By Luke Gitar, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Steward & 5th Grade Teacher
For three weeks in March, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals Local 59 faced sub-zero temperatures, ice, snow, wind, and rain as they picketed and rallied in a strike against the Minneapolis Public School district administration (MPS). It was the union’s first strike in half a century. In the middle of February, 96% of the members of MFT 59 voted to go on strike.
This strike wasn’t just a fight between MFT educators and MPS–it was class warfare between workers and corporate elites. MFT educators represented every single underpaid, under-insured American burdened with debt and fighting inflation. MPS represented the corporations with their desire to consume every one of our tax dollars, and further cut our wages to balloon their fortunes. The working people who brought us coffee and cookies instinctively knew this. Our coworkers from other underpaid bargaining units knew this.
The brave members of MFT made the right choice to strike. They voted strong and filled the picket lines. They stood up for themselves, their families, their students, their city, and workers everywhere. However, because the leadership’s strike strategy didn’t escalate properly and failed to use the full power of our membership, the Tentative Agreement that was adopted falls short of our original demands, and lays the seeds for another strike over the next contract. To prepare for this, it’s urgent to fully discuss MFT’s first strike in 50 years, and learn all its lessons to prepare for the next fight.
The Money Is There – Don’t Back Down
The original demands were bold and necessary to defend public education: a $35K starting wage for education support professionals (ESPs), a 20% raise for teachers who have seen their wages cut by 24% since 2000, smaller classroom sizes, mental health supports, and protections for educators of color. Since 2000, MPS has refused to give education staff raises keeping pace with inflation. Enrollment decreased during this period, and in the year and a half preceding the strike, 650 teachers left the district.
Vast sums of money were available to meet educator demands. The district sat on a treasure trove: a $280 million general fund that included COVID-relief funds. Minnesota had a $9.3 billion budget surplus partially created from underfunding education in the first place. The Twin Cities are the fourteenth most populous metro area in the country, but are ranked fifth in concentration of major corporate headquarters.
If the political establishment was serious about providing high-quality public education, raising taxes on rich corporations could fund the public schools forever, which most people support. MFT 59 chose the correct targets: superintendent Ed Graff, the board of education, Governor and former teacher Tim Walz, Mayor Jacob Frey, and the Minneapolis city council. This made the strike popular among educators, students, parents and the wider community.
A Dead-End Strike Strategy
The educator demands clearly laid out what educators needed to survive and to stop the decline of the public schools. However, MFT leadership’s strategy to win these demands had problems from the start. Messaging de-emphasized the demand for 20% raises, causing teachers to shy away from it fearing negative public opinion. The dynamic and popular union leadership disappeared into the black hole of agonizing, stagnant bargaining sessions while an influx of out-of-town union staffers dictated strike strategy and blocked participation of MFT members in strike planning. Members were allowed to staple signs but not make plans.
At the outset of the strike, our Contract Action Team weekly meetings were canceled. Our weekly logistics team meetings were canceled. These meetings tended to be information-heavy and discussion light in the first place, sometimes with only five or ten minutes of poorly moderated questions and answers. A weekly strike captain meeting was maintained, but they weren’t big enough, weren’t frequent enough, and lacked opportunities for deep discussion.
A lack of democracy and communication undermined the movement in the union that had been built on the idea that a union’s primary strength was its membership. This led to confusion on pickets. Clear, frequent, and open discussion would have allowed MFT to use the strength, intelligence, and creativity of its members to battle the district. In the second week of the strike, leadership sent an email discouraging members from signing petitions that sought to influence the direction of the strike. Unapproved strike conversation was stifled. When new ideas were needed most to adjust strike strategy against a district that refused to bargain, rank and file input was discouraged.
