Massachusetts’s Governor Is Playing an Ugly Game of Covid Politics With Teachers’ Lives

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker on March 10, 2021. (John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Subscribe to The Nation

Subscribe now for as little as $2 a month!

Subscribe to The Nation

Subscribe now for as little as $2 a month!

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has sought to position himself as a reasonable Republican—a relative moderate who announced before the 2020 election that he wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump and whose condemnation of Trump’s incitement of insurrection on January 6 was featured in a video montage by House impeachment managers when they made the case against the former president.

Yet Baker has in recent weeks displayed a downright Trumpian disregard for the health and safety of public school teachers in a fight over reopening schools. In a rush to reinstate in-person learning, Baker clashed with teachers’ unions over whether enough was being done to protect educators and other school personnel from the threat posed by Covid-19. That’s not uncommon. Similar struggles have played out in states and cities across the country, as officials have pushed for a rapid reopening while unions and their allies have argued that the vaccination of educators and staffers must come first—along with related steps to assure that school buildings are safe and that protocols to prevent the spread of the virus are followed.

But Baker took things a step further as he wrangled with unions over whether he was doing enough to protect teachers. He attacked the unions in language so vitriolic, and dishonest, that his approach drew comparisons with onetime Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the anti-labor zealot who a decade ago made assaults on public employees and their unions his priority in a fight that drew national attention.

“What is Baker doing?” asked American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who has been at the forefront in arguing for science-based approaches to reopening schools. Noting that “the educators are trying to have the conditions for safe school reopening.” Weingarten wondered, “Why is Charlie Baker not doing what he can to make school reopening safe?”

What was bizarre about Baker’s combative approach is that the two statewide education unions, the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) and AFT Massachusetts, had gone out of their way to work with the governor. They were proactive in their approach, arguing for a science-based “rapid vaccination plan for educators” similar to the one already used to vaccinate first responders. In a February 10 letter, the unions proposed:

Just as the state is moving forward with a plan to vaccinate public transit workers, we also need a plan to vaccinate all educators. We are asking the state to set aside enough vaccine from the supply currently being stored in freezers to pilot our program in 10 to 20 high-need school districts at the same time the state is continuing to vaccinate people aged 65 through 74. As more vaccine becomes available, the program would be scaled up to administer shots to school staff across the state.

That sounded logical, as did the union proposal to conduct the vaccination program at local sites, with trained EMTs and firefighters administering doses. The firefighters’ union was on board, signaling that its members were “eager to put our experience to work with this plan.” Teachers were ready to go.

MORE FROM John Nichols

“The state has no plan in place to get the vaccine into the arms of all school employees, so we’ve united with the firefighters’ union to create our own,” explained MTA President Merrie Najimy in February. “Unions are charged with protecting the health and safety of their members, which ultimately protects their communities. By streamlining an onsite process for vaccinating school employees, this union-led plan will make our schools and communities safer. It’s time to act.”

Instead of welcoming the proposal, the Baker administration let weeks pass, rejected the model outlined by the unions, and ripped into the teachers. “We’re just not going to play that game,” sneered Baker, who has been under fire for mishandling the overall vaccination program.

The governor argued that “teachers don’t need to be vaccinated to be educating kids,” and accused educators of “looking for their own vaccine, and to not participate in the process everyone else is participating in.”

A statement issued last week by the governor’s office declared that the administration was “dismayed that despite reasonable efforts to prioritize educator vaccinations, the teachers’ unions continue to demand the Commonwealth take hundreds of thousands of vaccines away from the sickest, oldest and most vulnerable residents in Massachusetts and divert them to the unions’ members, 95 percent of which are under age 65.”

Union leaders, who had met with the administration, were shocked by the governor’s line of attack, which disregarded concerns about younger teachers with preexisting conditions and sought to pit teachers against the communities they serve.

“I’m actually quite surprised at the vitriol,” said Beth Kontos, the president of AFT Massachusetts, the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “The governor characterizes it as us wanting to take vaccines away from the sick and the elderly, which is totally untrue.”

The unions explained that they weren’t trying to take vaccines from other groups. Rather, as had been explained to Baker and his aides, they wanted to use doses that had already been set aside for teachers—who the governor wanted to have travel to mass vaccination sites—and make them available at local community clinics.

The unions’ approach earned praise from dozens of state legislators, who wrote Baker and explained that the plan proposed by the firefighters and teachers was “the surest path the quick, efficient and accessible vaccination.” One of the organizers of the letter, which drew support from Democrats and Republicans, Democratic state Senator Becca Rausch, voiced the sentiment of the legislators when she argued, “Educators and school staff must have #CovidVaccine access before a return to full, in-person school.”

Beth Huang, the director of the Massachusetts Voter Table, a statewide coalition of groups working on voter engagement with grassroots organizing, made the Scott Walker comparison.

“Charlie Baker’s attack on teachers’ unions for wanting vaccines before teaching in-person during the pandemic reminds me of Scott Walker’s attacks on teachers’ unions for the budget hole during a recession,” said Huang, who was educated at the University of Wisconsin and well recalls the storied struggle in that state. “Baker is biz conservative cut from the same cloth as Walker.”