After a late night of bargaining in which members of the Saint Paul Federation of Educators tried mightily to come to an agreement with the school district, the union of teachers, education assistants and other support staff went on strike March 10 to secure vital student services. The strike is a last resort after nine months of negotiations and bargaining that went to 3 a.m. the morning of the walkout.
The strike closed schools on Tuesday as thousands of union members and allies joined picket lines across the city, proving once again that together, through our union and with the community, we can accomplish what would be impossible to achieve alone. SPFE is a 3,600-member affiliate of Education Minnesota, the AFT and the National Education Association.
“I’m striking today because I love my students and am fighting for the schools they deserve,” said Megan Olivia Hall, a science and agriculture teacher and Minnesota’s 2013 Teacher of the Year.
More supports for kids
This strike is not about wages or benefits. Union members are calling for more mental health supports for children in every building, more multilingual staff to help students and families feel welcome at school, additional educators working with students with special needs, and an expansion of restorative practices.
The union, which has posted 31 specific proposals on its website, is asking that every school be fully staffed with a mental health team comprised of school social workers, counselors and psychologists, nurses and behavior intervention specialists. In addition to proposing that the district fully staff these positions, our members want training and support for all licensed staff and behavior intervention specialists, as well as peer supports for the behavior intervention specialists.
Our members also are calling for more multilingual staff, cultural specialists and bilingual educational assistants to help students and families who need interpreters, additional educators working with students with special needs, and appropriate assignments so that educators can give students more one-on-one attention. They want caseload and class size limits, and the stipulation that prep time not be used for process meetings or evaluations.
Nobody wants to see children or educators out of school, but members are willing to sacrifice so that students can get the social and emotional supports they need, SPFE President Nick Faber said during a news conference Tuesday evening.
“Right now, our schools are lacking those supports,” he said. “It would be great for the state to step up, but we’ve been waiting for the state to step up for a long time. And unfortunately, after more than nine months and marathon bargaining over the weekend, school district leaders weren’t willing to move on the issues educators and parents know will help students thrive.”
“There are thousands of people who took this little stroll through the streets with us today,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said during the rally that followed. “I know you’d rather be in school with our kids. But we’ve been on the streets across this country for the past two years because educators want what children need. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t believe that. But there are people, even in St. Paul, who don’t understand what we are trying to do—what nurses, interpreters and social workers can do for our kids. It takes a strike to get kids what they need. Unfortunately, even in the great state of Minnesota, it does. This is a righteous strike, and that is why we are striking.”
To fund their future
At its core, the union is fighting for safe and welcoming environments in school, the freedom to teach and care for our students, and investments in public education to fund the future of St. Paul’s children. However, the district’s latest proposal would dramatically slash the number of certified and classified support staff needed to help meet students’ needs. SPFE even presented a plan that would stretch out increased staffing over three years to give the district some flexibility in budgeting.
After reaching their current contract agreement two years ago, the district and the union together supported a ballot measure to raise the local property tax levy, which passed. The levy brings in up to $18 million in new funding each year, but there is some question over whether the district has kept its promises about how that funding is to be spent. After negotiations had gone on since last May, the union filed for mediation in November because the district never countered many of its proposals, and bargaining eventually stretched into a dozen mediation sessions.
Show your solidarity
Yesterday, in an apparent attempt to pit workers against each other, the school system sent layoff notices to teaching assistants represented by the Teamsters and the AFT. The notice threatens that if the strike continues, the TAs’ last day of employment will be March 23. The Teamsters has pledged solidarity with SPFE and sent $1,000 to its strike fund.
Around the state, other unions and elected officials are standing up for our members, including U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and the Minnesota State College Faculty. Others include United Teachers Los Angeles, the Minnesota Nurses Association and SEIU Minnesota. The Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, which contributed to SPFE’s strike fund, is urging its members to join the picket line and declared that “Students deserve more!”
Lend a hand to our fellow members in St. Paul in their first strike since 1946. They need our help to win. Write to Superintendent Joe Gothard and tell him to give students the public schools they deserve.