NTA boycotts opening convocation, School Committee calls for strike investigation

The Newton Teachers Association organized a boycott of district activities on the teachers’ first day of the academic year, and now the School Committee is asking the state to investigate the NTA for alleged strike activity.

The NTA and the School Committee are in the middle of tense contract negotiations, and as students prepare to start the 2023-2024 school year next week, the NTA is planning a “work to rule” action in which teachers would refuse to help with district initiatives even as they continue to instruct, grade papers and do the other work involved with teaching students.

The School Committee has been calling that strategy a “work stoppage,” despite teachers planning to continue teaching and doing the work associated with educating students. And now, the contract negotiations are in state mediation.

Invitation declined

On Wednesday, there was a scheduled convocation to start the school year, titled “Rally for Educational Excellence.” Each year that event is optional to attend, but this year Superintendent Anna Nolin told teachers that attendance was “expected.”

The NTA had planned a protest rally in front of Newton South High School at 7:45 a.m., but that rally was called off, and the NTA asked teachers to instead boycott the district’s convocation ceremony.

“Instead, please report to your regular buildings, classrooms, and offices, and continue preparing for the arrival of students on Tuesday, Sept. 5,” NTA President Michael Zilles wrote in a blog post to NTA members. “We need a fair contract, and, in the future, we need to be invited to attend a convocation. An event that has always been voluntary is just that: voluntary. Please do not attend.”

The response

The School Committee had called an emergency meeting on Tuesday night upon hearing of the planned ceremony boycott, and now the committee is asking the state to investigate.

“Thus, the School Committee will be filing a strike petition with the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations to investigate the events that occurred,” the School Committee posted on its website Wednesday. “The strike investigation will not impede our commitment to working hard, collaboratively and in good faith within the state mediation process to reach a fair, mutually satisfactory and sustainable contract with our union.”

The School Committee is calling the boycott a “strike” activity, but the “work to rule” action is not a strike. It’s illegal for teachers to go on strike, and teacher unions that do go on strike tend to see huge daily fines from the state.

The flex

Later Wednesday afternoon, the NTA released a statement denying that the boycott constituted a strike, pointing out that attendance for the opening ceremony has always been optional, and noting that the NTA had sent Nolin a grievance objecting to her directive to attend.

The statement also says that the convocation agenda didn’t include professional learning, but rather, “two bureaucrats from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Massachusetts Secretary of Education, who, Dr. Nolin claimed, would inspire our educators.”

”Educators are inspired when they feel prepared to welcome their students, and when they feel respected at the bargaining table,” the statement continues.

Zilles called Wednesday’s boycott “strategic and conscientious.”

“We wanted to shed light on this new practice of ‘management by directive,’ and to advocate for a fair contract,” Zilles said. “And we wanted to do this by supporting our members as they prepare to greet Newton’s children and provide them the excellent education the community has come to expect. We are proud to have met both of our goals, and grateful to our members for joining us in this action on such short notice. We flexed our muscles, and apparently this has the School Committee very nervous.”

Both the School Committee and the NTA have publicly committed to having students start school as scheduled, on Sept. 5.

A possible NTA protest rally is planned for Sept, 11, Zilles said, the date of the next School Committee meeting.