State board rules NTA convocation boycott was strike action

In a blow to teacher union collective bargaining strategy in Massachusetts, the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board has ruled that the Newton Teachers Association and its officers engaged in an unlawful strike activity when they organized a boycott of a traditionally optional convocation event in August.

The ruling—written by CERB member Kelly B. Strong on behalf of the board majority—also states, however, that rank-and-file members of the NTA did not engage in strike activity by remaining silent during staff meetings.

‘Assumed and implied’

The CERB ruling is partly based on a July meeting of NTA President Michael Zilles, NTA Treasurer Toby Romer and Newton Superintendent Anna Nolin. In that meeting, according to testimony, Nolin told the NTA officers that she was making changes to this year’s Opening Day convocation ceremony. She would not be inviting the mayor (who was traditionally invited to speak) because she didn’t want it to be a political rally, but rather a “celebration of teachers.” She was also dividing the Opening Day event up into two locations, despite the NTA wanting to be in one location so they could rally and show unity.

“Nolin did not expressly state at this meeting that staff attendance was mandatory and Zilles never agreed that it would be,” the ruling reads. “Nolin did, however, believe that this requirement was as, she testified, ‘assumed and implied’ in their conversation and confirmed by Zilles when he told her that the opening day provided him with the opportunity to address his entire membership.”

The ruling then brings up an NTA blog post from a week after that meeting in July, in which Zilles wrote that Nolin was trying to sabotage the planned rally and show of solidarity by replacing the customary convocation with events at Newton North and Newton South high schools.

Zilles’s blog posted ends with him saying, “I will be meeting with the co-chairs to discuss our concerns and asking them not to participate in this charade of showing educators how much they are ‘appreciated’ as they return to school for a new year.”

‘Show up for work’

The CERB ruling rests on the idea that Opening Day activities are part of a teacher’s job activities and thus refusing to attend is a refusal to work.

“There are few things that are more basic about the employer-employee relationship than the job requirement that an employee must show up for work, a.k.a. report for duty, and report for such duty at the location as determined by the employer, or in accordance with a CBA in the case of a unionized workforce,” the ruling reads.

Narrowing its ruling to potentially avoid setting too bold a precedent, the ruling also states that “an employer does not have an unfettered right to order unionized employees to report anywhere to do anything during the workday. An employer that abuses its authority does so at its own peril as the union certainly has the right to challenge the decision if it disagrees with the location where its members must report or objects to the reason why they have been ordered to report the location.”

The CERB ends with basic guidance on how to report abuses by employers.

“The proper way to air the discord is through legally permissible avenues such as the grievance process or by filing an unfair labor practice charge,” the ruling concludes. “What they cannot do is resort to self-help by encouraging, inducing or engaging in an illegal refusal to report for duty—a strike.”