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Strikebreaking Minneapolis School Board Moves Forward with Privatization Plan

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Jason Hardwig is an educator and member of Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59 ESP.

The Minneapolis Public School Board is poised to vote on an austerity budget with $27 million in cuts on June 14th. Even though they successfully forced union leaders to back away from key demands for safe and stable schools during a historic strike earlier this year, the School Board clearly wants to further underfund schools and push privatization schemes to weaken the potential for a fightback from unions, working class parents and students. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers needs to launch an all out mobilization of educators, support staff, parents and students to defeat these cuts, and lay the basis for a wider fightback to fully fund public schools and staff.

Underfund Schools to the Breaking Point – Then Privatize

If approved, the hollowing out of Minneapolis’ public schools will continue by triggering more lay-offs and staff turnover, eliminating more programs, and further depleting already stretched resources. Predictably, decreased enrollments are sure to follow as parents and kids, who would otherwise prefer to support public schools in their own neighborhoods, seek alternatives in charter and private schools or adjacent public districts. 

This budget will punish working class families the most, particularly families of color who predominantly rely on chronically underfunded public schools and who have been hammered hardest by COVID and inflation.

The situation for working people is all the more galling now that the state, which is responsible for most school funding, is sitting on over $9 billion in surplus. Meanwhile Governor Walz, a “career teacher” and supposed champion of public education, has sat idly by as his $5 billion dollar education proposal announced in January has been whittled down by Senate Republicans pushing for a paltry $30 million dollar bill.  

It’s now a common and sad experience for families in urban public schools across the country: stingy board budgeting lowers enrollments which in turn decreases the funding formulas for the next budget cycle. It also further opens the door for charter and private schools to eat up a bigger percentage of public funding, dollars which follow disenrolled students into their new schools outside the system.

Who is Responsible?

None of this occurs by chance. Over several decades the Democratic Party has endorsed countless Minneapolis school board members who annually pass thin budgets whether or not there are record surpluses. As well, the Democratic Party has done little to defend against the attacks on public school funding as they have supported the charter school movement from its beginnings in the 1990s. 

The only organization that can lead the way out of this funding crisis is the educators in the MFT Local 59, who boldly went on strike in the late winter last March. They struck for a suite of strong demands that, if roundly won, could have turned the tide against the rampant forces of privatization, abetted by government austerity.

At this time, members of MFT and their students are suffering under what many consider to be the district’s deliberately punitive return-to-work contract terms which have extended the school day and year deep into summer, exhausting students and staff. The message from Superintendent Ed Graff and the board is clear that if you dare to strike, this is what happens.

To successfully oppose these proposed cuts will take a massive re-mobilization of the union and its supportive community of working families in Minneapolis. Essentially, the initial union-wide resolve that girded the strike in March has to be rebuilt quickly. If this can be done, it will mean steps have been taken toward learning the lessons of where the strike failed in terms of strategy and perspective, even as members fought like hell to win.

The Union Can’t Repeat the Mistakes of the Strike

The strike revealed that MFT members have more than enough grit to take on the district. They physically faced down freezing temps on multiple daily pickets and mentally threw off the district’s attempts in the media to drive a wedge between them and a supportive public. Before the strike began, leadership and members worked tirelessly for months to galvanize the confidence needed to strike by organizing countless face-to-face discussions about their demands. With this effective rank and file approach, members energetically took to pickets in high spirits after registering a historic 97% percent strike authorization vote.

What was lacking, however, was a sound plan from leadership to escalate the strike and marshall the full weight of MFT’s membership into mobilization efforts – phonebanks, neighborhood door knocks, coordinated social media blasts, and in-person appeals by MFT’ers to other unions.

Instead, members were given little advance notice of major rallies and, therefore, had scant opportunity to build or plan them. There were two largely symbolic door knocking sessions before the strike began to solidify public support but attendance was undercut by leadership’s decision to keep the start date for the strike nebulous on the mistaken perspective that the public would balk in its support if the union appeared too eager to strike. The public response at the doors showed the opposite: people wanted to see educators strike for bold pro-public education demands including higher pay for teachers and ESP’s. 

Community door knocks should have been a regular feature of the campaign–in addition to daily pickets–to build turnout to rallies, grow the strike fund, combat the district’s anti-educator messaging, and to support courageous actions by students to occupy the district’s headquarters in support of the strike. Finally, some union  locals like ATU 1005 (Metro Transit workers) and others supported the strike by passing resolutions and donating but many more locals could have been visited by systematically organizing trained teams of rank and file MFT members to present the strike’s demands and make concrete appeals. This approach could have widened the strike across the Twin Cities, replenished the strike fund, and drawn thousands of working people into its orbit. FInally, this could have put the necessary pressure on the school board members, who cry poverty, to alter their stingy budget rules and expose the state, which, at any time, could take steps to funnel tens of millions of unspent COVID relief money into local school districts across the state. 

