NTA’s Zilles talks pay disputes, mediation and ‘work to rule’

Recently, Newton Teachers Association President Michael Zilles announced plans for a possible “work to rule” action as tensions heated up in the ongoing contract negotiations with the Newton School Committee.

That term, “work to rule,” is called different things in different communities. But what does it mean in this case for Newton?

First, it’s not a strike.

“We are not planning to strike,” Zilles said. “That would be illegal.”

What is ‘Work to rule?’

Under “work to rule” in Newton, Teachers would report to school, teach their students, grade homework and tests—everything that involves teaching.

“In a traditional ‘work to rule,’ people only do work during contractual hours. We’re not asking people to do that,” Zilles said. “They can’t serve themselves or their students well if they don’t take time to grade papers or prepare their classes before the day or after the day.”

What would be impacted are district initiatives, and those include changes to how teachers teach, changes to how grades are given, changes to how data is collected and reported, and more.

A ‘work to rule’ action would mean teachers refusing to move forward with such district initiatives until there is a contract.

Steps vs. COLA

The last hurdle in negotiations remains pay increases. And one sticking point seems to be how to structure the pay raise schedule.

Teachers receive cost-of-living increases after reaching new “steps”—a step in this case is an increment of time set in the contract—so that teachers with more seniority make more money than new teachers and new teachers have an established path to more compensation.

In 2011, impacted by the Great Recession, Newton saw its coffers drain like most communities in America. That year, the School Committee and NTA reached a deal in which more steps were added with less of a raise in each step. This allowed the district to slow down the process of getting to the top pay level.

According to Zilles, no one in negotiations has proposed changing the step schedule. What’s been proposed by the NTA is moving the time of year in which steps are reached to September when the school year starts.

In 2011, the School Committee and the NTA agreed to push the step month all the way to March to help the district save money during the fiscal crisis.  A later negotiation brought the step month back a little, to December. Now, the NTA is asking for it to be moved to September.

“Everywhere else, once you’ve earned it, you come back the next school year and get your step,” Zilles said. “They’re not giving us that.”

Zilles said the School Committee is conflating step increases with cost-of-living increase amounts, and that when it comes to cost-of-living increases, Newton gives much less than comparable communities.

“Weston, Wellesley, Lexington, they all just settled contracts where the COLAs were much higher, and in those districts, in each case there were one or two other things they negotiated, and the district agreed to, that changed their benefit packages,” Zilles said. “In Lexington, they now have 60 days of paid parental leave. We have 40.”

And if a district doesn’t set cost-of-living pay increases at a sufficient amount, Zilles said, eventually the district will fall way behind and lose its ability to compete for teachers.

Newton School Committee Vice Chair Kathleen Shields said that for financial reasons, the district isn’t prepared to move teachers’ step date.

“Moving the step date back as the union has requested is very costly,” Shields said. “I do not have the precise number handy, but it is in the range of several hundred thousand dollars per month of movement.”

Shields added that the School Committee has made financial concessions already and that moving the step date to September would require changes to some of those other concessions.

“We are open to continuing to negotiate over this, and all other aspects of the package we have offered, but consider all of our financial proposals as a pie,” Shields said. “Cutting a bigger slice in one area means cutting a smaller piece in another area.”

Heading to mediation

The School Committee recently announced that they were requesting state mediation. Zilles said the committee asked the NTA to request such mediation jointly with them and the NTA declined.

“We don’t think the mediators from the Department of Labor Relations are particularly helpful,” Zilles said. “Our experience—when we look at what has happened in other districts—is that they’re not particularly good. In fact, at the negotiating table, district’s attorney, Liz Valerio, agreed with us on that.”

Zilles said the NTA suggested the two parties hire a well-known independent mediator, and the district “agreed she was a better mediator than anyone the state was going to assign. And they still said no.”

Zilles said the NTA’s concern now is that the district is trying to use the mediation process to stonewall the NTA so the district can eventually have the NTA legally ordered to take the district’s last offer.

“So this is a power move to get them on the path to be able to say, ‘You take out last offer, and too bad. We don’t want to negotiate anymore,’” Zilles continued.

And for teachers, unlike in the private sector, retaliating with a strike is illegal and could cost the NTA thousands of dollars a day in fines.

Shields said the district disagreed with the NTA on independent mediation but was initially prepared to compromise on that.

“The Committee was willing to explore an independent mediator (which would be more expensive than a state mediator) if the state was willing to appoint an independent mediator to fulfill the required state mediation process,” Shields said. “The state was not willing to do that.  Accordingly, even if the Committee had agreed to pay a more expensive private mediator, we would still need to go through the state mediation process if the private process was not successful – causing yet further delay.”

Shields also denied Zilles’s claim that the School Committee was stalling the process for advantage.

“The Committee’s goal and intention is to reach a fair agreement with the NTA that improves the efficiency of our schools, puts students’ needs first, and provides competitive salaries and benefits for our educators,” Shields said. “It sounds like Mr. Zilles is referring to the fact that, under state law and regulations, a School Committee may implement its last on-the-record offer if 1) mediation is unsuccessful, 2) a process called fact-finding that happens after mediation is unsuccessful, and 3) additional bargaining that happens after fact-finding is unsuccessful.  As far as I know, that has never happened (at least not in the last 50 years). That is not the Committee’s goal and I think it is not a reasonably likely outcome of this, or any other current negotiation.”

Zilles emphasized out that the NTA battle is with Mayor Ruthanne Fuller for not including more money for schools in her budget, and with the School Committee for the rocky negotiations, but not with the new superintendent, Anna Nolin.

“This is a really terrible time to be doing this,” Zilles said. “We’ve got a new superintendent who is eager and excited to be here, excited to get rolling, to get to know the educators she’s working with. She’s always worked in a collaborative relationship with the unions in the districts she’s worked in, and here she comes, plopped down in the middle of a battlefield,” Zilles said. “That’s just not fair to her. I think she deserves the chance to be the leader she wants to be.”\

Teachers and staff are set to return to school on Aug. 30, with students starting the 2023-2024 academic year on Sept. 5.