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 teachers 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 teaching in 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 second of a two-part interview, Matt discusses the next steps for Andover teachers, as they continue to fight for health, safety and justice.
Evan H.: What has happened since the action? Now that the Labor Board ruled it was an illegal strike, what happens? Has the administration come down on the teachers or union leadership with discipline?
We haven’t heard anything yet about that. We were concerned, especially, my Vice President and I because we were the ones personally charged. They personally charged every officer, but then they dropped the charges against the Treasurer, Second Vice-President, and the Membership Chair. They just concentrated on myself and Julian DiGloria.
So, we were concerned that the two of us would be disciplined throughout the whole process. Really, even before we took the vote we were concerned about that. This has been a very vindictive administration, who has gone after union activists. I don’t know that it would have been a good decision on their part to do that at this point. Maybe they recognized that we would fight any discipline as far as we possibly could as being retaliatory.
The labor board order actually says to cease and desist, and to tell the membership that basically we did something wrong and we shouldn’t do it again. But the board didn’t award the district any fines or any fees. We’re looking into whether we should appeal it to a higher court. The MTA’s legal team is looking into that.
So, what do we do at this point? There’s an article, interestingly, from the World Socialist Website. They did an article on Andover; they didn’t interview me or anything. Their take is that the unions are capitulating by abiding the decision.
I’m in a strange position. I’m in the MTA leadership and the AEA leadership. I have a responsibility to look after the interests of the institution (especially the financial interests) that I can’t put that in jeopardy. At the same time, there’s this growing awareness among my fellow activists and me, where does the care for the institution stop when it’s just about maintaining the institution, and not following the rank and file to the point of true confrontation? If you’re so concerned about the money and the institution, are you really doing the democratic work of what the membership wants? It’s a fair criticism.
It’s problematic. We want to build power. We know the laws are unjust. We know we should be able to strike, even though that was not our intention to strike. But we also have a tremendous amount of fear among the membership and even the leadership about jeopardizing the institution and people’s jobs.
So, where does that leave us now? We’re continuing with actions. We’re doing stand outs, we’re picketing, we’re doing those things. My primary goals doing those things are to continue to show the district we’re not going to be intimidated, but also continue to build the relationships between the members so they don’t forget about Monday’s action, so they don’t forget about their own power as they get gaslit into the buildings incrementally. The district is trying to normalize the situation and put teachers back into an individualistic position.
Do we have the same leverage right now? We showed management what we’re capable of doing, and I think that has leverage. And we’re continuing to build our union based on that experience, and trying to remind people of that experience. It may not be as revolutionary as many of us would hope it would be. But sometimes the work takes a little bit longer than what people are expecting.
EH: Were all of you docked a day’s pay for that action?
We haven’t seen that happen. If it does happen, we will file charges against the district. What they did was, we have a teacher attendance system. If you have to take a sick day, you go into this platform, fill out a drop down and take a sick day. In that system, for that Monday, it says “no pay, work action.” So people immediately started checking that system, but it has not been reflected in this first paycheck. People are going to be attentive to the next one, to see if we have to take legal action.
If you look at New York City at all, a similar rank-and-file caucus, the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) is starting to do these types of actions. I think they saw what Andover did; we have a network of rank-and-file caucuses that talk across state lines. New York’s laws are even more strict. You could be docked two day’s pay for one day’s action.
EH: Could the district’s lockout be ruled illegal?
You would hope that’s the way our system works, but as far as I can tell, it does not.
There are different levels of charges at the Labor Board. A strike petition is level one. It gets heard within 24 hours and the Labor Board rules immediately whether it is a strike or not a strike. We filed a charge against the school committee almost a month ago, because they were refusing to bargain in good faith. They were refusing to bargain, which is against the law. Our hearing date for that isn’t until October.
The laws are stacked in favor of management. To charge them with a lockout, that process is stacked against us. In public sector unions, since it’s illegal to strike, our contract doesn’t have a no-strike, no-lockout clause.
E. Reed: I think that’s really great that you’ve been continuing actions and continuing to build the union from the bottom up. What role could solidarity play? What sort of activities could help build that sort of pressure from the outside as well?
That you’re working to keep this in the public mindset is really important. The news cycle is so truncated, I expected us to be out of the news in 24 hours. But we maintained a presence even in the vapid local news that you’re talking about Evan. They were at our school last Thursday, just because we released a statement that we’re still concerned. You guys keeping it, in your forum where you write your articles, is especially helpful as well. I presume it will be more nuanced and more in-depth than, say, Channel 7 news.
