Winning a Contract During COVID

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When the Holliston Federation of Teachers began negotiating a contract agreement in late 2019, things went about as smoothly as they could. Using a form of negotiating called “interest-based bargaining” that brought both sides together to focus on the best interest of Holliston schools, students, and community, the union and the Holliston School Committee reached an agreement on March 12, 2020. According to a letter sent to teachers by the School Committee, the agreement was reached “with integrity and good faith on both sides.”

“Both sides left the table feeling good,” said Jaime Cutone, President of the Holliston Federation of Teachers (HFT). “And the next day, schools closed.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools, restaurants, and other public spaces in Holliston and across the country, concerns emerged about the potential for financial hardship at municipal governments. Remembering the last recession, many city and town leaders expected years of financial hardship and the need to raise significant revenue or make major budget cuts.

“Despite our agreement, members of the School Committee were concerned about the potential impact on town finances and began to express concern about the cost of our contract,” said Cutone. “We asked them to ratify our deal, and come back to us if actual financial concerns developed so we could solve the problem together.”

After the passage of multiple federal COVID relief bills made it clear that government support would prevent the worst financial impacts of the pandemic, the HFT voted to ratify their contract on May 5, 2020. A short time later, the School Committee voted not to ratify the agreement, citing continued financial concerns. The School Committee then approached the union with an offer that included no raise, and a minimum raise of 1 percent for the next two years.

“From May 2020 to June 2021, we met with the School Committee almost monthly, including mediation from March to May 2021, and over that time it became clear that the financial calamity that they claimed had not occurred,” said Cutone. “The town did not experience a decrease in state funding or town revenue, and even had about $3 million in unanticipated revenue in fiscal year 2021. Over time, the School Committee’s justification for reneging on our contract became not about financial insecurity, but what they were willing to pay in terms of compensation.”

As Holliston teachers approached a year working under an expired contract, It became clear to the union that more would need to happen to move the School Committee off of their position.

“We engaged in a strategic escalation campaign over the course of a year: putting pressure on decision makers while building our own strength as a union,” said Cutone. “It was critical that our membership understood that seeing the whole process through was the only chance at seeing success despite the lengthy process.”

The union created a petition signed by hundreds of teachers, school staff, parents, students, and other community supporters. Bright red yard signs that read “We Support Our Teachers - Contract for Holliston” appeared on lawns across town, buttons were adorned by staff and cars in the school parking lot displayed signs as well. During a district-wide walk-in at all four Holliston schools, staff wore red and held signs at drop-off, then walked into the building together in a show of unity. Teachers and community supporters made a presence with School Committee members, taking every chance to speak up about the hard work teachers were doing in the schools and their need for a fair contract.

In March 2021, more than 50 Holliston teachers and their families marched for half a mile through town and held a standout. The union sent a mailer with information about the contract fight to every household in the town, making their story visible to the entire town. “The outpouring of community support confirmed our belief that the community prioritizes and supports public education,” said Cutone. 

In February, the union’s long fight paid off when a neutral fact-finder, appointed through the mediation process, issued a fact-finding report that almost completely mirrored the union’s position. The only adjustment from the previously negotiated agreement was a small delay in partial payment for a subset of teachers during the first year of the contract.

“The School Committee isn’t bound by the fact-finding report, but having a neutral third party agree that the town has the financial ability to pay for our contract made a big difference,” said Cutone. “During a three hour meeting with the School Committee, they tried again to get us to agree to less, but we held firm and by the end of the session they agreed to the fact-finder’s recommendation.”

The fact-finder’s report focused on the fact that the School Committee had said they rejected the contract due to COVID-related uncertainty, but the financial impacts they were worried about didn’t happen. In the union’s presentation to the fact-finder, the HFT used AFT’s financial experts to analyze the town’s finances and show that the town had the ability to pay for the contract.

“For us as a local, there were 15 different points where we could have come to an alternative agreement, but we knew that going the distance was the right thing to do even though we risked losing a lot,” says Cutone. “We were threatened with job losses again and again, but we held firm.”

Cutone credits the victory to the union’s team of five teachers, along with guidance and resources from AFT Massachusetts field representative Andrew Powell, Member Engagement Coordinator Jeremy Shenk, and General Counsel Haidee Morris.

“Everyone on our team played an important role; each person was honest and no one rose above another,” she says. “We could have made mistakes if it weren’t for the team keeping each other in check. AFT Massachusetts staff were instrumental in guiding us and listening to our needs. And we most certainly couldn’t have won without the entire membership on board; the steps the staff took to show that we were in this together gave us power at the negotiation table. That’s the power of a union, it’s our united voice that’s our strength.”

The union’s new contract, ratified by the union on March 4, and passed by the School Committee on March 7, gives Holliston teachers a contract through June 2024. Now the union is focused on Town Meeting in May and ensuring that a new superintendent puts forward a budget that supports the contract. As Cutone reflects on the union’s victory, she highlights the importance of member engagement and communication.

“The most successful component of this campaign was keeping membership involved and engaged. It was never a power struggle with the School Committee, it was about doing the right thing. It took patience to understand that the process can be lengthy, and that we were in it for the long run. Having a plan for strategic escalation meant being on the ready and reading the scene to determine the most impactful steps at just the right time. Our membership could see the steps laid out ahead and trusted our team to make the best decisions with the goal of convincing the School Committee to keep their promise and honor the deal negotiated in good faith.”

Most of all, Cutone emphasizes the importance of holding firm in negotiations.

“If we didn’t do this, we would have compromised the integrity of every future negotiation.”