Twin Cities Teachers and School Employees Gear Up for Strike
Three contracts, two unions, one voice. On February 18, three groups of educators in the Twin Cities all announced strike authorization votes.
Two are bargaining units in the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers: 3,000 teachers, who voted by 97 percent to authorize a strike, and 1,000 education support professionals (ESPs) such as teachers aides who voted by 98 percent. Each chapter had over 90 percent turnout.
Meanwhile a combined unit of 3,600 teachers and ESPs in the St. Paul Federation of Educators voted by 78 percent to strike.
Both unions are expected to file an intent of strike notice later today. That notice, required under state law, means union members could be on the picket lines in 10 days, unless an agreement is reached before then.
The unions are feeding off of each other to build power. “St. Paul has the experience,” said St. Paul special ed teacher Jeff Garcia. “Minneapolis has the energy. They are really fired up.”
A fourth group followed close on their heels: on February 21, 200 Minneapolis Public Schools food service workers with Service Employees (SEIU) Local 284 announced they would take their own strike authorization vote on March 2.
These unions are part of a larger coalition of Minnesota unions threatening strikes—including unions that represent county and school clerical staff (AFSCME Locals 56 and 2822), social workers (AFSCME Local 34), and janitors and security guards (SEIU Local 26).
“At a time when billionaires’ wealth is exploding and our state is sitting on a $7.7 billion surplus, it is maddening we are still stuck in a debate where one side insists there is not enough to provide for the common good,” wrote leaders of the coalition in a joint op-ed. “That is why our locals have been forced to consider strike actions to move decision makers to listen to their workers and negotiate fair deals that will address the urgent and necessary demands we’ve put forward that meet the requirements of the moment.
“Despite keeping our state running during the pandemic, the educators, social workers, school lunch staff, nurses, library clerks, janitors at the Star Tribune, workers who assist homeless neighbors, and the people who facilitate medical and economic assistance represented by our unions are fed up with those in power refusing to do what is right for the communities we live and serve in.”
PUSHING FOR STABILITY
The unions in both cities are demanding a living wage for paraprofessionals, more mental health workers, and smaller class sizes. These demands, educators say, are necessary to provide stability and supportive learning opportunities for students.
“Nobody is going to let the teachers be gaslit into thinking that these demands are not necessary,” said Marcia Howard, an educator in Minneapolis since 1998. “The answer to ‘But what about the children?’ is ‘Exactly.’”
The MFT’s additional demands include more counselors, caseload caps, lower health insurance premiums, and policies to support and retain educators of color.
SFPE is also trying to hold the line against the district’s demand for givebacks of hard-won gains on class size.
SEIU Local 284 is fighting for higher wages for its members, mostly women and people of color, who top out at $28,000 a year and have to work second jobs to make ends meet.
And all three unions face a threat to the very existence of public schools: a proposed constitutional amendment to end the state’s mandate to fund public education, opening the door to deeper cuts to already underfunded schools.
“We’ve always looked over at St. Paul to try to take from their playbook,” said Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody, ESP chapter vice president in the MFT, “and how they are building power in their union.”
Eventually, said Shaun Laden, president of the chapter, there was “recognition that we were doing things separately, but some of our circumstances were such that it made sense politically to work together. Teachers in Minnesota are in the crosshairs of ed reform.” And ESPs are being paid poverty wages and living out of cars on both sides of the river.
Educators have experienced the pandemic as “two years of ‘They don’t care if we quit or if we die,’” said Greta Callahan, president of the MFT teacher chapter. That’s made them ready to strike.
It’s been 50 years since the MFT last struck, so the union had some work to do to get strike-ready. “When we knew the strike could happen,” said Callahan, “we had meetings in every site and let people get their fears out. What if the parents don’t support us? What if the special education students don’t get their needs met? What if the boss comes after me?
“‘What is the alternative?” Callahan would ask in response. “And that question galvanized members,” she said.
In the ESP chapter, they decided to find out what members wanted at the bargaining table with a paper survey (rather than an online one) that was carried from person to person as part of a conversation about what they would want in the contract. The organizing for a potential strike and the focus on ESP demands across both chapters has increased the MFT ESP’s chapter membership by more than 100.
“If you do something that the members feel deeply about, they are there for the fight,” said Laden. “If we are doing something like ‘Every year go and tell your legislator your story,’ they will not be engaged, because they do that every year and it doesn’t matter.”
NO MORE SILOS
Not only did the unions in each city have to learn to work together, but teachers and ESPs also had to overcome years of operating in silos. Education support professionals work with individual students with learning needs, most often side-by-side with teachers. But, says Laden, “We are strangers working together who don’t know each other.”
Both chapters made a point of talking about cross-chapter solidarity at chapter meetings and events. But for Minneapolis art teacher Silvia Ibanez, the difference was in “talking with co-workers. In my school we got together and some ESPs were talking about how they need to have more than one job and haven’t had an increase in salary for many years. We didn’t know until we had an opportunity to sit down and talk.”
Teachers also joined the ESP open bargaining sessions—all made easier since negotiating sessions were on Zoom.
“Schools operate to create intentional isolation,” said Laden. “There is a lot of tension—classism plays into that, racism plays into that, and how we operate as a district, but as people have learned more about each other and talked to each other it has been transformational. Especially for ESPs, hearing teachers say, ‘I am going on strike for ESPs to have a living wage.’”
REIGNITING ST. PAUL
St. Paul educators are more accustomed to striking. They were on strike two years ago when the pandemic first hit, and reached a tentative agreement after three days, pressured in part by concerns about health and safety as the pandemic loomed.
That left “unfinished business,” Garcia said. “With the pandemic it was laid bare for teachers and licensed staff how much we rely on each other for learning to happen.”
Mandi Jung, a Spanish-immersion teacher in St. Paul, said things changed over the past two years: “People are pissed about how they handled George Floyd’s murder and pissed about how they handled virtual learning. People attacked us and our district did not defend us. We saw the failure of so many trusted institutions that we figured out who to blame—and once we figured that out it became easier to make a plan.”
Jung has been informing educators and the community across the Twin Cities about the conditions and the strike through TikTok.
‘NO JUSTICE, NO STREETS’
The coalition these unions have built, and the courage and conviction members have in taking the vote, emanates from the power of the uprising in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. “It showed everyone we need to be in control of our lives, our jobs, our cities,” said Callahan, who is white.
Floyd was murdered 263 steps from Marcia Howard’s front door. Howard took a leave of absence to help lead the occupation of George Floyd Square. She’s back teaching now, but still maintains the fire in the square each morning before school and each afternoon after school.
“All of the educators in Minnesota were keenly aware that what happened impacted all of our students,” she said. “At 38th and Chicago [George Floyd Square] we say, ‘No justice, no streets.’ Teachers are saying the same thing. We have decided that we will hold our ground until our demands are met.”
The majority of teachers in the Twin Cities are white; the ESPs are majority people of color. District leaders have tried to present their decisions, such as redistricting plans that the union and much of the community opposed because it displaced students and educators, as a civil rights issue. But the educators won’t have any of it. “It is all the same fight,” said Callahan. “When we are fighting for our schools we are fighting for Black lives.”
Howard, who is Black, agrees. “It wasn’t until there was a rally with teachers, some in red [SPFE’s color] and some in blue [MFT’s color], walking across the bridge to St. Paul [that] I knew: this is what solidarity looks like,” she said. “I was in tears.
“I am aware that I am in a racialized and gendered profession. They expect the white Midwestern women will hear the words ‘What about the children?’ and they will capitulate. But we are fighting for a better world, and one of the battlefields is in our schools.”