Teachers and support staff in Minneapolis and St. Paul could be headed for a strike if their respective school boards continue to stall on key issues, such as pay and benefits, smaller class sizes and COVID-19 safety. Both unions are negotiating new contracts and are officially in mediation.
On Jan. 19, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professions (MFT Local 59) voted to initiate the process of authorizing a strike. Minneapolis teachers have been working without a contract for almost a year, and under Minnesota law can only strike when they are under contract negotiation.
Pat Johnson*, a middle school teacher in a predominantly white Minneapolis neighborhood, told Liberation News that support for a strike was growing among teachers. “It’s like the school board feels like they can do whatever they want to us, even over little things,” he said. “There’s no transparency at all for how the school board is running things or how their decisions are being made. They mandated that during times of distance learning, all teachers would be required to report to their empty classrooms and teach online from there, stuff like that, which feels so pointless. A lot of teachers who were normally neutral have gotten angry over it.”
The teachers’ growing militancy reflects the amount of time negotiations are taking. The union began negotiations on the 2021-2023 contract in February 2021, and expected to secure a new contract by the start of the school year on July 1, 2021. The union’s contract proposal calls for measures to create “safe and stable schools,” including:
- the recruitment and retention of educators of color
- mental health support staff, such as a school social worker and counselor at every site every day
- smaller class sizes
- a COVID safety plan to include equitable education for students in quarantine and a consistent threshold for going remote
- professional time for Education Support Professionals (ESPs)
- competitive pay, especially for ESPs
- affordable health insurance
Johnson says these demands are important to him and teachers and staff at his school. A 2018 report described Minneapolis/St. Paul as “highly segregated by race,” and that segregation is seen in the classroom. “Unfortunately, it’s [segregation] gotten a lot worse. I would say my school used to be around 20% students of color, and now we have a total of 10 in the entire building,” he said. He noted that in exchange for ending distance busing, the board agreed to renovate schools in neighborhoods of color, although as yet the renovations have not taken place.
Distance learning during the pandemic has been a challenge with the board making what Johnson describes as “arbitrary decisions” as to when lessons should be online or in-person, and excluding the union from having any input into such decisions.
He also notes that ESPs are bearing the financial brunt of distance learning. “They’re getting hit really hard in terms of losing work when schools go to distance, and being forced to handle a huge amount of work they’re not trained for. In addition to their pay being less than a lot of retail locations right now,” he said “We shouldn’t be losing staff to Walmart.”
Johnson sees support for a strike among teachers and hopes that the strike authorization vote will encourage the board to settle as it did with the city’s school bus drivers. “I think that we have majority support for it,” he said. “Teamsters Local 320, who represent our bus drivers, just got a huge win two weeks ago after threatening to strike, and it helps to see a win like that.”
In neighboring St. Paul, members of the St. Paul Federation of Educators and supporters have been rallying ahead of the union entering into mediation. Their demands are similar to those of Minneapolis, including smaller class sizes, increased mental health supports, and recognizing, supporting and prioritizing BIPOC student and educator needs. A coalition of parents, students and community members have started a petition in support of the union and its demands.
On Jan. 18, a student-led movement staged a walkout across St Paul, with thousands of students from all eight high schools and many of the middle schools demonstrating. Their demands are in line with those of Minneapolis educators, with their first demand being the creation of a metric for determining local responses to COVID that is under the control of the SPFE. Other demands focus on ensuring that health resources and staff within the school system are sufficient, requesting student participation in shaping the distance learning curriculum, and immediate transparency for how COVID relief funds are spent. These student demonstrations enjoy broad public support and have increased the pressure on the school board.
While teachers in Minneapolis/St. Paul have not traditionally been as militant as teachers in other cities, such as Chicago, the global pandemic and it’s accompanying crisis of capitalism along with the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd have pushed people into action. It is teachers’ unions that are best positioned to fight for an educational system that our children deserve as well as safe and dignified conditions for our educational workers.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
Feature photo: More than 450 SPFE members and supporters rallied Jan. 18 in support of St. Paul teachers. Photo credit: St. Paul Federation of Educators