- Interview by
- Eric Blanc
Students are returning to school today in Minneapolis after one of the longest educators’ strikes in decades. After nearly three weeks on the picket line, the teachers and educational support professionals chapters of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) Local 59 have overwhelmingly voted — with yes votes of 76 and 79 percent of the two chapters — to approve the proposed tentative agreements.
The strike won significant gains on many fronts. Educational support professionals, or ESPs, an especially underpaid and disproportionately non-white workforce, will see major increases in their salaries and hours, bringing most close to the $35,000 salary initially demanded by the union. In line with the strategy of a growing number of unions to bargain for the common good, using their power as organized workers to fight not only for themselves but for the multiracial working class, strikers won caps on class sizes and contract language exempting educators of color from excesses and layoffs, as well as the hiring of two district mentors for non-white educators.
Mental health support for students — another major strike demand — will receive a major boost through a nurse, school counselor, psychologist, or social worker at every secondary site; a doubling of the number of elementary schools with counselors; a social worker in every school building; a minimum of one school nurse for every two schools; and a decrease in school psychologist to student ratios from 1 to 1,000 to 1 to 850. Far less progress was made on teacher pay, though the gains of 5 percent pay raises plus a one-time $4,000 bonus is still the highest pay bump for licensed educators in Minneapolis in twenty years.
Perhaps the most important win of the strike, however, was that educators dramatically increased their sense of power and solidarity, as Greta Callahan and Shaun Laden — the presidents, respectively, of the union’s teacher and ESP chapters — explain in this interview with Jacobin’s Eric Blanc. After two exhausting years in which the pandemic has thrown school workers into survival mode and onto the political defensive, educators across the country would do well to follow the inspiring lead given by the Minneapolis strike.
One of the things that I’ve heard both of you speak a lot about is the importance of collective joy in the struggle. Can you share any anecdotes about what that looked like during your strike?
Being out on the picket line with your entire group of coworkers and having time to talk to them, to get to know them, to understand them — that can be a transformative experience for educators and for the union as a whole. We won a lot of important gains in the contract, but our most priceless win from the strike is that we were all out together for three weeks. We came together. We never knew how powerful we were before now.
One of the moments where that became especially clear was when we were rallying at the state capitol and all of our members sang “Purple Rain” together — with Tennille Evans from the Chicago Teachers Union on the mic, closing it out. It was amazing, a really powerful and joyful moment, where we felt what we’re capable of.
— Eric Blanc (@_ericblanc) March 9, 2022
On one of the last days of the strike, we were able for a few minutes to escape the dungeon [district headquarters’ negotiation rooms], and when we came outside, we saw that children were completely running the big strike rally. There were zero grown-ups around them, and one of them — she was probably like six or seven — was on the mic leading the chants. I heard her explain to the crowd: “When I say, ‘Who are we?’ you say, ‘MFT!’ And when I say, ‘What do we have?’ you say, ‘Good kids!’” So you had this amazing tiny person leading a thousand strikers to chant “Good Kids!”
Another big highlight was seeing so many students occupy the Davis Center [district headquarters]. There was so much joy in that space. When we left bargaining on the last day, we were literally stepping over students in sleeping bags who had taken over the entire building. So the kids are all right.
— Eric Blanc (@_ericblanc) March 15, 2022
Based on your recent experience, could you speak about what you think it will take to turn things around for educators and the labor movement generally?
Strikes are necessary — and they work. Look at what was on the table after over a year of negotiating compared to what we got after the strike, an action voted on by over 97 percent of our members. It’s night and day.
Withholding our labor is not just a way to flex our power, it’s a way to build power at all our worksites. But it’s unfortunate that we had to strike for almost three weeks in order to help get basic things that humans — in this case children — need and deserve. I’m still outraged.
And in the public sector, we have this unique situation where our bosses are elected. So I think there’s a balance between building a labor movement that’s strike ready while also building our power in the electoral realm.
Elected officials help set the context for what’s possible through strike action, so we’ve got to have better folks in there making decisions about funding. That requires thinking strategically about how we build political power to create conditions for strikes to be as effective as possible.
You’ve celebrated your wins, but you also noted that you didn’t win everything, that huge problems still exist in the school system, and that the fight continues. What’s next?
I think we need to be building toward a statewide education strike. We have a $9 billion surplus in Minnesota, but we are not going to see a dime of that if things continue the way they’re going.
For that to change, I think we’ve ultimately got to have a statewide educators’ strike. That’s what [the 2018 walkouts in] West Virginia and Arizona showed: to get systemic change, you need to take it to the state level, because two-thirds of our funding comes from the state of Minnesota. We need to move in that direction.
That’s right, and we need to make sure that those who are elected understand the power of workers. We have a governor — a former teacher! — who has been silent for the last three weeks. We have a mayor who was endorsed by labor who’s been silent for the last three weeks. It is totally unacceptable that these people in power are not publicly supporting workers when they withhold their labor to fight for the common good.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to kick all of these people out from office, but it means, at a minimum, that they need to not be afraid to stand up for labor and for everything that we’ve been fighting for.
What lessons would you like to pass on to educators across the country who are struggling in similarly difficult conditions and who have been inspired by your struggle?
It doesn’t have to be this way — do something about it. Get your joy back. You should feel joy at work, you should be proud to be an educator, you should not feel demonized. You do have full control if you fight back together — and when you do, you’ll see everything change.
There’s just so much potential for the momentum we’ve built to continue to shift Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the whole country.
And to do all this, we also need to transform our unions. Six years ago, we were losing — that’s when I ran for president of the ESP chapter of the union and beat an incumbent of eight years. It took a lot of work to overcome a very stale union culture in which most members were not given a strong reason to get engaged.
Since then, we’ve done our best to raise expectations for what is possible and we’ve sent a bunch of our new member leaders through Jane McAlevey’s online organizing trainings [“Organizing for Power”]. When it comes to building power, there’s a way to do it right, and it’s not magic. It means implementing the strategies and tactics that the labor movement used before, back when we were winning.
There are a lot of workers, and a lot of union members, who want to do things better — the role of leaders should be to help facilitate membership takeovers of our unions. And by taking over and democratizing our unions, by helping empower members to fight back, we are going to do things better. That’s how we can finally turn things around in our schools and for working people everywhere.