On September 19, Evan H. and E. Reed interviewed Matt Bach, president of the Andover Education Association (AEA), the union that represents the Andover teachers, on organizing in the time of the pandemic.
In late August, Andover teachers organized an outdoor workday, in protest of the school district’s demands that teachers risk health and safety by entering school buildings. Teachers set up Wi-Fi hotspots and portable toilets to conduct their work, while the district drove the teachers off school grounds. The Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations (DLR) later ruled the teachers’ action was an illegal strike.
In the first of a two-part interview, Matt discusses the leadup to the action.
Evan H: I’d like to start off by thanking you once again for joining the BRS’ public discussion on teaching in the time of the pandemic. You spoke on the lead up to your teachers’ action of working outside of the building on Monday, August 31st. Can you walk us through again what happened and how you all organized yourselves?
Sure, it’s part of a bigger story about the teachers union in the state of Massachusetts. The MTA is the state affiliate union. They are connected to the locals across the state, and I’m the local president in Andover. The longstanding problem with the MTA was that it was basically an extension of the Democratic Party. Electoral politics was the only strategy that the association seemed to subscribe to, as well as a strategic retreat on issues that affected teachers most of the time. It was “business unionism,” the term we use to describe that.
So, many of us who were disenchanted with that formulated a caucus with then the association called the Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU). EDU, basically over the last eight years or so, has taken over the leadership structure of the MTA in an attempt to make it more radically democratic and more activist in a sense of rank and file organizing rather than making deals with politicians or contributing to politicians’ campaigns as much.
And so we got the president position a few years back with one of our members, then many of us got onto the board of directors and the executive committee, and we began changing the association into an organizing association. Then we went back and tried to start taking over the locals. So I got elected president in May 2019. WIth a core group of EDU members and activists and allies, we began changing our local union.
When the pandemic hit we were already sort of in a struggle, a major battle, with the school committee and superintendent to build our union basically from the ground up. The previous leadership was more connected to the administration than the members. So when we were pushing the issues, we organized in one building around a bully principal. We were able to get that person removed. We’ve been fighting at the Labor Board against issues all year that we find unjust and part of managerial overreach.
The pandemic hit, and we were trying to define remote learning through the typical processes of negotiation and coming up with memorandums of agreements. What we found was that the district very much loathed negotiating in these formal processes, and over the summer when it became clear that the return to school was a big question mark, they started going unilaterally and developing their own plans.
So we met as an association and formulated our own task force to develop a set of principles, health and safety being the highest priority for our membership, and demanded again to bargain over the start of school. We just kept getting this oppositional attitude that they had no need to negotiate over this, that they could unilaterally decide what the opening of school was going to look like. And of course, Andover is an affluent community, there’s a significant number of very vocal and very loud parents who feel like, for convenience and economic purposes, the students should be back full time, that this pandemic is not a serious concern.
So all that led to some sort of crisis general membership meetings. Typically, a general membership meeting requires a quorum, and we’ve struggled in the past year to get a quorum to conduct our business because we have 800+ members. But we really grounded ourselves in organizing principles, we called every member, we talked to them, had one-on-one conversations to get them to the meeting, and ended up having 600 members show up to a general meeting, which was unprecedented. That’s when our action team proposed that we show up to the first day of work, but refuse to enter the buildings. That was voted on by the membership democratically to engage in that action, and that’s where we began to plan logistically for that.
So we had a lot of help from — it’s so interesting how this happened, because when I got elected to the board of directors of the MTA, one of the first things we did was to hire these organizers to shift the MTA into a more rank and file organizing institution, and one of the organizers helped us a lot with the logistics — we ordered portapotties, a Wi-Fi system that was supposed to support up to 800 devices, and a power generator. We had another meeting with the general membership to reaffirm the vote, because some of the members of the leadership were concerned that people were going to be scared away. We had about 320 people voting to do the action. And that Monday morning, about 512 people signed in with us and showed up for the action. What it told me was, even people who voted against it, stood with the union. Even people who didn’t show up to the general membership meeting. That was a significant turn out for an action, for a membership of 800 to have 500+ participating.
We all converged at the high school and then went to our separate buildings (there’s 10 buildings in Andover). But we were immediately faced with hostility. The police presence was heavy handed. They immediately singled me out and told me, “You decide if you’re coming into the building or not — and if you’re not, stay away from the building.” There was an intention to push people away from the building so they couldn’t use the school Wi-Fi and actually complete their work. They stopped the portable restrooms from coming onto school grounds. They called the fire chief and had them come to shut down our generator. So at that point our organizer went to the Verizon store and got hot spots. Many people had hot spots on their phones so they were able to do work.
The schedule that the district provided for the day had very little on it. One thing that they said was they wanted us to test the Wi-Fi, which is not part of our job as teachers. And the other thing they had on there was a tour where kids would have mask breaks. Those tours were supposed to be outdoors, but the administration never came out to do those tours. And at many of the schools, what happened was the teachers were able to participate in team and department meetings over Google Meet in the morning, and then by the afternoon if they had meetings scheduled, the administration refused to give them the links to the meetings, so it was almost like a lockout in a sense. They were locking people out of participating. My theory on that is that the principals were being reasonable in the morning, and then they were basically spanked by the superintendent when he found out about [the action] and told them, “Do not let people have access to these meetings in the afternoon.”