Furthering communications difficulties was the closed bargaining process. Members didn’t know what was happening. We didn’t know how to adjust our actions in response to district positions, and we lacked rank-and-file structures to carry out adjustments. Controversies emerged through the media, sowing more confusion among members. Unfortunately, MFT leaders lent legitimacy to this fundamentally undemocratic closed bargaining process, even though district admins broke all the rules and released information whenever it helped them undermine our union.
Educators Have Community Support! We Needed a Mass Escalation
Despite a strong strike vote, powerful attendance at pickets, and majority community support, our strike was unable to win the best demands against a superintendent, school board, mayor, city council, and governor hellbent on the privatization of public schools. Their block could only have been overcome by a strategy to escalate strike action. A strike mentality of “One day longer, one day stronger,” wasn’t good enough. One possibility would have been to call for a mass rally of 10,000 built by the union by putting out an invitation to the public a week in advance for a Saturday event. Daily picketing and door knocks could have built the rally by flyering the entire city.
This never happened. The union typically scheduled events a day in advance, often between the hours of 8:00 and 3:00 on weekdays. This was short notice to draw large groups of supporters. Union scheduling failed to draw out the mass support of the city. At one point union staffers said they were hoping senator Bernie Sanders or musician Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine might draw an enormous Saturday crowd. Celebrity aid is fine–but we’re a union. Our strength lies in our membership and working class support. If we build it, they will come.
Socialist Alternative organized community outreach alongside MFT members. Before the strike began we supported educators at door knocks called by MFT and by SA. We handed out MFT’s material and discussed how to build the strongest support between educators and the broader community. In the second week of the strike, SA members helped share a petition created by MFT members. The petition had three demands: build a mass rally of 10,000 by calling it a week in advance, MFT should hold nightly meetings, and a tentative agreement should be voted on from the picket line. There was significant support from MFT members for these demands, but once the union leadership released a statement to members cautioning against signing petitions, it became difficult to have political discussion about how to win the strike.
During the third week of the strike, MFT received tentative agreements that failed to meet educator demands and SA took action encouraging a ‘no’ vote. It was easy to argue against the bad TAs, but there was significant pressure to accept the agreements because school had been out for three weeks, MFT member healthcare was less than a week from expiration, and people were running out of money to pay bills. SA wrote articles, created social media videos, and held two public meetings to spread ideas on how to strengthen the strike.
The Political Establishment Fights to Privatize Public Education
Our enemies were superintendent Ed Graff and the board of education, and the political party and corporations that backed them. If educator demands had been a ballot question in November they would have passed. Instead, our democratically elected school board members blocked us. They were all Democratic Farmer Labor (Minnesota Democrats) endorsed. The Democratic party, like the Republican party, seeks the privatization of schools. Why? Because big business thinks everything should be profit-based, including education. They view schools as cash cows. Corporations extract that money by selling technology, curricula, contracting out services, and providing an army of private consultants. My classroom just had an electronic soap dispenser installed. Ever hear of a bar of soap? Which do you think costs more?
School funds flow upward to corporations and the rich and away from the educators and communities that need them. Additionally, the public schools are unionized, and as we’ve seen in recent union drives at Amazon and Starbucks–corporations hate unions because of their ability to win raises and better working conditions for their members. The board of education, and the superintendent they hired, do the bidding of their corporate masters. They blocked reasonable and necessary educator demands. They want enrollment to drop, staff to quit, and public education to further decline.
Instead of representing the union that endorsed them, the board of education fell in line with the same logic that we see over and over, that the money isn’t there for public education. The board members that failed to support educator demands should be removed from office. But what’s to stop more corporate servants from taking their place? What’s to stop the board from hiring another superintendent who says his mission is to educate, but really seeks to topple the public school system? In fact, a majority of this school board was endorsed by MFT in their last elections. They must be defeated in the next election by independent candidates with no ties to privatizers and big business, who will be genuine representatives of educators, students, and working class parents.
