by Cirien Saadeh
In a Feb. 24 announcement, teachers with the Saint Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), which includes both teachers and Education Support Professionals, announced an intent to strike. Filed with the state of Minnesota’s Bureau of Mediation, the intent to strike was authorized by the board in a vote counted Feb. 17 and provides a legally-mandated, 10-day warning to the school districts about a possible strike.
The demands from both unions to their districts have been similar. They are asking for limits on class sizes, wage increases, and better mental health support for students. According to reporting from Minnesota Public Radio, the districts have said that the teachers’ demands are not feasible due to budget shortfalls. However, the state currently has a budget surplus of more than $7 billion, which could potentially be used for education.
“Just over a year ago, the MFT chapter first met with MPS leadership and began the current round of contract bargaining in the hopes of laying the foundation for big and needed changes in how we function as a school system,” said Daniel Perez, a teacher with MFT Local 59 and a bargaining team member at a press conference outside of the Bureau of Mediation. “We are quickly losing our breaking point, we are losing dozens of educators who we seek to retain, we are losing hundreds of students, we are losing faith in our district and our state and national leaders to deliver on the many promises and commitments they make to public education.”
Ninety-seven percent of the teachers and 98% of the Education Support Professionals with MFT Local 59 voted in favor of a strike, leading up to the board vote on a strike authorization. Seventy-eight percent of SPFE members voted in support of a strike.
Students of color make up nearly 80% of the St. Paul Public School District and 70% of the population in Minneapolis Public Schools. In Minnesota, only 4% of 63,000 teachers are BIPOC. Data shared by the district in 2018 found that 17% of teachers were teachers of color, and in 2020, 30% of new teachers were BIPOC. Both unions are fighting for their protections, demanding that teachers of color—most of them new teachers—be protected from seniority-based layoffs.
MFT Local 59’s demands include a living wage for every Education Support Professional, the recruitment and retention of teachers of color, mental health support including a school social worker and school counselor at every location every day, a drop in the school-to-psychologist and school-to-student ratio, a decrease in class size, professional time for ESPs, a plan for educating students in quarantine due to COVID-19, and competitive compensation.
“We have a lack of teaching staff, a lack of support staff. It can literally be that a kid does not get fed because there are not enough staff members there to feed them,” said Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody, first vice president of the Education Support Professionals chapter of MFT Local 59.
According to data from MFT Local 59, Minneapolis Public Schools have lost over 640 educators in the last 18 months, a number that includes both educators and Education Support Professionals.
Similar to MFT Local 59’s demands, SPFE Local 28’s demands include an improved class size limit, increasing mental health supports for students, additional support for special education students, “recognizing, supporting, and prioritizing BIPOC students and educators,” a living wage for educational assistants, and a fair wage and increase in benefits for all educators.
“We have high school teachers now reaching over 160 students, and you want us to be real and relevant and relational and rigorous, you show me,” said one SPFE educator in a video released by the union.
The strikes for both districts are scheduled to take place on March 8. The district and unions have until March 7 to reach a negotiation. Both districts are working on child care alternatives for students if the strikes were to launch.
SPFE Local 28 last went on strike in March 2020 and the strike lasted three days. MFT Local 59 has not held a strike since 1970, which lasted 14 days. Aside from MFT Local 59 and SPFE Local 28, SEIU 284, which includes Minneapolis Public Schools food workers, are voting to strike on March 2.
Educators across Minnesota have also been waiting to hear back on a commitment made by the Minnesota state legislature last year that would likely distribute some form of frontline worker hazard pay to teachers and other groups. The DFL-backed Minnesota House recently passed a bill that would distribute $1,500 to every eligible frontline worker, including teachers, drawing on the state’s historic surplus, but the GOP-backed Senate has yet to pass similar legislation.
Cirien Saadeh, PhD is an Arab-American community journalist, community organizer, and college professor teaching Social Justice and Community Organizing at Prescott College. Saadeh believes that journalism can be a tool that can be used to build power in historically-marginalized communities.
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