Outcome of contract fight proves value of unity and collective bargaining
By Scott McLennan
Aprotracted contract battle in Stoughton highlights the extent to which union opponents are trying to erode salary
schedules, but it also shows how powerful collective
action can prove to be in fighting such attacks.
Salary schedules are the bedrock of collective
bargaining agreements between educators and the
communities they serve. The schedules have become
the mechanism that ensures predictability and equity,
beneficial on both sides of the bargaining table.
Yet attacks on educators’ salary schedules have
become more brazen. They range from merit-pay
schemes, such as the model used by the corporation-
backed Mass Math + Science Initiative for its
Advanced Placement grant program, to the gutting of
collective bargaining rights for educators working at
schools that the state labels “underperforming.”
In Stoughton, the issue came to a head on April
1, 2013, when the School Committee proposed a
39-step salary schedule to replace the 14-step pay
ladder that had been in place for decades. The
proposal, handed to teachers during negotiations that
began before their contract was set to expire at the
end of August, did not increase maximum salaries,
and it lengthened the amount of time a teacher
would need to reach the top of the pay scale by an
astounding 25 years.
The 350-member Stoughton Teachers Association
used a combination of union organizing, political
activism and legal action to fight back at the
bargaining table, and it prevailed, winning a
contract that is better and more fair. “Every teacher
here got involved in the local union,” said Andrea
Pires, president of the STA during its 15-month battle
with school and town administrators.
Pires and a handful of STA activists spoke to
MTA Today in June to discuss the drawn-out and
sometimes rancorous contract fight.
The superintendent and School Committee “tried
to paint the union as different from the teachers,
like there was a small group agitating,” said STA
President-elect John Gunning, who was vice president
during the contract campaign. The STA’s adversaries
turned out to be “our best organizers,” quipped Pires.
When teachers returned to work last fall, they
found that the school administration was withholding
payments to those eligible for step increases based
on the existing salary schedule.
The STA filed an unfair labor practice charge with
the state Department of Labor Relations, asserting
that the teachers were owed the payments for step
increases even though a new contract had not been
settled. Working with the MTA Division of Legal
Services, the STA ultimately filed eight unfair labor
practice charges against the School Committee and
The STA also embarked on a robust organizing
campaign. Having begun the school year without
a contract, the teachers agreed that they would
continue to come in early and stay late for their
students, but that they would not volunteer on any of
the superintendent’s curriculum committees.
The local also formed a crisis team made up of
representatives from each of the town’s eight school
buildings. The representatives distributed STA crisis
updates and held regular 10-minute meetings, often
with MTA field staff from the Braintree office on
hand to discuss updates and strategy.
“There was constant and continuous
communication,” Pires said. Gunning noted that
all members — from those close to retirement to
those with just one year in the system — were
The teachers then went public. Each school
took a turn sending association members to a School
Committee meeting to present a signed petition
asking for a fair and prompt contract settlement.
I n December, an STA rally drew members, educators from other districts, parents and children to the courtyard at Stoughton High
School, where the School Committee was set to meet
later in the evening. Following spirited rounds of
singing and chanting, the demonstrators packed the
School Committee meeting to let the board know
they were frustrated and angry about the lack of
progress in negotiations.
The STA also held forums for parents and
residents in the local VFW Hall. At those meetings,
STA member Lynne Bonnarigo described the
election campaign as an “eleventh-hour” action that
pulled in a broad cross-section of members, parents
and retired school employees.
Volunteers worked at phone banks, handed out
leaflets and held signs — even when it poured rain.
On the day before the election, the STA distributed
an open letter to the community that was signed
by 90 retired school employees. The letter urged
residents to go to the polls and “vote for change.”
Progress was also being made on the legal front.
Of the eight unfair labor charges that the union
filed, two were settled in favor of the STA. The
Department of Labor Relations found that probable
cause existed in all of the other claims.
The STA’s biggest victory was the ruling that the
withholding of step increases, even after the contract
had expired, was illegal.
When the district failed to pay the increases
despite the ruling, the union prepared a class action
civil suit. Under the Massachusetts Wage Act, the
suit filed by the STA would have required the town
to pay triple damages — to the tune of $1.5 million
plus attorneys’ fees and litigation costs.
The union used the suit as leverage, promising
to drop it if the School Committee would adopt
a contract that the STA was ready to ratify. But
when the newly elected School Committee members
joined the chairman in supporting the contract, Town
“Every teacher here got involved
in the local union,” said Andrea
Pires, president of the STA during
its 15-month battle with school
and town administrators.
Please turn to Unity/Page 25
Photo by Christine Peterson
Members of the Stoughton Teachers Association
display some of the signs used during the
local’s long campaign to win a contract.