Mayor Jacob Frey, most of the city council, and Governor Tim Walz were strategically quiet during the strike. Frey said in January that when school is out, crime goes up. He was referring to when students learned virtually during the Omicron covid wave. Frey wants kids in school but during the strike he was silent. He said not a word of support for educators. He said nothing against them either. This would have meant a drop in popularity. He hid behind Superintendent Graff. Governor Walz did the same. When a tentative agreement was released, Frey said educators deserve raises. Walz said he was happy both sides were able to negotiate. Cowards both. Privatizers both. Not a surprise from Frey who’s stood against raising the minimum wage and rent control. They must be replaced by candidates who will stand up to big business.
Fighting Racism with the Contract
Fighting against racism has been an important issue in MPS since it was revealed the district has one of the nation’s largest achievement gaps between students of color and white students. The majority of educators are white, while the majority of students are of color. The union demanded mentors of color for educators of color (EOC), anti-racist professional development for all staff, exit interviews for all EOC to learn of their struggles to inform future hiring practices, and layoff preventions for EOC.
Big business has always divided working people by race and the union is a crucial tool to fight racism in the workplace. One of the best ways to support EOC and retain them is to pay them living wages that keep pace with inflation. MFT got a strong strike vote because membership was united along class lines fighting for raises for everyone. Class-based demands such as this are the key motivator in the fight for a strong contract, and are fundamental to drawing in and uniting the broadest section of people to fight for concrete demands that create strong jobs for educators of color.
A Bad Tentative Agreement – Organize to Fight Back
The Tentative Agreement fell dramatically short of the original demands around which we voted to strike.
The tentative agreements were released at the end of the third week. The leadership’s plan was for members to review them and vote over the weekend. It was a rushed process that disappointed and angered MFT members. The plan of MPS and MFT was to have educators back in the classroom Monday morning.
In their TA, ESPs were to receive various raises depending upon position and seniority, but generally a couple-dollar raise and a one-time payment of $6,000 split over two years. Various other incentives of additional weekly hours were temporarily offered. Despite how the TA has been reported elsewhere, the TA did not offer our demand of a permanent starting wage of $35K.
Teachers were to receive a 2% raise the first year, and 3% the second, as well as a one-time payment of $4,000. This was a far cry from 20%. 2% didn’t meet inflation in an average year, much less the current rate of 7.9%.
These offers were accompanied by a brutal return to work agreement, created to punish educators for striking, which included two additional weeks at the end of the school year, forty-two minutes added to remaining school days, and a report card marking day moved from a Friday to a Saturday.
Throughout the strike, the membership had a lot of faith in the bargaining team to negotiate a strong contract. Only in the third week did our leaders concede to the demand for more bargaining updates. By then, it was unclear how far they were backed into a corner by the administration, who clearly refused to budge. This wasn’t inevitable and led to confusion among members about what was happening. Without an escalation strategy, the union leadership urged members to vote yes on the weak deal that fell short of our demands.
Socialist Alternative put forward that the best option for educators was to vote ‘no’ and reorganize the strike to win more. MFT could vote no, hold a union-wide meeting, re-strategize, and escalate. On the basis of a new strategy, we could reinforce our bargaining team (like MPS regularly did with theirs).
There were a number of options and opportunities for MFT to draw more union support from around the state and nation. Education unions around the country could hold rallies in support of Minneapolis. The National Education Association, the largest union in the US, could pour money into our strike fund. MFT could regenerate its courageous bargaining team with fresh members. Following the lead of high school students, the Davis Center (MPS headquarters) could be occupied by educators, families, more students, and supportive union members. It could have looked like the occupation of the Wisconsin capitol in 2011, or the West Virginia teachers’ strike of 2018.
After 3 weeks on strike and increased caution coming from the leadership, an overwhelming majority of teachers and ESPs voted to return to work. Had they been asked to strike for the 2 or 3% raises offered, none would have voted to strike. To win the 20% wage hikes educators need would have required an all-out fight against the entire political establishment: the school board, the mayor, and the governor.
