- Interview by
- Eric Blanc
Minneapolis educators are on strike. Union demands include living wages for support staff, funding for essential mental health resources, competitive pay for teachers, lower class sizes, and effective policies to recruit and retain educators of color.
After two pandemic years that have exhausted educators, accelerated the deterioration of public schooling, and put the national Red for Ed movement on the defensive, the Minneapolis strike has stakes that extend well beyond Minnesota. Jacobin’s Eric Blanc spoke with Greta Callahan and Shaun Laden, the presidents, respectively, of the teacher and educational support professionals (ESPs) chapters of Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), Local 59.
What is your reply to critics who say that a strike in the Twin Cities will hurt students?
As educators, we have been saying “What about the kids?” for decades. And we’ve done everything we could possibly do to win the schools that they deserve without striking: we have petitioned, we have rallied, we have marched on the governor’s mansion, we have shown up to school board meetings, we have written more letters than anyone can count, we have organized informational pickets, we’ve been on every single news source.
We have done everything in our power to fight for our kids. And right now, we are at a place where we can no longer allow students to pay for the mistakes made by those at the top, who have mismanaged our schools. After trying literally everything else, we’re prepared to strike if we have to.
Ever since the police murder of George Floyd and the mass protests that followed, Minneapolis has been at the center of debates over racism in the United States. How do you see your struggle as related to the fight for racial justice?
One thing that we’ve really tried to raise up in this campaign is that our hourly school workers — from food service workers to education support professionals — who are majority folks of color, are also the lowest paid and have the least amount of say in our work and our district.
If we’re going to talk about equity, if we’re going to talk about racial justice, we have to talk about how we treat everybody in our system. And the district doesn’t treat our members of color and our hourly workers with the dignity and respect that they deserve. We’re saying that something can be done to materially improve the lives of people, particularly groups of workers who are majority folks of color.
This is the same fight — the fights are not separate. The majority of our students are students of color; everything we have put on the table is a fight for black lives, including all the things Shaun mentioned. Those at the top, those running our schools according to the corporate model, are really picking and choosing when they want to say they’re supporting our students or educators of color.
We’re trying to create some systemic change right now. Our public schools have to be strong if we want to build the world that we need to see. We’re all in, and we’re going to do whatever it‘s going to take to make this change.
District leaders in both Minneapolis and St. Paul are pleading poverty — they say that they support you, but there’s just not enough money to meet your demands. What’s your response?
We’ve crunched the numbers: the district has doubled its general fund balance over the last three years, and they now have $250 million of additional federal dollars [from the Joe Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan].
Their “plan” is to maintain the status quo — which means preserving a situation that is pushing families to flee this district and pushing educators to do the same. With these people in charge, nothing is going to change without a movement. So we are reclaiming our schools, for our students to receive the high-quality education that they deserve.
We’ve got to push back on this idea that there’s not enough. The state of Minnesota is currently a state of abundance — we have a $9 billion surplus right now. So when any elected official says there’s just not enough or that we can’t afford it, it’s just not true.
There’s a mind shift that has to happen. Politicians have been pushing for fifty years this idea that we need to have more of the marketplace and fewer public goods. As educators, we need people to insist with us that we need more for the public good. We need to invest in our kids, we need to invest in each other — whether that’s education, housing, childcare, or eldercare. We need a society that truly cares about one another, which is why we’re coming together to win that through collective action.
Shaun, could you speak more about the role that educational support professionals play in schools and why they are such an important part of your struggle? When it comes to education or the Red for Ed movement, support staff often get overlooked, with the public seeing only teachers.
We like to say that “we make school happen.” Whether it’s a question of improving literacy, whether it’s social and emotional learning, whether it’s implementing restorative practices, whether it’s minimizing students’ time outside of class — all those things are done by ESPs.
And so, when we talk about improving outcomes for students and improving climates in our schools, our folks are at the center. And what we have is a system that doesn’t recognize that. Instead, it attempts to just burn through us with high turnover, by paying folks as little as possible.
One thing we really have tried to do is get our members to have conversations with their licensed colleagues about their material conditions. Part of the corporate, top-down model is about keeping people in isolation — so when you break that isolation by communicating and talking about how much we get paid or how little we get paid, I think that’s been really powerful to motivate people.
After the 2018–19 strike upsurge, in which we saw a lot of forward motion through actions fighting for the common good, it seems like educators have really been put on the defensive by the pandemic. Many teachers I talk to these days feel exhausted or demoralized after two years of working through the pandemic and after the impossible dilemmas educators have been put into by school closure debates. How do you see your struggle’s relationship to the national Red for Ed movement?
We were talking recently with [former president of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers] Mary Cathryn Ricker, and she said:
We’re seeing a lot of folks leave the profession recently. But we’re also seeing a lot of folks who are still in the profession and who have made the decision that our public schools and our students are worth fighting for.
I think that’s the case. This is a vocation for people; people are here because they love education, they love all our students, they love their colleagues. They feel like this is who they are — but their profession has been denigrated, their conditions have been worsening, so at some point, folks just reach a breaking point and decide to take action.
In Minneapolis, we haven’t struck since 1970. We really have gotten so much hope and energy from watching our colleagues around the country who have done this already — whether it’s Saint Paul, Los Angeles, Oakland, or Chicago. And it is because of this movement that we’ve been observing for years across the country that we have been able to get strengthened to take this step now.
This is all cyclical, right? Now we’re in this place where we’ve authorized a strike — and our problems are not unique to Minneapolis or Saint Paul. We are watching our public schools everywhere become privatized. We are watching corporate greed take over and watching people call our kids “market share.” This is a movement that has been happening and will continue to happen across the country as long as human beings are educating human beings.
As educators, we are on the ground floor, we know what’s best, and we refuse to allow those at the top to let our schools crumble. We refuse to let this happen to our kids anymore. It’s because of the national movement that we’re here — and we’re also really hoping to see even more of this energy spread from what we’re doing in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
What can educators and other supporters of your struggle do to stand in solidarity?
What we’re seeing now is so beautiful — it’s organic across the country . . . watching folks send solidarity photos, and there have been so many Zoom solidarity forums online. People are contributing to our strike fund, which is definitely something we will need help with as we move into this. We have people from all over bringing our bargaining team food and showing up at the MFT office. We have families coming to get signs, and local union presidents from around the country reaching out.
Every single one of those things is keeping us going and our members energized. The more love our members can feel through this time, the better. After people have been fleeing this district, quitting their jobs, and after we have literally had members kill themselves within the last two years, the joy of being empowered again is so crucial.
We’re helping people feel powerful for the first time in a long time. The other side can’t have that — we’re the ones in the righteous fight right now. So the more joy that we feel in this fight, the better.