenly disrespectful to us. And we need to put pressure on them to settle the contract now, and preserve the opportunity to move forward this year.

The school committee, continues to engage in fear mongering and provocation. I do not see how this helps their cause, nor supports our schools or our students. They imply our actions will disrupt children’s education, that parents should prepare for their students to be in school until June 30th, that our “work stoppages” are illegal, that they will keep parents up to date as they learn more about forthcoming stoppages. This sounds less like a school committee warning of an eminent strike than a school committee preparing for a lockout of educators. Or maybe it is the sound of a school committee trying to provoke us into strike, and trying to build support in the community for breaking that strike. It certainly doesn't sound like a school committee responding to the perfectly legal strategy we are currently pursuing.

They should be ashamed of themselves. The last four years have been the most difficult of your careers. Yet you have been there for your students, often at great personal cost. This is how they reward you. In our most recent bargaining sessions there has been a notable absence of anyone on their side saying that they would like to pay us more, but just can’t afford to.

They seem to have convinced themselves that they are compensating us just plenty. And beneath the calm surface of their prose, there is a simmering animosity. They seem to be spoiling for a fight.

In solidarity,

Mike Zilles


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