“Our Teachers Want to Be Part of a Movement”

Nick Faber

St Paul teachers could soon go on strike for the first time in seventy-two years. And they’re using the Super Bowl to highlight injustices in the Twin Cities.

Teachers union members participate in a July 2016 march in Minneapolis, MN for Philando Castile, an unarmed man killed by police. Fibonacci Blue / Flickr

Interview by
Sarah Lahm

On January 31, just before midnight, the tally came in. Over 80 percent of St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) members had voted to authorize a strike (two-thirds of the union’s approximately 3,700 members cast a ballot). If the mandatory, ten-day mediation period does not yield an agreement, teachers, educational assistants, and other school staff could hit the picket lines as early as February 17.

The lead-up to the potential strike coincides with the Super Bowl’s lavish arrival in the Twin Cities. Amid the glitzy, pre-game parties and high-profile NFL donations to food shelves lie deeper concerns about the gaping chasm between the very wealthy and those struggling to stay afloat in the Twin Cities.

SPFT is part of a coalition of labor and community groups using the big game to shine a light on racial and economic disparities in the area. SPFT has launched a separate website called “Real Legacy for Kids” that takes members of the local Super Bowl Host Committee to task, alleging that they are “hiding $16.5 billion in profits overseas” while public schools struggle to meet the needs of students.

The push for more equity has also framed the union’s negotiations with the St. Paul Public Schools. While union president Nick Faber says the district has repeatedly attempted to “pigeonhole” the union by limiting contract talks to wages and benefits, union members have shown themselves willing to strike for a broader suite of demands: more funding, more support staff, smaller class sizes, better restorative justice practices (which are intended to reduce racial disparities and punitive discipline measures).

Of course, that all costs money. And the district says it’s broke, having faced “three straight years of budget cuts totaling about $60 million.” The union doesn’t dispute the district’s precarious financial situation — state funding for public education has dropped by close to $1 billion since the early 2000s — and it agrees that the district needs more money to meet the union’s demands. But Faber has also pressed the district to join SPFT in resisting the “scarcity narrative” he says is being used to undercut public schools.

In an interview with Jacobin the day after the strike authorization vote, Faber talked about the union’s demands, its outlook going into the possible work stoppage, and its attempts to push local corporations and Super Bowl sponsors to pay more in taxes and support public services.

Sarah Lahm

Tell me about about your work with the union. How did it start?

Nick Faber

I have been a union member for thirty-one years. I actually got involved with the St. Paul Federation of Teachers right away, through a collaborative mentoring program that existed then between the district and the union. I was obviously a mentee then, but after about five years, I was teaching elementary school science and matching mentors and mentees across the district. This was a program for teachers who wanted to be educational leaders, but also wanted to stay in the classroom and not become administrators.

I left union work for a while but came back when our president, Mary Cathryn Ricker, became executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers in 2014. I got much more involved in SPFT then, when we started to realize we could use the contract as a document to advocate for students and their learning conditions. It was a much more interesting way to be a union member, instead of just focusing on the business aspect of things like wages and benefits.

When I signed my contract thirty-one years ago, before I got into the union, I went to a beginning-of-the-year breakfast hosted by the union. Leadership got up and said, “We are here in case you get in trouble, and we negotiate your contract for you.” Well, a lot of us would say, “I’m a good teacher. Why would I get in trouble?” And so the union didn’t seem as useful.

Today, we get up and talk to teachers about our values as a union, about our motive for activism and how we operate, and our vision for public education. At the end, we ask if people want to become part of this vision and activism, and we usually get 80 to 90 percent of members to sign on. Our new teachers want to be part of a movement.

Sarah Lahm

It sounds like this approach has helped get you to where you are today, on the verge of leading the first St Paul teachers strike since 1946.

Nick Faber

This type of organizing definitely makes the union more relevant. It’s the difference between the pop machine definition of unionism, which is the business model, and a gym membership definition. With the pop machine, you put money in. When the pop comes out, you’re happy. If it doesn’t come out, you kick the machine and get angry. That’s traditional unionism: you pay your dues, expect a service, and get angry when something goes wrong.

