STRIKE: Newton teachers vote to strike, schools closed starting Friday

The Newton Teachers Association has voted to strike, ending weeks of whispers and speculation about whether this day would come.

The vote was 1,641—about 98 percent of the membership that voted—in favor of a strike.

Newton teachers filled the cascade of steps outside City Hall Thursday evening, waving signs and chanting rallying cries with a passion that pierced the sub-frigid air around them.

“What I want to announce right now is that 98 percent of our membership tonight voted ‘yes’ to begin a strike tomorrow morning,” Newton Teachers Association President Michael Zilles said to a roaring applause.

Zilles took the moment to call out local officials who oppose their strike or haven’t shown sufficient support.

“The membership of this union—the members of this union are the bravest people in this city,” Zilles said. “The city councilors, the School Committee, none of our elected officials are willing to stand up to Mayor Fuller and say: ‘No, fund the schools, Mayor Fuller.’

“But guess what?” he continued. “The membership of the Newton Teachers Association is standing up for the citizens, the students and the educators of Newton and we are saying: Mayor Fuller, enough is enough.'”

Elizabeth Ross Del Porto, who’s been teaching elementary school kids for almost 30 years, talked about mental health issues she’s seeing in young kids today that require social workers to handle.

“I hear from far too many elementary school educators about very young children with anxiety, with talk and thoughts of self-harm, with actions of self-harm, or actions that create unsafe situations for themselves or others,” Ross Del Porto said.

Ross Del Porto called for the city to fund a social worker in every elementary and middle school building, instead of schools only having them on designated days of the week.

“We cannot tell a struggling child, ‘Can you hold on a few days? Our social worker will be here Thursday.'” she said.

Newton North High School chemistry teacher Arielle Miles shared a personal story of post-partum depression she suffered after the birth of her first child. She had to take unpaid leave, which she said she was lucky her family could afford, because her allotted leave didn’t cover the time she needed to heal.

Now pregnant with her second child, Miles spoke about the NTA’s demand for more paid family leave.

“Sixty days for members who want to extend their families isn’t extravagant. It’s what we deserve,” Miles said.

The one city councilor out of 24 who has expressed support for a strike—Ward 5 Councilor Bill Humphrey—spoke at Thursday’s announcement.

“I’m a Newton public schools graduate, I’m also a city councilor and a member of the Finance Committee. The Newton teachers made me who I am today;” Humphrey said. “I’m also the son of a union nurse. And I know that when a union member votes to go on strike, it is not taken lightly, and it is a last resort.

“When the teachers and the educators are outside the school building, that means something wrong inside this building,” Humphrey said, waving toward the doors of City Hall behind him. “If 98 percent of the members voted to go on strike, that tells you how bad things must have gotten inside our school system, for them to reach this breaking point.”

Humphrey balked at the idea that the city can’t afford the NTA’s demands and said that from his time on the Finance Committee, he knows “that we have the resources to get a fair contract.”

“This is about prioritization,” Humphrey said.

City Councilor Bill Humphrey speaks at the Newton Teachers Association announcement of a teacher strike on Jan. 18, 2024. Photo by Bryan McGonigle

Schools will be closed on Friday. If the strike continues into next week, the schools will be closed then as well. All school-related activities are cancelled or postponed until further notice.

Shortly after the strike announcement, Mayor Fuller released a statement calling the move “disturbing.”

“The Newton Teachers Association made the disturbing decision a short time ago to shut down schools for our students tomorrow, Friday, by striking illegally,” Fuller wrote. “This decision is particularly damaging in the wake of the pandemic. This will be unbelievably difficult and stressful for our children and our families/caregivers.”