Minneapolis educators on strike against austerity

4,500 educators with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers have been on strike since March 8, demanding smaller class sizes, better pay and benefits, more mental health resources for students, and increased workforce diversity. After working through the COVID-19 pandemic and years of austerity policies, teachers and education support professionals (ESP) have reached their breaking point. “I have multiple jobs, and I still live paycheck to paycheck because my wages are insufficient,” Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody, a lead negotiator for the ESP chapter of the city’s teacher union, recently told NBC News. “I can make more money right now going to work at Target than I do working for Minneapolis Public Schools, and that is difficult.” TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez discusses the strike and what educators have been going through in recent years with Karin, an education support professional who has worked in the Minneapolis district for 6 years.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome everyone to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have y’all with us. Today is Saturday, March 19, and teachers in Minneapolis represented by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers are entering their second week on strike. As Nadra Nittle recently wrote for the publication The 19th, since March 8, “Education support professionals and the teachers of Minneapolis public schools have been on strike, the first teachers strike in the city in 50 years. Their demands include smaller class sizes, better benefits, more mental health resources for students, increased workforce diversity and higher wages.

Collectively, the demands of the 4,500 striking Minneapolis educators reflect the broad concerns of their colleagues nationally, making more strikes imminent, labor experts predict. In fact, teachers in two suburban Chicago districts – George Patton School District 133 and Proviso Township High School District 209 – Both began strikes over the past two weeks. On Thursday, educators in a Sonoma County, California, school district went on strike for better wages, and on that same day teachers in Sacramento, California, voted to authorize a strike, a formality needed before an actual walkout.”

Now, speaking to NBC News, Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody, a lead negotiator for the educational support professionals chapter of the city’s teachers union said, “I have multiple jobs, and I still live paycheck to paycheck because my wages are insufficient. I’m fighting to stay at this job because I really, really love what I’m doing. But I just do not make enough money. I can make more money right now going to work at Target than I do working for Minneapolis public schools, and that is difficult.”

Speaking to the press, Greta Callahan, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, put it bluntly. “We are hemorrhaging educators. I keep saying this. We cannot keep people in the building and our students need stability.” Moreover, at a recent news conference, Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent Ed Graff claimed that the teacher’s demands would add $166 million annually to the district’s budget. “We do have shared values – That’s very apparent to me, board members and the public. Unfortunately, the reality is we’re resource limited.” Graff said. “The finances we have are not enough to provide the support we need to provide.”

Now, negotiations between the union and the school district continue, and circumstances may very well change by the time this interview is published. But regardless of what happens in the coming days, we think it is important to make sure Real News viewers and listeners know about this strike and hear directly from the folks involved about why teachers in Minneapolis have hit the picket line, why their demands are so important for workers and the students and communities they serve, and what folks around the country can do to show solidarity with educators in Minnesota and beyond. And to talk about all of this and more, I’m honored to be joined by Karin, an education support professional who has worked in the Minneapolis district for six years. Karin, thank you so much for joining me today.

Karin:                       I’m honored. Thanks for having me.

Maximillian Alvarez: Thank you so much for being here, and especially on a Saturday in the middle of a strike. You’ve got a lot going on. So I really, really appreciate you taking the time to sit down and chat with me. On my own podcast Working People, I spend a lot of time trying to get to know the folks who make this country run and to not just see our fellow workers as job titles and name tags, but as human beings with lives and families and backstories and all that good stuff. So I was wondering if we can make that our sort of entry point into talking about this important strike, and just start by getting to know a bit more about you and how you came to work in the district, and I suppose the kind of work that you’ve been doing over the past six years, and maybe how you’ve seen that work change in that time.

Karin:             Yeah. I’ve always known that I like working with kids. My first formative job was as a camp counselor at Danish Camp and I fell in love with it. And so when I got out of AmeriCorps where I was working with kids in the parks doing literacy programming, I went to Minneapolis public schools thinking I really enjoy working with kids, this is what I want to do. And to get my foot in the door to decide whether or not I wanted to be a teacher, I started in Minneapolis Kids which is their after school program. Those workers at that time were getting $13.15 an hour for 20 hours a week. And that was not sustainable. So I became a special education assistant at a separate school. It’s an incredibly difficult job. And then as a result of the CDD, I moved to another school, and now I’m an assistant educator for the four kindergartner classes that we have there.

