Editorial: Union leadership should accept that the fight is over

Posted 9/24/20

The Bristol Warren chapter of the National Education Association has made quite a mess of what was already a messy return to school for thousands of public school students in this district. They have …

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Editorial: Union leadership should accept that the fight is over


The Bristol Warren chapter of the National Education Association has made quite a mess of what was already a messy return to school for thousands of public school students in this district. They have undermined the administration and spread uncertainty, confusion, fear and anxiety over the long-anticipated return to school.

Leaders of the local teachers’ union — and it’s important to say “leaders” and not necessarily include the full union membership — have refused to accept the reality that they must teach children in person, even during a pandemic.

The first rumblings were in the early summer, when union leadership announced that 80 percent of teachers were opposed to returning to buildings in the fall. Then there was a lengthy op-ed outlining their objections. Then there were multiple statements, warnings, pleas and speeches at public meetings.

All of that is fine and totally within bounds for acceptable public dialogue. Behind the scenes, they were also lobbying the administration and Bristol Warren Regional School Committee to keep the kids home. Again, all was fair game. They were doing their part to represent their membership.

But there were larger forces at work here.

For many months, Gov. Gina Raimondo has adamantly demanded that students go back to class. Commission of Education Angéica Infante-Green has done the same. A few weeks ago, the Bristol Warren school committee voted to send students back into the buildings, with the full backing of their superintendent. A week later, they reiterated their support, with some modifications to the schedule.

At some point, it became clear that the Bristol Warren teachers’ union was not going to win this fight. Yet they never stopped fighting. They made passionate speeches at public meetings, argued with the administration, even warned that people may die because of the decision to reopen schools.

When the final vote to reopen schools was taken two weeks ago, it seemed finally the drama was over. Of course it wasn’t. The next day — two business days before schools were supposed to open — the union filed suit, claiming the district had not done enough to ensure the buildings were safe to open. Keep in mind, throughout all of Rhode Island, from wealthy suburbs to struggling urban districts and everywhere in between, only one teachers’ union sued to prevent the opening of school buildings. In only one district were the conditions so deplorable and the administration so reckless as to warrant a lawsuit — only here.

The day after the suit was filed, it was heard and dismissed by a Rhode Island Superior Court judge. That happened on a Friday.

On Monday, the buildings opened and students returned. Finally, it seemed, the fight was over.

It wasn’t.

Two days later, while the governor was holding her weekly press conference, she was asked  by a reporter about a Tweet earlier that day from the Bristol Warren teachers’ union, alleging that the district reopened to students despite 60 serious code violations. Neither the governor nor the education commissioner knew anything about the Tweet, and they had to spend a few awkward moments trying to say something without saying anything about the supposedly reckless and dangerous school conditions in Bristol Warren.

However, a closer examination of the “60 code violations” shows that it was simply a regurgitation of the arguments submitted in court the week before and summarily dismissed. The list included things like hot water pipes that weren’t working properly — in other words, building flaws that had absolutely nothing to do with Covid risks.

So even after throwing up a desperate Hail Mary lawsuit and losing badly, union leadership couldn’t give up. They were trying anything possible to get the public on their side.

That of course has been a total failure. Instead of generating sympathy, union leaders have bred fear and resentment and confusion. For days, parents wondered whether schools would even open. Children must have wondered if it was safe to go back to school, considering their teachers didn’t want to be there.

And administrators had to wonder if anyone would even show up to work for that first day — especially after 17 employees, that’s seventeen, either retired or took leaves of absence in the days before the buildings opened.

The union did its job. It fought for its members. It lost. Now it’s time to move on.

The longer they continue this fight, the longer they create uncertainty over what’s actually happening in the classrooms. Families can reasonably wonder if their children are getting the best effort from a group of people who don’t want to be there.

2022 by East Bay Newspapers

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.