Minneapolis strikers demand living wage for lowest-paid educators
Work is on fire in the Twin Cities. Minneapolis educators are wrapping up their second week on strike, and cafeteria workers are set to join them.
St. Paul’s educators also nearly left; the unions fed off each other as they built their contract campaigns. “St. Paul has the experience,” said St. Paul special education teacher Jeff Garcia. “Minneapolis has the energy. They are really excited.
The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and the St. Paul Federation of Educators both announced Feb. 18 that their members had voted to authorize the strikes.
MFT members left on March 8. The strikers are split into two bargaining units: 3,000 teachers and 1,000 education support professionals (ESPs), such as teacher aides.
The SPFE, a combined unit of 3,600 teachers and ESPs, managed to turn their strike threat into a last-minute tentative agreement.
Hot on their heels, 200 Minneapolis public school food service workers with Service Employees Local Union 284 (SEIU) filed their own 10-day strike notice on March 15.
PUSHING FOR STABILITY
ESPs in both cities receive poverty wages and live without cars. The strikers are demanding a decent salary for ESPs, along with more mental health workers and smaller class sizes, which they say translates directly into stability and favorable learning opportunities for students.
“No one is going to let teachers be tricked into thinking these requests aren’t necessary,” said Marcia Howard, an educator in Minneapolis since 1998. “The answer to ‘What about the kids?’ is “Exactly”.
MFT is also demanding more counselors, workload caps, lower health insurance premiums, and policies to support and retain educators of color.
The settlement at St. Paul will limit class sizes, add new counselors and significantly increase ESP salaries. These victories strengthen the commitment on the Minneapolis strike lines.
“MFT members understand,” said Shaun Laden, MFT ESP chapter president. “If St. Paul can add mental health workers, limit class sizes, and pay their $37,000 ESPs, Minneapolis can figure out how to do that, too.”
SEIU Local 284 is fighting for higher wages. Its members, mostly women and people of color, top out at $28,000 a year and must 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 that would end the state’s mandate to fund public education.
A BIGGER FIGHT
These unions are part of a larger coalition of unions in Minnesota that are threatening to strike, including county and school office workers (AFSCME Local 56 and 2822), social workers (AFSCME Local 34) and janitors and security guards (SEIU Local 26).
“At a time when billionaire wealth is exploding and our state sits on a $7.7 trillion surplus, it’s infuriating that we’re still stuck in a debate where one side insists it doesn’t enough to ensure the common good,” the coalition leaders wrote in a joint editorial.
“That’s why our locals have been forced to consider strikes to get decision makers to listen to their workers and negotiate fair deals that will meet the urgent and necessary demands we have made and meet the demands of the moment. ”
“We’ve always looked to St. Paul to try to leverage their playbook and how they build their union power,” said Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody, vice president of the MFT’s ESP chapter. .
Eventually, Laden said, there was “recognition that we were doing things separately, but some of our circumstances were such that it made political sense to work together. Minnesota teachers are in the crosshairs of education reform.
And educators were ready to strike, having experienced the pandemic as “two years of ‘They don’t care if we quit or die,'” said MFT teachers’ chapter president Greta Callahan.
PREPARE FOR THE STRIKE
It’s been 50 years since the MFT last struck, so the union had some work to do.
“When we found out the strike might happen,” Callahan said, “we held meetings at each site and let people air their fears. What if parents don’t support us? What happens if students’ special education needs are not being met? What if the boss comes after me?
“What is the alternative? Callahan would ask in response. “This question has galvanized the members.”
The ESP Chapter decided to use a paper survey (rather than an online survey), passing it person-to-person as part of a conversation about what members wanted in the contract.
The organization of a potential strike and the focus on ESP demands in both sections increased the membership of the ESP section by more than 100.
“If you do something the members feel deeply about, they’re in for the fight,” Laden said. “If we do something like, ‘Every year, go tell your legislator your story,’ they won’t be engaged, because they do it every year and it doesn’t matter.”
Not only have unions in each city had to learn to work together, but teachers and ESPs have also had to overcome years of operating in silos within one union.
The majority of teachers in the Twin Cities are white; the majority of ESPs are people of color.
Educational support professionals work with each student on their learning needs, most often alongside teachers. But, Laden said, “we are strangers working together and not knowing each other.”
During the meetings, the two chapters made a point of talking about inter-chapter solidarity. But for Silvia Ibanez, an art teacher in Minneapolis, the biggest difference was talking with her own colleagues.
“At my school, we got together and some ESPs were talking about how they needed to have more than one job and that they hadn’t had a pay raise for many years,” said- she declared. “We didn’t know until we had a chance to sit down and talk.”
Teachers also joined ESP’s open negotiation sessions, made easier since the negotiation sessions were on Zoom.
“Schools operate to create intentional isolation,” Laden said. “There is a lot of tension. Classism plays into it, racism plays into it, and how we operate as a district.
“But as people learned more about each other and talked to each other, it was transformational, especially for ESPs, hearing teachers say, ‘I’m going to strike for ESPs to have a living wage. ‘”
Since the tentative agreement, St. Paul educators have been organizing support for strikers in Minneapolis and joining their picket lines before school. On the first weekend of the strike, SPFE members showed up to gather outside the building where MFT was negotiating.
Support from the wider community has also been strong. “I’m at Roosevelt High School, and every morning parents and students come to our picket lines,” Moody-Roberson said. “There is a sea of horns. Our strike fund tripled in one day.
The outpouring of support shocked management, Laden said: “It looks like district management is in disarray, trying to figure out what to do.”
Solidarity is also extended from MFT to SEIU Local 284. Educators showed up to rally support while food service workers negotiated.
“NO JUSTICE, NO STREETS”
The courage and conviction of these members owe much to the uprising that swept through the Twin Cities in 2020 after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. “It showed everyone that we have to control our lives, our jobs, our cities,” said Callahan, who is white.
Floyd was killed 263 paces from Marcia Howard’s front door. Howard took time off to help lead the occupation of George Floyd Square, turning the intersection where he was killed into a memorial and protest site. She’s back to teaching now, but still keeps the fire going in the square every day before and after school.
“All of the educators in Minnesota were acutely aware that what happened had an impact on all of our students,” she said. “At 38th and Chicago [George Floyd Square] we say, ‘No justice, no streets.’ Teachers say the same thing. We decided to hold on until our demands were met.
District leaders tried to frame their decisions—like a redistricting plan that the union and much of the community opposed because it would displace students and educators—in terms of civil rights. But educators aren’t buying it.
“It’s the same fight,” Callahan said. “When we fight for our schools, we fight for black lives.”
Howard, who is black, agrees. “It was only when there was a gathering with teachers, some in red [SPFE’s color] and some in blue [MFT’s color]crossing the bridge to Saint-Paul [that] I knew: this is what solidarity looks like,” she said. “I was in tears.
“I am aware that I work in a racialized and gendered profession. They expect white women in the Midwest to hear the words “What about the kids?” and they will capitulate. But we are fighting for a better world, and one of the battlegrounds is in our schools.