One thing that I’ve seen throughout my six years here is that we’re chronically understaffed. That’s been true the entire time I’ve been here. There are hundreds of ESP openings where we have lost tons and tons of teachers over the last two years, but there were always openings. It’s especially hard for special education assistants because it’s such hard work. And until last year, I believe, they were not paid as much as assistant educators. So they were being paid $17.33. We finally achieved parity with AEs to make $19.83 an hour. So those positions are really hard emotionally and they’re not very well paid so they’re not attractive to workers. So we’ve had a really difficult time with staffing the entire time I’ve been in Minneapolis public schools.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, could I ask you to say a bit more about that? Because it feels like eons ago, because we’ve all been living through two plus years of pandemic hell. But let’s not forget before the “strike wave” of 2021 and Striketober and Starbucks unionizing everywhere, Amazon union drives, before all that, it was really the Red for Ed teachers movement that kind of re-energized the labor movement writ large in recent years. We had teachers striking even illegally in red states and beyond across the country echoing a lot of these same issues. Public schools have been chronically underfunded, and in fact, that’s not an accident. There are a lot of reasons, deeply political reasons why public education and public school teachers have been squeezed so much for so long.

And teachers, we heard stories of teachers digging into their own pockets just to buy chalk and class sizes ballooning to the point that teachers could barely keep up let alone have any prep time for their different classes. So it was very clear even before the pandemic, as you said, that teachers in districts around the country were constantly being asked to do more with less and they were being paid less to do it. And so it kind of seems obvious that you would have people leaving the profession, which is very sad. But I guess I wanted to ask you a little bit more about those conditions and what has been driving this exodus, the folks not being able to stay in these jobs or leaving for other states maybe. And you mentioned the sort of emotional aspect to it. So I guess could you just say a bit more about what educators like yourselves have been going through over these past few years and how this isn’t just a new phenomenon that cropped up yesterday?

Karin:                   Right. Well, so when I was an SEA, I was in a position, I worked for the EBD program, which is emotional behavioral. So there were supposed to be three of me and there was just one, and that was just one part of our program at that school. So that meant that I didn’t have time to address all of the kids that I was supposed to be working with. I never knew what my schedule was going to be on a daily basis because it was just putting out fires, putting out fires, putting out fires and it created actual dangerous conditions. I have a little bit of PTSD from that job because at least every two weeks I was put in situations where I was breaking up fights where I could have gotten very hurt. I know other ESPs that have gotten very hurt doing those jobs. If there were more ESPs, more SEAs available to help do that work, we wouldn’t have been in those dangerous conditions. And that was before the pandemic.

It saves the district money to have those positions unfilled because that’s a position that they don’t have to pay money for. So there’s not a lot of incentive for them to go out and recruit people. So yeah, we have been working with very few resources for a long time and it has a real effect on the people who are doing those jobs.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and then there’s the pandemic. So I was wondering. And we’re absolutely going to talk about how this has all come to a head in the strike but I want to make sure that viewers and listeners have this full context. And there’s something that we’ve covered here at The Real News, on my show Working People, but I’m sure folks watching and listening have experienced it or heard about it plenty themselves. Schools became a really critical site of political struggle, I suppose, over the past two years. We’ve seen time and time again how educators are saying it’s not safe to be back in schools yet, or we need these safety protocols actually installed at our schools to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, yada, yada, yada, and unions like in Chicago have been viciously vilified, but not just there.

I mean, so often we’ve seen teachers unions really taking that stand for safety for their workforce, their students, the communities that they serve. And they have been targeted as sort of… They’ve become the target of so much vitriol of people who I suppose understandably are exhausted with handling childcare at home or homeschooling. Like we’re all pissed off, we’re all overburdened. This has been a very tough two years for everybody. But I think we can all see and understand that the reasons why teachers unions and educators around the country have been vilified for standing up for safe workplace conditions, there’s a lot of other stuff involved in that.

I think it’s important for us to stop and think about what teachers and educators like yourself have actually been going through during these two years of COVID-19. So I guess, could you say a little bit about that, like what you and your coworkers in Minneapolis have been going through having already been dealing with understaffing and under-resourcing, then entering two years of pandemic hell?

Karin:               Yeah. Well, I remember very distinctly when Governor Walz came out and said that we were closing our schools. My first feeling, my stomach dropped and I thought, well, I’m going to lose my house, because we didn’t know at that time that we were going to be able to work remotely. It took a while for that system to get up and running. And then we were distance learning for an entire school year. That comes with its own problems. People really had to pivot. We had to learn all new technology. We had to figure out how you do these really important things that are very hands-on through a computer.

