Minneapolis Teachers Strike to Bring Power Back to the Community

It’s been frigid cold and over 4,000 Minneapolis educators are out on the picket lines striking for a second week. Smaller class sizes, improved health care, more mental health supports, competitive pay for teachers along with increased pay for educational support professionals are central to our demands.Still, spirits are up. We know our cause will be successful. Our demands are not just what students and educators need, they are 100% achievable. The powers that be say there is not enough money, yet our state recently touts a 9.3 billion dollar surplus. St. Paul educators were all set to strike simultaneously. However, the district reached a surprising deal at the very last minute. This victory shows that victory is possible in Minneapolis. The solidarity between districts and chapters of educator unions serves as a way forward for the labor movement. There are many opportunities for future struggles to have even greater demands than ever before.

Minnesota has one of the worst student to counselor ratios in the country with the national student to counselor ratio being 430:1 and Minnesota being above 600:1. Our Educational Support Professionals (ESPS) are central They are vital to the operation of our schools and receive a salary as low as $24,000 per year. A large number of our ESPs come from communities of color. To get started, we are asking for $35,000 per year. We also demand protections from layoffs of educators of color and increased support for new BIPOC teachers. Covid-19 is also a factor. We demand spread mitigation and support educators and students who are sick from COVID.

In the absence of leadership from the top, it’s fallen on us to bring attention to the impacts of underfunding on our schools. In 2018, the St. Paul Federation of Educators partnered with community researchers on a report titled “Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools’ Decreased Funding.” The research found that from 2003 to 2018, real per-pupil funding decreased by $3,049 in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and by $1,610 in St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS). MPS and SPPS serve over half of Minnesota’s Black students as well as a plurality of our Latinx and Asian students, while serving less than 1% of White students. The state’s other districts, which provide services to 99% of White students, saw funding drop by $770 per student.

This racialized divestment has led to students being denied access to programs that are taken for granted in wealthy, majority-White communities, including music, art, tech education, and college counseling. It’s caused poverty wages and stagnant benefits which drive new educators out of the field before they are able to hone their craft. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Police Department budget has ballooned to include thousands of dollars in bonuses paid for by our students’ parents, while Saint Paul tries to overturn rent control measures passed by referendum. Both cities have made sustainable schools a low priority, with the exception of photo ops.

As our community schools reel from budget cuts, MN’s well-heeled nonprofit sector hoards money and pours it into grants and financing charter and private schools that offer even worse compensation and no elected voice for parents. Administrators and school board members have failed to challenge corporate tax rates or partner with educators to demand equitable funding. We have reached a point in which educators must strike back because of the complacency of our elected leaders and appointed officials.

If Covid-19 has demonstrated anything, it’s how important public schools and their staff is for capitalism and society to function. The underpaid labor and love shown by our dedicated ESPs, licensed staff and licensed staff is what makes it possible to do other work. As we demanded safety on the job, and health protections against the viruses, the praise that educators received in 2020 has changed to disdain. A shortage of qualified educators has created hundreds of open positions in both cities. Schools were forced into standardized testing, as if nothing had changed. Administrators emphasized student wellness over test scores. School board members dismissed parents whose schools were threatened with closure and consolidation as “the loudest voices in the room.” The lessons of the pandemic were buried under business as usual.

MFT’s current strike and SPFE’s 2020 strike are centered on fundamental truths: that business as usual was insufficient, that students are not commodities to be traded, and that educators’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Dignified wages, schools with mental health support and small classes are what we need to create a better world for our students. We also need to help our communities thrive.

Our demands are certainly within the realm of bargaining for collective good, but we believe educators must demand more radical demands in order to address the needs in our communities in this age of empire in decline and climate collapse.

We demand fully-funded community schools. Our communities won’t accept less. Our ESPs and licensed educators have visioned and sustained community programs, daily community meals, and partnerships with community groups. SPFE’s home visit program is a national leader that fosters close relationships between educators and families, regardless of zip code or language. We’ve pushed for restorative justice practices in our schools that offer healing alternatives to suspension, and community-building among students. We fought to keep these community-centered programs in our contract and to build power in Minneapolis for similar goals.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for working-class and BIPOC families in Minneapolis and St. Paul to stay in the Twin Cities because of rising living costs due to gentrification. Twin Cities educators should be focused on fighting for anti-gentrifying policies such as rent control, which is what the Chicago Teachers Union did. It is unrealistic to expect students to arrive at school with the necessary brain space if they do not have stable housing.

Students around the world began Fridays for Future in 2019 and went on strike for climate change action. Twin Cities students joined thousands of youth from across the U.S. in the struggle for climate change. As educators, we should join them in demanding climate change, a transformative Green New Deal and an eco-socialist economic system. Schools should be transformed into climate centers where people can learn how to grow food, water protect, and organize their power. We need to be prepared for the coming environmental disasters and have the ability to handle complex crises. We should also encourage learning that empowers all ages to dream, create, and thrive. We must prepare our youth and communities for the future.

Now is the time to build the schools Twin Cities’ students deserve, and for districts not to disrespect the communities that raise them. The aftermath of George Floyd’s uprising exposed the inadequacy and rot in Minneapolis, which invested in policing rather than prevention, in schools instead of in police. Through these years, neighbors and our members have become more aware of the power of solidarity across races, languages, and across rivers. This solidarity and defiance will allow us to build strong community schools that will help our future generations.