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Unite Minneapolis Teachers & ESPs Now!

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Jason Hardwig is an ESP steward at the FAIR School for Arts representing the ESP Chapter of MFT Local 59 and a Contract Action Team (CAT) member in this current campaign.

As a proud ESP union member and 2022 striker, who demands more funding for educator pay and student learning, I believe the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59 (MFT) must unite its two chapters now – Educational Support Professionals (ESPs) and Teachers/Licensed Staff – to plan a well-prepared, joint strike. 

We must do this if we hope to take on the corporate interests that dominate the school board who mismanage, misprioritize, and misrepresent their budget. Make no mistake, there is more than enough money for all our demands!

Our two separate but parallel chapter contract campaigns underway have stalled out and sit at a crossroads. The district has canceled the most recent bargaining sessions, delaying their counter proposals to our key economic demands, narrowing the timeline for the chapters to organize a strike before summer. 

The matter of timing is more urgent still because both our chapters are forced by law to enter into mediation periods and cooling periods before we can strike. Complicating things further, teachers must wait 30 days after their first mediation session and cooling period before striking, while ESPs must wait 45 days after registering for mediation. Bottom line, we ESPs must register for mediation now to realign our bargaining team with the teacher chapter who has already registered. 

Unfortunately, there is an unresolved debate in our union’s leadership. On one hand, some voices, particularly in the ESP chapter, are calling for patience with these delays from a new board and the new incoming superintendent on the thin basis that they might be more sympathetic to educator demands. Other voices in leadership, among staff, and most importantly, among rank and file members, are correctly calling for preparing ourselves for a united cross-chapter strike. 

No Trust In The Board ‘Allies’ & A New Untested Superintendent

Currently the ESP chapter has adopted a wait-and-see approach in the bargaining process because hopes remain that a new superintendent and a handful of new MFT-endorsed board members who have worked as educators in the district may have strong natural sympathies for educator workplace needs. Sympathies, they hope, that may overcome the powerful corporate politics of the board. This is wishful thinking. The MFT endorsement process itself in the last board elections was weak with regard to how much the candidates have to obligate themselves to defend MFT’s contract demands. While it asked questions about where candidates stood on important working-class issues such as rent control, no explicit commitments or binding measures were required from them to help MFT organize a militant contract campaign that would point to the need to strike. 

For example, consider MFT endorsed Colin Beachy. During his board election campaign, he was asked about where he stood on the 2022 MFT strike:

“There’s one teachers’ group that went on strike [in MN] and their administration and their teachers union are still fighting. There’s another district where they are sitting down and creating a path forward.

There was some damage caused during the [MFT] strike between the administration and teachers and even from within the union. So I learned that this fighting isn’t going to help anyone. I don’t think this strike needed to happen. That’s the first thing that I learned. It just shouldn’t have happened in the first place.”

This anti-strike statement should have served as a red flag for MFT. Beachy points to strikes as divisive and unnecessary, not the ruthless budget cuts and policies of district administration. This goes against every lesson of the labor movement for the last 150 years or more! What is more, 500,000 striking workers around the US have re-proven this hard won wisdom this past year, with auto workers, Hollywood writers and actors successfully using their ability to strike along with many other unions, winning significant wage increases and more. 

More to the point, MFT’s own 2022 united-chapter strike won historic gains for ESPs and teachers, even as it fell well short of its initial demands, especially for teachers. But this shortfall was not evidence of the futility of striking. The weaknesses of the strike outcomes reflect weak points in the union’s strategy during the strike itself. These weaknesses are now a valuable set of lessons we can still draw from for a stronger strike conducted at a higher level.  

For example, we need a better escalation strategy than last time, we need our own elected leaders to always fight hard and lead the way (not outside strike czars from our national umbrella unions), and more democratic structures opened up for all members to contribute ideas and feedback to the campaign. Finally, we need independently elected labor representatives who actually go to bat for us day in and day out before, during, and after strikes and not just do lip service at our rallies.  We can fight again and learn to collectively fight better! If some board members have sympathy for educators right now, we should press even harder to get the most we can for our students and families!