With the gym membership model, you pay your dues, and then we work together to make something happen. We build leadership and skills together. Last night’s vote to authorize a strike could never have happened without this approach. Because we have put the work in ahead of time, we have teacher-leaders in our buildings giving staff updates on the contract negotiations along the way. We are not just relying on union leaders to disseminate information.

This is the social justice union model that we have been working towards, in conjunction with groups like the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. We also connect with staff and leadership at the Chicago Teachers Union pretty regularly. Last year, Restorative Practices wins for our schools resulted directly from conversations with them.

Sarah Lahm

How is this kind of organizing and grassroots leadership impacting current contract negotiations with district administrators?

Nick Faber

One major point is with our English Language Learner (ELL) teachers. They often work with older students who are new to the country and have never been in school before. But they aren’t getting their needs met here because we are understaffed. We don’t want these students sitting in a social studies class that is language-rich, for example, and not being able to keep up because they don’t have the support they need.

The people who have moved this work and gotten it into our contract negotiations are the ELL teachers because they have organized themselves.They have looked at the issues, they have looked at the research, and they have talked to other ELL teachers to figure out if they were on the right track.

We also have Hmong dual-immersion teachers who have said, “We are having to make every single instructional tool we have by scratch. We have to translate everything, which is complex, and we are not getting compensated for this.” They put a proposal together for the district, and the district came back with a stipend offer that the teachers deemed inadequate.

The teachers looked at the proposal, took a vote on it, and told the district that they would walk away from their dual-immersion programs next year if they didn’t get their needs met. The district then came back with a respectable and reasonable compromise, but these Hmong dual-immersion teachers are still willing to go on strike, to support the union members who stood by them during their negotiations.

Sarah Lahm

Beyond activating union members, you’ve also really worked on bringing parents and the community in, too, right?

Nick Faber

This year, we had our TIGER team working with us on the corporate piece. The TIGER team is a group organized around Teaching & Inquiring about Greed, Equity and Racism. We have been meeting for a year, to build understanding about how schools are funded and to develop a community-led strategy to address corporate and nonprofit tax loopholes and the impact those loopholes have on our schools.

In 2013, we engaged the community for a year to help set the priorities for our contract negotiations, which we settled with the district in early 2014. In 2015, St. Paul Federation of Teachers members helped other unions and community groups rally against predatory banking and foreclosures from big banks like Wells Fargo.

These are the conversations we have been having for a long time, around the need for racially equitable schools and the work we can do to put an off valve on the school-to-prison pipeline.

Sarah Lahm

Let’s go back to the corporate piece. The union has been taking what seem like some unusual steps to directly address locally based, wealthy corporations and their role in the lack of funding for public education. What has your strategy been?

Nick Faber

It’s an ongoing campaign that, right now, is somewhat tied to the Super Bowl being in town. We have St Paul companies like Ecolab and U.S. Banks that have millions stashed in offshore accounts, thanks to tax loopholes and tax cuts that keep funds out of our schools. So when we hear that the district has no money, or the state can’t fully fund public education, then we are pushing back on that. These big companies have given millions of dollars to the Super Bowl Host Committee, to bring the game here. We know they have plenty of resources.

But we have also asked them, directly, to help the union fund some of our initiatives. We know, for example, that U.S. Banks profits from private prisons and the criminalization of black and brown folks, so we have asked them to help fund our Restorative Practices program within the district. This has helped our members see that there is a proposal on the table, to specifically address some of the issues around funding and the lack of support for our students and families.

So far, we have had meetings with U.S. Banks and Ecolab but nothing further. U.S. Banks responded to our meeting with a broad email, indicating they disagreed with our tactics (putting a video up on our Facebook page) and will therefore no longer participate in talks with us.

Sarah Lahm

What is at stake here, for St. Paul teachers, staff and families?

Nick Faber

Right now, our Restorative Practices program is being run by one coordinator, who works seventy-hour weeks. She’s been doing an awesome job, but she needs support. Things are working well now, but next year, when we add three more pilot sites, it is going to be impossible. We need additional staff, but the district so far hasn’t committed to specifically supporting this program.

I feel that they want to expand it, but they just don’t want the union in it. Or, they don’t want to expand it. But the strongest things in our district are the things, like the restorative justice program or the peer assistance and mentorship model, that the union has collaborated on. These are the things that tend to last in our schools, as opposed to the fads in education that come and go.