Resolutions, letters to the editor, and the continual emphasis that this is not just a teacher issue but it’s a worker issue. It’s an education worker issue. It’s a restaurant worker issue. It’s a public transit worker issue. Does our society still need to function? Absolutely. Do grocery stores still need to be open? Absolutely. Does public transit still need to operate? Absolutely. But where are the demands being met to make it more worker-focused and where is the investment for providing safety for the workers?
18 billionaires in Massachusetts saw their wealth increase, from March to the end of the school year, greater than their entire lifetimes, because of the disaster capitalism, the austerity that was even just put in place in those two or three months. How does that truth connect to the reality of a T worker who is not provided any or minimal protection from the masses who ride that train, because the bosses don’t want to spend the money or go after the billionaires’ wealth? We know where the wealth is. It’s our money; we’re generating that value, that money. The billionaires have taken it from us.
ER: What does morale look like right now?
We’re going to get a good sense on Tuesday [September 22]. We’re planning a major standout and picket in support of the bargaining team that will be meeting with the School Committee Tuesday afternoon. I think right now our membership is feeling the stress of starting the school year the way that they are, but also bewilderment, being baffled at how poorly the district conceived and planned this hybrid system.
The way this is being rolled out, I’m hearing from every building this is a shit show. Even the middle management, the building administration, are admittedly concerned with it. There were rumors they were hoping the union would prevail, to get the district to reconsider. It’s got so much potential for failure on so many different levels — on learning condition levels, on working condition levels, on health and safety levels — that it’s like being in a bizarro world.
EH: Because Andover is using the hybrid model, are you teaching from the classroom now?
Yes. What they’ve done is haphazard and not well thought-out. Monday and Tuesday they have half the students. Like at the high school, we have 800 students Monday and Tuesday, another 800 students Thursday and Friday. Everyone wears a mask; all the windows are open for now. There are places, very few tents, outside where you can sign out and have class. Which is ironic. They’re encouraging people to work outside; they must be considering that work now.
Wednesdays are all remote so the custodial staff can clean the buildings. We’re working in what we call a situation of duress. We were forced into this situation. We’re still trying to negotiate conditions with regard to things like HVAC, what does the teaching look like in this situation. Their concept of how this should work is really just breath-taking. They think that the students who are there in school with you, should just be on a computer on a Zoom conference with the students at home and you, so everyone is being taught simultaneously. If you can call that teaching.
What we’re saying as teachers is, “no, if you’re going to risk our lives to have interpersonal education, then the kids in front of me are my priority on that day, and the kids at home can have independent work. They can read or prepare for the next class.” To bring every kid into school and just put them on a computer screen? It’s just outrageous. But it just shows you how empty their vision of education is, that it’s merely about putting children and adolescents in buildings so the economy can operate the way that it used to operate.
ER: What’s been the community response? Is there polarization?
Absolutely polarization. There’s a group of parents that wants their children back in school, no restrictions, no masks, full attendance. Then there’s another group of parents who are keeping their kids out of school because they’re concerned about health and safety. And then the widest variety of parents are so much a part of this system, that when they’re told “it’s hybrid,” they’re going to send their kids in hybrid and hope for the best, and “I’ve got to do what I can to survive.” Not clear at all that the community is either wholly for or against us; the community is divided.
The political class in Andover is what I’d call a very neoliberal set of Democratic Party people. They’ve removed real right-wing voices from local government, but their politics are not particularly progressive. Our state senator Barry Finegold is a former Democrats for Education Reform member, which was a group in the State House funded by the Waltons that pushed standardized testing, pushed a lot of corporatist charter school stuff. Most of the School Committee and the other members of the State House are real tight with each other, having the same sort of approach. The School Committee is oppositional to us, but the other political figures have been silent or at least behind the scenes supporting the School Committee.
EH: Have any other teachers’ unions reached out in support? And if so, how has that response and communication been to the action you took? And vice versa, has your union reached out to other teachers’ unions?
We have a regional group called the Merrimack Valley Educators United. There are members of the AFT from Lawrence and Amesbury. There’s Tewksbury. There’s Haverhill (they’ve been extremely supportive of us). Revere teachers have been very supportive of us; I know the president there.
And then in our Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU) network across the state, many locals have shown support and solidarity with Andover. This just might be the beginning as far as locals taking action.
What’s funny about the Labor Board decision with Andover is, they’re basically saying you might as well go on strike. Because just about everything else leading up to that they’ll consider as a strike. My sense is, the Labor Board’s decision was very political, meant to quash this type of activity across the state, but it may in fact escalate actions from unions that feel cornered.