Minneapolis teachers strike while the labor movement is hot

By: - March 9, 2022 8:04 am

Minneapolis teachers rallied outside the Minneapolis Public Schools central office during the first day of their strike on March 8, 2022. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer.

Jessica Mueller was in tears after she heard Monday night that Minneapolis teachers were officially going to strike the following day.

Mueller, a special education teacher at Field Elementary, was distraught about being away from the classroom when her students are working so hard to master foundational skills, like reading. Holding a picket sign outside the Minneapolis Public Schools district office Tuesday afternoon, Mueller teared up again as she said she’d rather be with her students.

“Honestly, if I did not believe that we absolutely have to take action as advocates for them, I wouldn’t be doing this,” she said. “All these disruptions existed before the pandemic, and they won’t stop unless we take this time to actually do something and stand our ground.”

Classes across Minneapolis were canceled Tuesday as the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers went on strike for the first time in more than 50 years. Teachers describe the move as a last resort amid stalled negotiations over pay and staffing; the district argues that persistent budget woes leave no money for the union’s demands, including raises and hiring more staff.

“We do our best to make sure we’re good stewards of our money,” Superintendent Ed Graff said during a bargaining update Tuesday evening. “We all have priorities we want to have happen, but we don’t have the resources for it. Someone has to be able to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do it.’”

The Minneapolis walkout comes amid a rise in labor militancy nationwide as the tight labor market boosts workers’ leverage, experts say. A new generation of progressives, scarred by the Great Recession, ballooning student debt and skyrocketing housing costs, have turned to unions to reverse the steady decline of living standards.

Workers in museums and on university campuses, newsrooms, bars and restaurants, Starbucks, Amazon warehouses and REI are forming unions or organizing to do so. Unionized workers at a diverse array of companies like cereal maker Kellogg’s and John Deere have gone on strike in the past year, coming out with raises. 

And for educators, the overwhelmingly successful wave of teacher strikes in 2018 and 2019 is still fresh in their minds. Local, state and national education labor leaders have also cited neighboring St. Paul as proof that a deal is possible, after the district and union there averted a strike by reaching a tentative agreement late Monday.

Still, it may be a somewhat delicate moment in education organizing. Teachers have been both exalted and villainized during the pandemic, as schools and families struggle with disruptions — which means public support is by no means assured.

State Sen. Paul Gazelka, a Republican from East Gull Lake who is also a candidate for governor, sought to use the Minneapolis strike to flaunt his anti-union bona fides with Republican voters, calling the strike a “union money grab” and an effort “to muscle their way into the (state) budget surplus when they should be doing their jobs teaching YOUR kids.”

Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University, said teachers risk losing support among key constituencies. He added, however, that “people realize it’s been very difficult to teach during the pandemic and that teachers have borne the burden of the pandemic.”

The strike is a viable tactic now ... It’s more at the forefront of unionism.

– Bradley Marianno, University of Nevada professor

It’s been decades since the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers went on strike, but teacher walkouts nationwide were becoming increasingly common before the pandemic. Record numbers of teachers participated in work stoppages in 2018 and 2019 in a movement known as “Red for Ed,” according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which only tracks strikes of at least 1,000 workers. 

In 2018, 379,000 teachers took part in walkouts — more than 12 times the total from the year before. In 2019, more than 266,000 teachers participated in work stoppages. 

The surge was driven in part by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Janus v. AFSCME, said Bradley Marianno, a University of Nevada-Las Vegas professor who studies teachers unions.

The court ruled that public-sector unions can’t collect dues from non-members, essentially making every state a right-to-work state and forcing unions to work harder to attract and retain members, Marianno said. One way unions demonstrate that they’re fighting for their members is to go on strike, and they tend to reach strikes faster than in the past, he said.

“The strike is a viable tactic now,” Marianno said. “It had faded into the background and was a last-resort option. It’s more at the forefront of unionism now.”

Toch said the public may respond differently to strikes now that families have struggled through months of school closures. Distance learning was hard on students and parents, and some blame unions for schools’ slow reopening, he said.

The Minneapolis teacher walkout sent parents across the city scrambling for child care. Minneapolis Public Schools is offering “extremely limited” emergency child care, so many families sought out options from private providers, YMCAs and half-day programs from the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board.

After dropping off her 6-year-old son at the Blaisdell YMCA Tuesday morning, parent Satya Seshadri-Bacich said the day-to-day challenges of managing child care and keeping up with academic work while classes are canceled haven’t swayed her support for the union. 

Seshadri-Bacich, a health care worker, said she is concerned about her son falling behind if the strike stretches on, but they’ll keep practicing skills like reading at home.

“It’s hard coming off a pandemic year, but I definitely support everything they’re advocating for,” Seshadri-Bacich said.

Nationwide teacher shortages have also given educators more leverage at the bargaining table, Marianno said.

Minneapolis Public Schools hasn’t been immune to the trend, struggling to fill hundreds of vacancies across the district. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers has pitched its proposal for pay raises partly as a solution to the staffing shortage, arguing more competitive wages would bring more hirees and stem the flow of teachers leaving Minneapolis for better-paying jobs elsewhere — especially teachers of color.

“If MPS truly wanted to retain more educators of color, they would improve conditions now by increasing pay, reducing class sizes, adding more mental health supports, and supporting educators of color with mentors of color,” members of MFT’s teachers of color bargaining team wrote in a recent public letter.

Minneapolis teachers rallied outside the Minneapolis Public Schools central office during the first day of their strike on March 8, 2022. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer

The union initially asked for 20% raises — which they say would put pay closer to what it was two decades ago with inflation — but has dropped that demand, the Sahan Journal reported Tuesday. They’re now seeking roughly 10%.

Greta Callahan, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said the union’s only “hard line” is raising minimum pay for education support professionals, such as special education assistants, from $24,000 to $35,000.

Marianno said the framing of pay raises as a teacher diversity initiative fits the mold of “social justice bargaining,” the term used to describe public unions demanding progressive policy initiatives instead of just raises and better benefits. 

It’s becoming increasingly common nationwide as progressives take on leadership roles in large teachers unions, like Chicago and Los Angeles. In labor circles, the St. Paul Federation of Educators is nationally known for employing this philosophy. 

“You see traditional bargaining issues recast in social justice, progressive terms. That sometimes gets teachers unions further down the field because they can find more support among people outside of education,” Marianno said.

The demand for 20% raises in one school year is virtually unheard of, experts say. A 5% raise is considered significant in many school districts. Double-digit pay hikes are few and far between, and those that have been approved recently are spread over multiple years. 

Minneapolis Public Schools says salary boosts on that scale are out of the question given a projected multi-million-dollar budget shortfall caused by declining enrollment and structural funding challenges. Using federal COVID-19 funds — as the union suggests — isn’t an option either, the district says, since the one-time money will run out.

“We do have shared values — that’s very apparent to me, board members and the public. Unfortunately, the reality is we’re resource-limited,” Graff said during a negotiations update Tuesday. “The finances we have are not enough to provide the support we need to provide.”

Negotiations have taken place behind closed doors since the district and union entered mediation in December, so there’s little information about proposal updates or bargaining discussions available to the public. Standing outside a north Minneapolis child care dropoff Tuesday, Matt Jarolimek, a parent of two Minneapolis elementary school students, said he supports the union’s proposals, but the opaque process is difficult. 

“That’s been the most frustrating part,” he said. “I don’t know if people are negotiating in good faith or not.”

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.