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Massachusetts teachers union leader encouraged illegal strike

The president of a local Massachusetts union explained how she was able to get teachers to agree to an illegal strike through a strategy of “agitate and persuade,” while speaking to attendees at a Labor Notes conference on June 18.

The Brookline Educators Union (BEU) convinced teachers to engage in the illegal strike in suburban Brookline, Massachusetts on May 17 by helping them understand “there is very little in common between the boss and the worker,” said BEU President Jessica Wender-Shubow.

Negotiations between the union and district broke down over disagreements on teacher preparation time and language encouraging the district to hire more teachers of color. The contract already included salary increases, which the district and union had agreed to. Teachers, who had been earning between $54,148 and $115,067, will receive 15% in wage increases in addition to step increases over the term of the contract, which ends in 2026.

“We used the word exploitation,” said Wender-Shubow, explaining how the union managed to rally teachers to their side. The union also encouraged teachers to strike through a “bold commitment to action and social justice by putting anti-racist planks into the contract proposals so that people have something to fight for.”

The union used “clean and clear” documents to track where individual teachers stood on the idea of a strike, while also tracking who was talking to them, she said. 

Wender-Shubow said she had teachers go door-to-door to solicit community support, while also working to convince teachers that district leaders did not have their best interest in mind.

Massachusetts law prohibits public employees or public-sector unions from “striking or inducing, encouraging, or condoning a work stoppage by public employees.”

This did not deter Wender-Shubow. Unions, she said, “shouldn’t shy away from naming the enemy.”

In her introduction, Barbara Madeloni said Wender-Shubow became a social studies teacher “because it’s a union job.” She wanted to be part of a “social movement labor movement,” Madeloni said.

Wender-Shubow said she is speaking to union leaders in other Boston suburbs like Medford and Belmont about the tactics she used in Brookline.

Suzanne Bates

Suzanne Bates is Senior Writer and Researcher with Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector workers offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2020, Suzanne worked as a journalist for the Associated Press, as Policy Director with the Yankee Institute, as a contributor for The Hartford Courant, and as a regular commentator for WNPR’s The Wheelhouse.