Book excerpt details rise of labor leader who is now Walz education commissioner

Greenhouse's book catalogues the long decline and bursts of resurgence of the American labor movement.

Editor’s note: This book excerpt from “Beaten Down, Worked Up” by longtime New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse describes the difficult union negotiations in 2013-2014 between St. Paul Public Schools and teachers, who successfully pushed for smaller class sizes and more support staff in addition to higher wages. Last Friday, St. Paul teachers voted to strike as they push for mental health resources in every school and multilingual support. Their former union president is now the state commissioner of the Department of Education.

It was 7:50 in the morning, and the electronic sign outside Johnson Senior High in St. Paul read “18 degrees.”

More than two hundred people huddled out front, chanting, “One, two, three, four. Students are what we’re fighting for.” Most of the demonstrators— whites, blacks, Native Americans and Hmong — were wearing red ski caps, red having become the #RedforEd symbol of teacher militancy nationwide.

The demonstrators — not just teachers, but also many parents and students — carried picket signs that read, “We Demand the Schools All Our Children Deserve,” “St. Paul Students Can’t Wait for Pre-K and School Nurses,” and “St. Paul Students Can’t Wait for Smaller Classes.” Dressed in a bright red down jacket, a teachers’ union leader bellowed into a bullhorn, calling for high-quality pre-K and ending racial inequities in St. Paul’s schools.

The crowd soon filed past the three-foot-high snowbanks and into Johnson High’s warmth for a communal breakfast of coffee and donuts. This wasn’t a walkout, union officials said. It was a walk-in. This wasn’t a protest, they insisted, but a celebration of what the community wanted. All this was a sharp contrast to what happens in those communities where parents and taxpayers view teachers’ unions as a greedy, malevolent force.

In St. Paul, that story has been turned on its head. That early morning “celebration” showed an extraordinary union-community part- nership that was built over a decade. That partnership grew out of the vision of a middle school English teacher named Mary Cathryn Ricker. Working with many devoted colleagues, Ricker forged a teacher-parent coalition that has turned the St. Paul Federation of Teachers into a model of that a farsighted teachers’ union can demand and win: Not just higher pay, but smaller class sizes, pre-K for all four- year-olds, and more music teachers, librarians, social workers and nurses. In other unusual moves, the SPFT has won contract language for teacher visits to students’ homes to improve parent-teacher relations and for forming school-based teams that seek to reduce the disproportionate number of suspensions of students of color. With achievements like these, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers — an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — has been hailed as a leading example of an innovative labor strategy called “bargaining for the common good.”

Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker was a middle school English teacher.

Ricker grew up in the Minnesota Iron Range town of Hibbing (Bob Dylan’s hometown), where her father was a math teacher and president of the local teachers’ union. Strong-voiced and self-assured, she followed in her father’s footsteps, and a dozen years into teaching in St. Paul, she was getting fed up with the abuse being heaped on teachers and public schools. One day she grew especially enraged when she heard a Republican state senator say on TV, “We all know Minneapolis and St. Paul schools suck.”

“I was appalled,” Ricker said. “I didn’t even know you could say ‘suck’ on television.” Conservatives, as they often do, were beating up on teachers’ unions, castigating them for inflating salaries, pushing up taxes and protecting bad teachers. Ricker realized that for conservatives who detest unions, taxes, and “big government,” it’s convenient (and smart politics) to blame teachers’ unions for public schools’ woes, rather than blame systemic, expensive-to-fix problems like poverty and racial inequities.

“I could have closed my classroom door and turned out all the noise,” Ricker said of the teacher bashing and union bashing. “Or knowing enough about myself, I could challenge myself to do something about it.”

With union militancy in her blood, Ricker of course chose the latter course. 

Excerpted from the 2019 book Beaten Down, Worked Up (Alfred A. Knopf.)