The bosses could not get a ‘yes’ vote without the signing bonuses of $6,000 and $4,000. The union leaders should have explained that these were a cheap way for the employers to get workers to accept the disgraceful 2 and 3% raises. These bonuses should have been woven into the wage, which would have made them harder for MPS to take away in the future.
Those voting ‘yes’ did so reluctantly and without celebrating. Some voted ‘yes’ because they’d lost hope in the leadership’s willingness to put up a winning strategy.
About 80% of ESPs voted yes on their TA, although 400 out of 1,200 didn’t vote. Some of this reflects the short notice of the vote and the outrageous reality that 60% of ESPs work 2 or more jobs. About 76% of teachers voted yes, although 500 out of 3,300 didn’t vote.
The strike achieved some gains. It secured wage increases for ESPs, including a starting wage of $23.91 for about 80% of ESPs, additional days and hours for ESPs, language to exempt teachers of color from excess and layoff, class size caps in the MFT teacher contract, more mental health supports (including contract language that guarantees a social worker in every building), additional specialists, and higher pay for adult educators and all licensed staff.
Learn the Lessons – Continue the Struggle
When MFT members are rested, there needs to be a substantial and structured reflection of the strike. The weaknesses of the TA lay the seeds for another strike over the next contract, which is why it’s urgent we discuss the lessons of this strike now. Why, in the richest country in the history of the world, did we not win the 20% raise we deserve? We must recognize who we are fighting and where our real allies are. Either you are for labor or for the corporations. We also must build the democratic structures of our union, and create a detailed escalation plan.
In addition, there is a lot to fight about right now, like the harsh and possibly illegal return to work agreement. So far, there was a protest at the school board meeting, with students shouting down the board with bullhorns. Ed Graff disappeared. Three school board members voted against the agreement. Five board members voted yes and it passed. The next day, superintendent Graff resigned. The agreement can be undone if we organize.
The board of education must be replaced. A minority of members showed their anger by voting against Ed Graff and by voting against the return to work agreement. This isn’t enough. We need a strong board that can stand up for educator demands and the needs of the working people of Minneapolis. A Board that doesn’t support teachers is a Board that doesn’t support children. We need independent board members who aren’t beholden to corporate parties. Currently, if it’s difficult to get elected without Democratic Farmer Labor Party endorsement, and the DFL supports anti-teacher Board members, then the DFL must be replaced with a Party that is pro-Labor. We must create organizations that can run independent candidates, support them, and recall them if they don’t honor our needs.
Unions almost always support Democratic politicians who make big promises but offer nothing once elected. The Democrats, like the Republicans, represent corporations and are therefore anti-public schools. They won’t say this because it’s unpopular, but for decades they have underfunded schools, then point at low test scores, and close our public institutions. We must stop supporting the Democratic party.
We need independent fighters for public education with no ties to big business and privatization. We need representatives like Seattle city councilmember Kshama Sawant who is unapologetically for the working class. She is a socialist, and her power comes from working class people’s ability to organize and fight for their collective interests, not backroom dealmaking or the same politics-as-usual that routinely fail us.
Join the Socialists
Socialists fight for a society in which billionaires and bosses don’t exist–and we fight for every reform that benefits working people. Socialists view contracts as ceasefires and not as a final victory over a boss or a district. There is no such thing as a fair deal between capitalist elites and workers struggling to make ends meet.
Socialists are effective class fighters because we don’t believe billionaires, bosses, and greedy administrators have a right to exploit workers. Socialists must fight shoulder to shoulder with workers, including helping to stay organized for the immediate struggles facing MFT educators and students, but we must link every fight to a new world where billionaires are defunded and outlawed.
I encourage all working people to build unions, join unions, and fight with your union. If you’re interested in socialism, I encourage you to join SA and fight for a world where everyone has a living wage, healthcare, free education through college, and a home.