Special ed is really difficult to do through a computer. We had students, high school students, staying at home with their younger siblings who needed that hands-on help. And then we were doing lessons through the computer. And then the first thing that happened was I have some chronic health conditions that make it really dangerous for me to contract COVID-19, and a lot of people do. It’s a novel virus. We don’t know how it works, what the long term effects of it are even now. And so in the district we had one person who was processing work from home accommodations, one single person for 4,500 staff. They were not available to talk about anything.

And then the district left it up to the site administration whether or not those would be honored, which meant that if you did not have a good relationship with your principal then it was pretty likely that you were not going to get your work from home honored. So that whole year I spent fighting tooth and nail to stay home to keep myself and my 80-year-old father safe. And then the district refused to bargain over these important safety precautions like how do we notify families when there’s been an outbreak? How do we get personal protection to our staff? They refused to put it in contract language, which means it was not implemented evenly across the board and it’s not enforceable. If it’s not in the contract, it’s not enforceable. The first PPE I got from the district was in January and it was one single N95 mask, KN95 mask.

Maximillian Alvarez: Wow.

Karin:                     I know. When you have these classes of kids all stuck together, many of these populations, if they’re High Five kids, so if it’s the preschool program, they can’t wear masks. If it’s kindergarten through second grade, the masks don’t fit. If it’s fifth graders, they’re going through that thing where they don’t want to wear a mask. It’s an autonomy thing. So in order to keep the kids safe, we have pushed for contract language that’s enforceable so that we can respond to outbreaks in an equitable way across the district. And the district refused to negotiate about that to the point where we had to get an injunction against them, because they said we had to negotiate it into a contract during a contract negotiation. So now we’re in a contract negotiation and they still won’t talk about it.

Maximillian Alvarez: Man, yeah, they love doing that, don’t they? They’re like, oh, we’ll deal with this at the next contract negotiation. They think everyone’s going to forget. And then when you bring it up, they’re like, oh no, we can’t deal with that this time around. It’s like, well, when can we? You’re always kicking that can down the road. And yeah, we can say that COVID-19’s no longer a problem as much as we want. And then we’ll deal with new infections, new variants. We don’t have to get into that. But it’s just, it feels like so often our policy has just been kind of, I don’t know, sweep it under the rug and hope for the best. Hopefully not too many people get sick.

I think it was Trump who famously said we’re going to declare war on COVID-19. I mean, I think we’ve lost. So I think that’s just the sort of reality here. But anyway, I don’t want to make this about that. I want to make sure that we’re focusing on the important strike that’s happening. And I want to be very clear that any comments that I’m making, any editorializing that I’m doing, I’m speaking for myself only. I’m not speaking for Karin, for the teachers on strike. I’m just an eager discussant here. But I want to make that very clear.

So let’s talk about the strike then, because like you said, now you’re in a contract negotiation period. There’s some really important demands that have been put on the table that address, like you said, both the issues that really became super pronounced over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also issues that have really been hurting the district and hurting educators and even students for long before that. So could you tell viewers and listeners a bit about the process that led to y’all hitting the picket line? What sort of issues in contract negotiations are y’all demanding, what the response from the district has been, and what it took for y’all to make that decision for 4,500 of you to hit the picket line a week and a half ago?

Karin:             Yeah. Well, our number one priority is a starting wage of $35,000 a year, and bringing the hourly up to 40 hours a week for ESPs. Our ESPs are our most diverse workforce in MPS, and all of our demands are rooted in racial equity. We want to be able to recruit and retain teachers of color. And it’s not just teachers, it’s educators of color, because it’s really important for kids to see themselves reflected in the people that are teaching them. But it’s also good for everyone to be educated by teachers of color. I mean, it’s good for everyone.

So those are our two biggest demands. The competitive wages for teachers are another thing that is helpful for recruiting and retaining teachers of color because the surrounding districts, now we lose a lot of teachers to surrounding districts because in Minnetonka you can make $15,000 a year more than you can here. And we used to be number one. Maybe not number one, but we were way up there. And over the last 10 contracts or even more we’ve lost that competitive edge. So it’s not just teachers of color that we’re losing, but that’s one of the reasons why we can’t find and keep educators of color.

