03/04/2022

Five locals tell why they’re poised to strike

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Speaking with activist members nationwide, the leaders of five AFT locals took part in a telephone town hall on March 1 to explain why their members have authorized strikes that may begin within the next few days.

St. Paul Fed of Teachers march

AFT President Randi Weingarten welcomed the leaders, pledged ongoing AFT support and offered thousands of members on the call three ways to help build union power before any strikes begin: by giving to the AFT strike fund, by amplifying union messages on social media, and by texting FIGHT to 69238 for updates.

Weingarten recalled hosting a town hall last fall that featured affiliates from our teachers, PSRP, higher education and healthcare constituencies. These included the Scranton Federation of Teachers in western Pennsylvania, whose members had been working for years without a contract and who won their strike decisively with full backing from the community.

“Why are we all here?” Weingarten asked on the latest call. “Because what’s happening here is what happened in Scranton. People were saying: ‘Enough is enough!’ They felt the love, felt the solidarity, felt the unity from all over the country.”

The five locals with strikes looming are in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., as well as three in Illinois: the Champaign Federation of Teachers, the Patton Federation of Teachers and the Proviso Teachers Council.

Saint Paul Federation of Educators

St. Paul schools have suffered decades of underfunding, cutbacks and the proliferation of charter schools, said Leah VanDassor, a middle school teacher and president of the Saint Paul Federation of Educators, representing about 3,600 teachers and staff. She said the union has proposed other funding sources but the district keeps dragging its feet. The potential strike date is March 8.

Black students must have equity in education, VanDassor said, echoing the union’s pioneering tradition of bargaining for the common good: “If we have to strike to bring that about, we will.”

Staff recruitment has stalled despite acute shortages among health teams, special education staff, people of color and bilingual teachers. Retention also is an issue. The district needs to keep people by providing decent wages and step increases. Education support personnel (ESPs) in particular need a significant wage increase, VanDassor said: “They are the backbone of schools; they make the schools run.”

St. Paul Fed of Teachers rally

Yet, the district is sitting on surpluses and a rainy day fund. “That money needs to come out today,” she said. “I don’t know what today is if it isn’t a rainy day.”

Weingarten, too, noted the cash infusion from President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief funds in the American Rescue Act. “The money is there. It has to be used,” she said. “But these school boards don’t want to do that. ... We need to get the people elected who actually believe in education.”

Minneapolis Federation of Teachers

When school employees strike, it’s ultimately about doing what is best for kids, said Shaun Laden, a classroom assistant and president of the Minneapolis ESP chapter. “Dire lack of investment in our public schools” means that ESPs don’t make enough to support their families and have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. The average ESP in Minnesota is paid about $27,000 a year, Laden said, when the starting wage should be at least $35,000. As a result, with a 93 percent turnout rate, ESPs voted 98 percent to authorize a strike.

Greta Callahan, an elementary school teacher who is president of the teacher chapter in Minneapolis, assailed the district’s poverty wages for ESPs and terrible student-to-staff ratios among counselors and social workers. Making things worse, she said, is how the district treats staff like adversaries rather than partners.

“We are hemorrhaging great educators,” Callahan lamented. No one wants a strike, especially during a Minnesota winter. But union members have been rallying in frigid weather and are “willing to do whatever it takes to get the schools our kids deserve.”

Patton Federation of Teachers

Sabrina Hawthorne is a fifth-grade teacher and president of the Patton Federation of Teachers in Riverdale, Ill., which borders Chicago. Patton is part of the West Suburban Teachers Federation.

At her district’s sole preK-8 school, Hawthorne said kids are suffering from an obvious lack of investment: no physical education, health, art, music, tech or any kind of foreign language. Many classrooms sit empty because the neighborhood is in transition, with abandoned homes and a dwindling student population. And just as in other places, local officials have failed to invest their COVID-19 money in students.

Not surprisingly, there’s a teacher shortage. Starting salaries lag those of the surrounding area, and it’s hard to persuade teachers to come in when they’re carrying student debt. Hawthorne said Patton’s 19 members “don’t want to strike, but we’ve set a strike date for March 8.”

Champaign Federation of Teachers

Mike Sitch is co-president with Lisa Milkereit of the Champaign Federation of Teachers, representing about 850 members in east central Illinois. Sitch said it’s a long-standing joke that the school board’s outlandish ideas regularly infuriate and mobilize the community. One of those ideas would lengthen the school day by 50 minutes without touching the crises that need to be addressed right now: staffing, working conditions and kids on buses for hours a day. What the teachers want is a collaborative plan to address these issues.

Sitch worries that without a decent contract, the staff exodus will continue―even in the middle of the school year. The Champaign educators’ strike could come as soon as late March.

Proviso Teachers Council

Rachel Esposito, president of the Southwest Suburban Federation of Teachers, which includes the 280-member Proviso Council, said the union has been negotiating since last year and it’s been an uphill battle. Proviso’s issues ring a bell: low compensation, low retention and a struggle to keep retirement benefits.

Picket captains are preparing for a fight. “It’s a fight that Proviso is willing to take on” with the help of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the national union, she said. Proviso may strike as early as March 4.

“We’ve been met with a lot of animosity by the board and superintendent” but great solidarity from students and parents, Esposito said. “High school students are old enough to see that what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong, and they’ve seen that the way their teachers are treated is wrong.”

As a reminder, if you want to support our union family across the Midwest, you can go to aft.org and donate to the strike fund or text FIGHT to 69238 to get more updates. You also can follow these gutsy locals on social media.

[Annette Licitra / Photos by Ellen Perrault and Brad Sigal]