Beachy was also recently invited to an MFT ESP meeting to make the case for trust in him and the board’s process. Members asked if he had yet come out publicly to support our demands. He said no. When asked if he would. He said he would “think about it”.  He was asked if he agreed with the union’s assessment that the millions in shortfalls that the district claims they are saddled with are bogus. He gave a largely non-answer instead saying that budgeting is ‘complicated.’

These are not the words of a real public education warrior, and things are not complicated when it comes to identifying bona fide allies. A real public school ally is one you can reliably organize with, someone who will be unreservedly on educators and student’s side, 100%. 

No doubt, Beachy and other new MFT endorsed board members have real empathy for educators born of their own work and union experiences. However, the school board itself is a body that has not been favorable to educators, support staff and students, and to be a real fighter in such a space, elected officials need to fight unapologetically for our educator and student centered demands and rely on the strength of educators, parents and students to force change on the school board. 

All the MFT-endorsed board members could publically come out in full support of our demands. They could help us organize mass rallies at board meetings and call out the district’s faulty budget numbers and priorities, something that the union’s own research shows again and again. They could warn us not to get separated from each others’ bargaining units and tell the straight story that, though they may be advocating for us behind closed doors, we should not delay one day in prepping for a united strike. 

Moreover, they could bring all closed door conversations out to the public and expose the private interests that run rife in a board dominated by the corporate Democratic Party’s election cycles, which pull our members into doorknocking and phone banking for weak candidates and watered down proposals that reliably push educator pay to the bottom of legislative agendas if it appears at all. 

MFT has done its homework. The school board is sabotaging public schools in order to justify privatization. We have seen this anti-public-education agenda of the board in our previous strike experience. The district historically mismanages the money they have on bloated administration and transportation costs and allows more and more third party vendors into schools. 

The school board’s budget is a true reflection of their priorities. For example, spending on instruction has decreased by 5% since 2018, while spending on district support and administration has gone up by 19%. They persistently declare shortfalls on one day and later show surpluses left unspent on kids who need full staffing and rich, trauma informed programming to combat historical racial and gender inequities in education. 

Our strength does not lie in hopes about new board members; rather, our strength is profoundly rooted in our ability to collectively disrupt business as usual and to rally the public and workers to support our pro-education demands in a short, powerful strike. It is a united multi-racial, multi-identity union that the district fears most.

All signs at the bargaining table point to strike prep’s urgent necessity in the face of the district bargaining team’s persistent hostility and condescension, a carryover from 2022. For example, ESPs were told at a recent 2023 bargaining session by the district’s lead negotiator that she understood how we have an “emotional attachment” to the demand for automatic steps (raises) each year in order to recognize our growing experience and skill. She also cited the teacher chapter as the ones to blame for why ESPs do not have automatic steps! Are these the words of a more sympathetic board? Or the words of a divisive boss?

We should not forget that the ability of MFT educators to unionize and strike was a right won over 50 years ago in a gutsy, illegal wildcat strike that demanded better wages and smaller class sizes for students. It won the popular support of the public–you can watch old news footage of a grade-school aged Prince making a statement of support to educators as he walked the pickets with his family! It won the right to form a teacher’s union in Minneapolis and the right to strike. This was a major win for public sector workers in Minnesota who had historically been barred from collective bargaining and unionization by the government in the interest of protecting business efforts to privatize education and keeping unions weak. We should rightly be proud to be part of this heroic legacy with our 2022 campaign!

Striking is at the core of union strength and MFT is no exception. Unfortunately, MFT did not strike for 50 years after its initial wildcat campaign and the trends in pay and conditions have, no surprise, tracked downward into the present crisis, what the district itself calls a looming, inevitable, and dire “fiscal cliff”. 