And class size caps are incredibly important because if we are not able to give students the individual attention that they need, then they’re not getting the world-class education that we’re promising them and that they deserve. Everyone deserves a world-class education and that’s what we used to offer. We do our best, obviously, but it’s really difficult. In elementary, I know of a kindergarten class that’s got 31 kids in it. And I don’t know if you know any kindergartners, but 31 kindergartners together, they could take you. That to me is intimidating, and I love kindergartners. So just managing a class that size, there’s no way that all of those kids are getting what they need on a daily basis. That’s really important.

And then the mental health resources. We have all globally experienced this collective trauma of COVID-19. In Minneapolis, we experienced the police murder of George Floyd and then the ensuing police riots. Our kids lived through that and they saw that. We tried to provide as much support as we could. Our members put together food banks and all of that stuff because grocery stores burned and there were food deserts that there weren’t food deserts there before. MFT came together to support the community that way because our kids are so important to us. We right now are at capacity and we are trying to do what has become an impossible thing, which is meet the needs of our children with the resources that we’ve been given. So those are our bargaining priorities.

Maximillian Alvarez: Man. Like you said, it’s so important to understand… Because I remember – I’ve said this many times – I grew up very conservative. In the ’90s there was a very hostile cultural attitude towards teachers unions as being greedy, as not caring about the students that they were supposed to serve and asking too much. We heard all these stories about bad teachers who could never be fired because of the union. It’s like we were constantly berated with those sorts of talking points in the media and movies like Waiting for “Superman” in the news.

This is the cumulative effect of what happens when you just hammer teachers unions relentlessly, contract negotiation after contract negotiation, you end up with an overworked, overburdened workforce of folks who are trying to do their best and serve their students, but they’re basically living in a nonstop montage of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop having kids climbing all over you where he goes, shut up. And then all the kids start crying, I’m sorry. I love that. I love that movie.

Karin:                     Me too.

Maximillian Alvarez: But that stuff had an effect, and this is what the Red for Ed movement was really saying, is we’ve been constantly vilified and told to do more with less, and eventually everyone has their breaking point and everyone suffers from that under resourcing, that understaffing, so on and so forth. I think it’s really critical that unions like the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers are really taking a stand and pushing back. So I wanted to ask about that, that cultural milieu and the response from the district. As a group of educators who do so much for your community and your district, how has that community responded to the strike and how has the district, I suppose, responded to the demands that y’all are making?

Karin:                      The community has been extremely supportive. We just had a rally where we lined Lake Street in Minneapolis for 10 blocks on both sides with our picketers. Lake Street is a really highly trafficked road. We had school buses honking at us. We had public buses honking in support. We had people in their cars honking and recording us and kids waving at us. They miss us, we miss them. It was a really great way for us to see how the community… It’s not just Facebook comments, it’s not just parents bringing us food on the picket line and joining our picket lines. Even some of our elementary kids have joined our picket lines.

And we have students at North High School. There’s a newspaper out of North High School that is called North News and they’ve posted a couple of op-eds from students that have called us that we are their family. They love us. They’re in it for us. They want us to have the things that we need so that we can give them the education that they deserve. There was a sit-in at Davis Center with high school students – Davis Center is the district headquarters – Where they demanded to see the superintendent Ed Graff. There was sort of a loose agreement that that would happen and it didn’t. They sent another guy. They held his feet to the fire. They didn’t let him talk down to them. They stood up for us and they’ve been on the picket with us this entire time. So the community, the students, the parents, they’re on our side.

The district… It’s been a really tense negotiating process for us. We have had a difficult time even getting them to be in the room with us. They consistently tell us that they don’t have any money. We know that we have unspent COVID money that – Even President Biden said parents should be knocking on their school doors to make sure that that money is spent on staffing. We have a $9 billion-plus surplus at the state level, and it’s not educators’ jobs to find that money. That’s the district’s job to find that money for us, and they’re refusing to do it.

They’re talking to us in terms of austerity where we are literally living in a moment of abundance right now in Minnesota. They’re nickel-and-diming us. It really shouldn’t be as contentious as it is. We should all be on the same side. We do have shared values, but the district isn’t practicing what they’re preaching. We’re finally seeing them give us a little bit of movement, so that’s good, but they could end the strike today. They could end the strike at any time.

