The Boston Globe

Teachers unions may see changes

AFT Mass. chief steps down as Boston’s Tang bids for post

- By James Vaznis GLOBE STAFF

Leadership changes at two of the most influentia­l teachers unions in Massachuse­tts appear to be on the horizon as Beth Kontos steps down as president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachuse­tts and Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, makes a bid to replace her.

Tang, who has launched a campaign website, is the only declared candidate for president so far. If she is elected in May, it could usher in leadership changes at the BTU amid negotiatio­ns for a new contract.

Her ascension to the top post also would represent a demographi­c shift for AFT leadership. Tang, who is Chinese

American and openly queer, would be the first person of color to lead

AFT-MA, a groundbrea­king accomplish­ment similar to one she made when elected BTU president.

Tang, 42, said the decision to run for AFT president was tough, but that she wanted to bring her work at the BTU to a statewide platform, particular­ly her accomplish­ments around organizing families and communitie­s, her focus on social justice issues, and increase union leadership diversity.

“I realized that this would be an opportunit­y to continue that goal of really having a state where no matter the school district or ZIP code, that there is a quality public education and the resources and supports that all our students need to thrive,” said Tang, who formerly served as the BTU’s first director of organizing.

Tang said she remembers the frustratio­n as a Boston public middle school teacher when there were not enough books for her students and recalls the fight for other resources, including a reading specialist for an eighth-grader who couldn’t read because her school didn’t have one.

AFT delegates will elect a new president at their convention on May 4, where candidates will be nominated from the floor. Competitio­n could emerge then for Tang.

Tang’s rise through union leadership ranks is part of a nationwide trend of

more diverse workers getting involved with unions and taking on leadership roles, said Jack Schneider, director of the Center for Education Policy at the University of Massachuse­tts Amherst.

“If teacher unions are trying to frame themselves as advocates, not just of what is good for teachers, but of what is good for public education at large, then I think it really is important to signal that leaders understand and can relate to the experience­s and perspectiv­es of students and families and community members,” he said.

The AFT-MA has more than 24,000 members in such districts as Boston, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Salem, and Chelsea and is the smaller of the two statewide educator unions. The Massachuse­tts Teachers Associatio­n, which belongs to the National Education Associatio­n, boasts 117,000 members in almost every district across the state.

Although the two organizati­ons often work together, the AFT has been largely absent from the wave of teacher strikes that has hit Massachuse­tts in recent years. All the striking teacher unions belonged to the MTA, but the BTU and other AFT affiliates have offered their support.

The AFT also has set itself apart by organizing teachers at some charter schools, most recently in Boston in February, stoking unease among some charter advocates. Charters rarely employ unionized teachers and their leaders believe organized labor can hamper innovation, which unions dispute.

Kontos, 64, a high school social studies teacher in Salem, has led the AFT for six years. She decided against reelection to devote more time to her upcoming role as a new grandmothe­r and to advocate for more energy-efficient schools and more equitable school funding.

“I think it’s healthy to have leadership that’s willing to stay, but it shouldn’t be a long-term career to be at the top,” said Kontos, who supports Tang’s candidacy. “I do think that it’s good for our members to see themselves in the role of a leader and for there to be avenues to get there.”

During her tenure, Kontos assisted local affiliates through the pandemic — advocating for better air ventilatio­n, vaccines, and delayed reopening of school buildings — and pushed for the state’s school funding overhaul in 2019.

If Tang wins the election, she would immediatel­y begin her duties. Tang said her departure as BTU president should not disrupt contract negotiatio­ns, which began in February. According to union bylaws, vice president, Erik Berg, who is on the negotiatin­g team, would step in temporaril­y as president until a new one is elected.

Leadership changes during contract negotiatio­ns have happened before. Tang became BTU president in 2017 as contract negotiatio­ns were heading to state mediation. A few months later, the union secured a two-year deal.

During Tang’s tenure, she has worked with five superinten­dents and three mayors. The union’s relationsh­ip with former superinten­dent Brenda Cassellius got tense during the pandemic, with the BTU voting no confidence in Cassellius in December 2020 over her handling of reopening school buildings.

Tang also organized educators and families to fight a state takeover of Boston Public Schools two years ago that put the union on the same side as Mayor Michelle Wu.

Rosalinda Midence, a school counselor at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury who supports Tang’s AFT candidacy, said Tang would be leaving the union in a good place.

“She really revolution­ized what a union should look like,” said Midence, noting Tang enticed her into successful­ly running for the BTU’s executive board. “It really gave me a hunger to be part of this.”

 ?? ?? Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang sees the state job as an ‘opportunit­y.’
Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang sees the state job as an ‘opportunit­y.’
 ?? JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2020 ?? Beth Kontos, head of the American Federation of Teachers Massachuse­tts, has led the organizati­on for six years.
JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2020 Beth Kontos, head of the American Federation of Teachers Massachuse­tts, has led the organizati­on for six years.

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