We must reject this cynicism from our pickets and demand greater investment in educator pay and schools to do right for our current students and welcome back all the kids who live in the district but do not attend in MPS–42% of MPS-eligible students attend non-MPS schools!

The 2022 strike rekindled that militant heritage to fight and made some significant yet modest gains for MFT’s educators. Because we braved the cold, withheld our labor and shut down schools with massive public support, our bargaining team had real leverage at the bargaining table for the first time in five decades.

The current round of stalled out bargaining shows why our negotiators once again have little they can do without educators out on the sidewalks and pickets digging their heels into the pavement for the sake of students and public education overall in Minneapolis. Our bargaining teams have grit, intelligence, patience and professionalism, yet without the collective force of 4000+ educators on the street, they do not have power.

It’s time to plan a well prepared strike that is based on realigning the chapters in the bargaining process. 

This district would like nothing more than to bargain with ESPs and teachers isolated from each other. They may try to dangle a slightly better deal to one or the other bargaining units–especially ESPs who have a smaller contract and embarrass the district as a poverty wage employer of working class BIPOC educators–to get someone to blink and approve a contract before we know what the other chapter is offered. If either of our chapters approved a contract before knowing the other chapter was fully satisfied with its offer as well, it would be a horrible blow to our union, a self inflicted wound into the core of our union’s strength which lies in multi-racial, multi-gender, and working class cross-chapter solidarity.

Some may point out that since the ESPs are in more dire economic peril than teachers because of lower pay and expensive health care that ESPs should take a barely adequate deal regardless of the teacher chapter’s deal in order to best serve the needs of a predominantly working women of color chapter. 

This is backwards. To fight those horrible extra layers of oppression, we need a united strike that can combine our chapter’s strength and give us the chance to win much more than whatever calculated minimum the district believes it can dangle in front of us. Additionally, successfully thwarting such an obvious divide and conquer strategy in a successful strike would give our union huge confidence, as well as a pay boost, and uplift all workers around the country. The short term gains of accepting a piecemeal offer does not compare to what would be lost nor to what could be potentially won if we stay united.

Regardless of their strategy, the best opportunity educators in MFT collectively have is actually a huge opportunity. To maximize our chance of winning the most we can in this contract campaign, we need to act now to plan a fully unified strike with a clear escalation strategy that organizes a strike fund and builds support from other workers, unions, parents and students. 69% of public school parents support pay rises for educators in Minnesota. These working class parents and people are our real allies. This is more than enough of a solid basis to launch a powerful 2024 strike campaign. A sequel that could be better than the 2022 original!

In summary, to bring the fight to the district:

  • ESP chapter should register for mediation now (before February 15th) and realign with the teacher chapter’s bargaining timeline. 
  • We should place no faith in state run mediation, a historically hostile process for working people, but we need to be clear of this obstacle before ESPs and Teachers can fully plan a strike together.
  • Prepare members now for the need to take a strike vote and then strike through mass planning meetings, rallies with allied unions and public outreach to garner pledges to our strike fund. We must make our demands known against the district’s defeatist campaign of “managed decline” for Minneapolis Public Schools.
  • Order new union T-shirts now with both the ESPs’ and Teacher chapter’s logos seen side-by-side to replace the separate chapter T-shirts we have now.

Teachers and ESPs need one another’s solidarity more than ever. Not only for this campaign, but for the years ahead. Consider the real chance of a second Trump presidency and all the intensified attacks on unions and all working people that will follow. For that matter, consider another four years under Biden and the Democrats! In the name of protecting corporate agendas and profits in a new cold war with China, they have stabbed railroad workers in the back, opened up Alaska to more fossil fuel profiteers, support war industry and slaughter in Gaza and Ukraine and play endless brutal politics with millions of asylum seekers in a ballooning immigrant crisis on the southern border. Our chapters must forge an inseparable bond in order to grow in strength so we can lead the charge to defend public schools–no other force will do this–and to face down the political and existential threats that already negatively impact our schools in these chaotic times!


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