Maximillian Alvarez: Man, it’s so mind blowing to hear because we’re dealing with something similar here in Maryland. Governor Larry Hogan and his acolytes are out there saying, oh, we’re fiscally responsible. And now we have this huge budget surplus and all the teachers who have been demanding PPE or basic resources so that they can do their job for two years, they’re like, you’ve been telling us you don’t have the money to meet those demands and now you’re out here saying you have a budget surplus because you got a bunch of COVID related aid from the federal government. Then why aren’t you diverting that to the people who need it in the state? And it’s just bonkers to me that that’s happening in states around the country.

Yeah. I wanted to pick up on one point there, because I don’t want to keep you too long, but I guess before we round out and ask viewers and listeners how they can show support, I wanted to make sure that one crucial distinction isn’t lost here. Because we know in contract negotiations, not just in education, but it’s something we’ve seen in a lot of the high profile strikes that have happened in the past year, there’s a fight against what is called two-tier employment systems. Workers at John Deere, workers at Kellogg’s, striking educators and students at Columbia University, they were all pointing out that there are these tiers in their systems where certain people are being paid significantly less for doing similar work on the same shop floor.

And so it’s been very beautiful and important, I think, to see unions banding together and saying like, we’re going to lift the floor for everyone. And that is one of the things that we’ve been talking about here is that teachers and educational support staff are banding together. I wanted to ask if you could just speak a little bit to the importance of that for folks watching and listening who may not know the distinction between ESPs and teachers.

Karin:                       Yeah. So teachers are licensed staff, so they have teaching licenses, and ESPs are generally not licensed. Some people choose to be ESPs even though they have teaching licenses. So there is a huge gap between pay and a lot of it is based on education level, but we have ESPs that have PhDs. We have ESPs that are very highly educated. One of the things that has happened in contract negotiation that the district said they would never ever move on is we started out with 18 classifications within the ESP unit, which means that there were 18 different pay rates. We have condensed that down to four. So that’s really, really, really important that that happened.

So the unity between the teachers and the ESPs, we’re two branches of the same union, so we have two separate contracts. We have been trying for several contract cycles to bargain together because we function together as a unit within the schools, but then we’re separately negotiating with the district, and together we have more power together and we have the same priorities because we’re in the same classrooms. And that really ticked the district off, to have our bargaining teams consolidate into one bargaining team.

So we are committed to staying together. And if the teachers get a TA and the ESPs don’t, or if the ESPs get a tentative agreement and the teachers don’t, we’re committed to staying out until we both get an equitable deal. That’s really important. And our lines are really strong because we have each other’s back that way. The false division that we see the district trying to enforce during the school year in the classrooms has really fallen away through this process of being out together and hearing each other’s stories and getting to know each other as people.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. I mean, it’s a really incredible thing when you take that step onto the picket line together. It’s an experience, as our Real News contributor and phenomenal writer Luis Feliz Leon always says, solidarity must be experienced to be believed. And that’s something that you do experience on the picket line and it’s an experience you never forget. And I guess in that vein, to round things out, I wanted to ask you what folks in Minneapolis, but also folks watching and listening to this around the country can do to show solidarity with you and your striking co-workers there in Minneapolis?

Karin:                     Well, we have a web page. It’s safeandstableschools.org, and it has all the information about our strike, why we’re striking, what our bargaining priorities are, negotiation updates. And at the bottom there’s a place where people can write to the school board and ask them to intervene on our behalf, because the school board has not been involved at this point even though they’re the governing body. They have been silent through this entire thing. There’s social media posts on that page. There’s a strike fund that you can donate to. And if you’re in Minneapolis and you have a school in your neighborhood, we have individual GoFundMes and Venmo accounts open for donations for more direct immediate relief for people who… We started out this strike at a deficit for a lot of us. We have immediate needs that the strike fund can’t necessarily meet. So there are individual Venmos and things that you can contribute to.

Maximillian Alvarez: So that is Karin, an education support professional who’s worked in the Minneapolis school district for six years, and who is one of the 4,500 educators who have been on strike since March 8. Karin, thank you so much for joining me today.

Karin:                       Yes. I’m honored to be here. And shout out to St. Paul who got their contract negotiated. Their superintendent was actually involved with the deal. So that’s probably how that happened. They got everything they wanted. They got mental health supports in schools. So shout out to SPFE. We love you. Solidarity forever.

Maximillian Alvarez: Solidarity forever. And for all of you watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez for The Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to the realnews.com/support, become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.

Maximillian Alvarez

Editor-in-Chief

Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
 
Email: max@therealnews.com
 
Follow: @maximillian_alv