Our faculty has got some longevity, it’s a mature faculty. When some of these people had to use the bathroom and went to the building to go in, they were refused entry because they had taken the decision to work outside. This came up at the Labor Board, the lawyer for the district was like, “Well if you’re so afraid, why would you go into the building?” An empty building, when you’re going in there for 2 minutes like you’re stopping at a rest stop, is quite different than having all the staff and faculty in the building all day long. It’s a different scenario. It was quite a response from the district. And what became very clear, as they were encouraged by their law firm to file a strike petition at the Labor Board, was this had been, in my assessment, a highly politicized moment where the governor and the Commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, our superintendent, and the School Committee Association were working in concert to really snuff this sort of activity out, because if it was allowed to continue, it would have been in every district across the Commonwealth.
EH: Thank you so much for fleshing that all out. So is that to say that some people actually went into the building to work?
Yeah, there’s people who don’t have professional teacher status, (which is basically tenure) in their first three years, who were reasonably afraid and wanted to go in. And then there’s your variety of people who just feel more connected with management than their union who wanted to go in. But there were certainly people who didn’t have tenure who did stay out. As a matter of fact, we had about 30 or so new hires at the beginning of the year, many of them younger people straight out of college, who said “This is my first day on the job, and I know it’s risky but I’m going to take a stand.” It’s a different attitude, a coming-of-age in the time of extreme fascism in our country. There’s a different sort of ethos there.
And just another point, we were told almost immediately by the building level principals that we would be docked a day’s pay. I think that peeled away a couple people who decided to go in at that point. But there were several first-year teachers who stayed out. And there were people who I didn’t expect to stand with the Union and this action — our more conservative members of the faculty just said “F*ck it, I’m staying out here for the whole day.”
E. Reed: What was surprising about this moment? How did the pandemic combine with some of the organizing you talked about, like the phone trees to make this action happen?
It’s a unifier. Everybody’s concerned about their health and safety, they’re seeing in real time the lack of concern from management on that, and the rush job to get people back into the buildings without preparing the buildings. So it became a universal concern for people who had never been active in the association. And the foremost job of any union is to protect its members’ health and safety. [This] priority captured a good number of members who were off the radar. I think this recognition that a lot of people who voted against the action, a lot of people who wanted to go into the buildings, who didn’t want to teach remotely anymore, myself included — I hate online education and remote teaching — recognized that there’s a huge group of people that are vulnerable in a way that they themselves are not. I think that they came to the conclusion that they could not look their colleagues in the face if their colleagues were in jeopardy of getting sick and potentially dying or having long term health consequences without doing what they could by participating in this. Obviously, we know the Labor Board ordered us to stop and called it an “illegal strike,” so you could look at it as a failure in that respect. But what I say is that through the process, we built a bond and we built our union in a way that we would not have been able to in the past year without the crisis, without the callousness of management. I mean, they say the boss is the best organizer in union work, and it’s proven true, time and time again in Andover.
ER: For people that are looking at Andover and thinking, “How am I ever gonna do that?” From what I understood, you had a small number of people who were the core of your organizing team who were then able to bring out the number of people to the membership meeting and then to these actions, is that right?
Yeah, it’s about a year’s worth of work. The first thing we did in May of 2019, was we ran a campaign to get me elected president. And when you do that as an insurgent candidate, I recommend you do it with a slate, because I did not. And so the first several months of my presidency, I was being undermined by people who were loyal to the previous president and were doing backroom deals with the superintendent and trying to pull the rug out from under me. But what that did was, it exposed to the general membership this type of relationship that they had with the superintendent, and the superintendent’s corrupt actions. People began to see this…
I brought in this MTA organizer, and we focused on an elementary school that was having a real serious problem with their principal who was behaving erratically and impunitavely. We organized that building to do a climate survey, and to begin talking to each other and holding regular meetings.
The response from the district was so severe, the superintendent launched an investigation into the union organizers who were doing the work at that building, where they brought in a lawyer and said they were creating a hostile work environment and they interviewed 45 employees in one building asking them all sorts of questions about the building reps (union stewards), their associations, who they ate lunch with, what they did — it was just a very chilling and very invasive sort of thing. But it illustrated for the rest of the district that there was something wrong here and that you should have a right to participate in your union. Every time we poked something, it shined a light on the bad behavior of management and the formerly corrupt leadership of the union. So by the time we get to August, there’s already a sense that something strange is going on there. I got that core group of people together and we ran for every position in May of 2020, and we won. We took over the whole leadership at that point, resoundingly. Now we have people who are volunteering to be part of the union and taking on tasks that they never would have before.
We developed what we called an action team. The action team had autonomy; I didn’t involve myself in it. I said “you come up with the action; you organize the membership.” That was a group of about 25 people. Then they were able to recruit 80 people. Of those 80 people, each one called 10 people to get them to the general meeting. It shows you how it’s developed over a year’s time, and then how we began to use that to our advantage. The district offered accommodations to teachers with health problems, to teach the students who opted to go fully remote. I was terrified by the potential of this to bifurcate and divide the membership. Even then, I was impressed that many of the teachers who got that accommodation still came to the action. They sat in their cars in the parking lot for most of the day. And they were [threatened with being] docked pay by participating in the action, even though they were told to stay out of the building and told to teach remotely from their homes. That’s solidarity for you.
We will post the second half of our interview with Matt tomorrow.