The Boston Teachers Union and the Boston School Department reached a tentative agreement on a new four-year contract last night, but not before the Menino administration trampled all over the free speech rights of 8,000 members of the teachers union. The substance of the contract, especially greater management flexibility in underperforming schools, looks reasonable. But the road to the contract is a shambles.
The union was negotiating under the threat of hefty fines rooted in a January decision by the state Labor Relations Commission that ordered the union to "cease and desist" from encouraging or condoning a work stoppage. The ruling was aimed at an earlier vote by the union's executive committee asking the membership whether it would consider a one-day strike in February. Teacher strikes are illegal, but not unknown, in Massachusetts. This page vigorously opposes them. But that shouldn't preclude Boston teachers simply discussing whether to engage in a peaceful act of civil disobedience.
The School Department kept up the pressure and smell ed blood on Feb. 13 when Superior Court Judge Bruce Henry upheld the labor commission's ruling and ordered the union to disavow the vote of the executive board. The union didn't issue a public retraction but it did postpone the strike debate, a sign that negotiations were going well. Still, the School Department pressed for the union to be found in contempt. And on Monday, Judge Henry slapped the union with a $30,000 fine, starting yesterday, and warned that subsequent days without a disavowal of the original vote on whether to strike would bring tens of thousands of additional dollars in fines.
Even those who strongly object to illegal strikes by public employees should take no satisfaction in this affair. There was no way to predict with certainty what the union membership would decide. Yet the court restrained teachers from even deliberating on the question of a one-day strike. Prior rulings by the state Labor Relations Commission had shown a clear understanding of the difference between a debate about ideas and an illegal strike act. But that distinction is now lost. And the result, in the words of a BTU brief, is that the "state is implementing the law as a hammer against freedom of speech and association."
Little wonder that the usual bonhomie of a freshly settled contract is missing here. The teachers union did a little saber rattling by raising the possibility of a one-day strike. The response of the School Department was to grab that sword and stab away at the First Amendment rights of Boston's teachers. That's not a tough negotiation tactic. It's an unwarranted and probably unconstitutional prior restraint on a group of public employees.