To have adopted this mobilization strategy during the strike would have required daily mass meetings for all members to discuss and organize tactics and get updates from the bargaining team. Despite calls from many members to do just that, these democratic structures never formed. But it is not too late to begin demanding these changes from union leadership in a renewed campaign to fight  proposed budget cuts.

The board is now claiming that their budget actually represents a responsible increase in funding despite the widely reported $27 million shortfall. However suspect, the union’s response has been to devote time and energy to vetting the numbers with their own accounting team to find various smoking guns: pots of money in assigned and unassigned funds and annual surpluses. 

While it can be useful to point out line items where the district and state are awash in funds in order to win over public support, forensic accounting and smoking guns are not needed. 

The union should rightly question anyone who gets caught up in chasing down the bookkeeping numbers. Even if all the board’s accounting is sound, does this mean educators and parents have no cause to demand more funding? Absolutely not. Teachers have lost more than 20% in income over the past decades and this is rapidly growing worse with rising inflation. ESP’s have always been poverty wage employees and they still are, most working two jobs, living paycheck to paycheck. Teacher to student ratios are too high. Educators of color are doubly burdened as they disproportionately comprise the ranks of ESPs and unlicensed support staff. Bottom line, even without the $27 million in cuts, this budget would be an austerity budget by at least 100 million dollars!

Defeat the Cuts – Fight for High Quality Public Education

Where the union’s power comes from is often cited by leadership as the ‘unity among members’. True enough. But that unity must be organized around a militant street-ready strategy to escalate the fight with unapologetic demands. To do this MFT should return to its initial inspiring numbers in the strike. No more quickly backing away from 20% pay raises for teachers down to 12% and finally 2%! These high demands are the very thing that motivates a tougher resolve within members to fight and inspires other underpaid or non-unionized workers to support union led campaigns.

There is a mistaken emphasis within the current leadership which is shared among a layer of members on what the bargaining team has the power to do, that union gains are created by the skill and stamina of the bargaining team. But in reality, any gain made in bargaining is predicated on the leverage created on the streets in mobilizations by members.  Equally there is a cynical comparison made between union/boss bargaining within a class conflict and bargaining in everyday life. Unfortunately this comparison was used to set up low expectations among members before the rollout of the lackluster Tentative Agreement. The refrain was repeated many times by leadership that “in bargaining, no one ever gets all their demands”. But in reality, hard charging workers, when they mobilize around a clear and effective strike escalation strategy, can actually exceed the demands they began with!  

As well, parents and students need to be mobilized into the struggle, and to do this, it’s essential to link the fight against these budget cuts to a wider program for high quality public education. We need class sizes to be cut, dramatically expand music and arts programs, provide counselors and support staff; and teach culturally appropriate, thought provoking material rather than preparing for pointless standardized tests. Students have already walked out this month over attacks on abortion, LGBTQ people, and gun violance – the union needs to be visibly on the front lines supporting these struggles, as well as other vital community issues like expanding socially owned affordable housing, Medicare for All, and combating climate change.

MFT should now begin to get itself into a pre-strike footing by mobilizing against these cuts. Their budget for the upcoming year should reflect this commitment by rapidly building up the strike fund again. Members should help rally families and build a big turnout to descend on the Davis Center on June 14th to possibly shut down the board’s meeting and demand no cuts. Also, all-member meetings about the March strike and its lessons should begin as soon as possible before staff disperse over the summer break. Much discussion is needed to develop further strategies, and plan other mobilization dates before the next school year begins.

What educators are up against is an unforgivable political game by the Democratic Party of passing the buck upward until you find a Republican to blame. The district says they have little independent levy authority and can only spend what the state gives them. The Governor says he wants to spend billions on education but can only pass what the anti-spending Republicans will agree to. And yet when the pandemic threatened business’ bottom lines, trillions suddenly flowed into the economy, so much money that there are still billion dollar piles left over in dozens of states. Meanwhile, brave educators march in the freezing cold for safe and stable schools and they have nothing but lip service from their elected representatives. MFT has to call on the ranks of working people in Minneapolis – parents, students and union members – who are sick to death of getting stiffed to begin round two against the district and save the city’s public education system. 

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