Thousands of educators will meet in Minneapolis over the coming days after an impressive springtime showing of grass-roots power by teachers — and then a gut-punch from the nation’s highest court.
This week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing government employees to pass on paying money to unions that negotiate their contracts could result in the National Education Association (NEA) losing tens of millions of dollars annually.
As association members gather at the Minneapolis Convention Center for an annual meeting that begins Saturday, teachers are trying build on past successes and cement the Twin Cities as a center for training labor negotiators and activists.
“Our members are coming in wanting to be part of a movement — and a part of something better,” St. Paul Federation President Nick Faber said.
The NEA event follows a sudden wave of activism that had rank-and-file teachers across the country sounding familiar themes.
In February, the St. Paul union pushed the state’s second-largest district to the brink of a strike with demands that included a call for the district to join the federation in pressuring corporations and nonprofits that benefit from tax breaks or their tax-exempt status to contribute to schools.
Then came the so-called “Red for Ed” walkouts by teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina — including a push by protesters in two states to force the wealthy to pay more taxes. Teachers received pay increases, and sent a message about public schools being underfunded.
“These were states where teachers were told there’s no money, but by taking public action, they’ve shown there’s a way to win,” Keith Brown, the newly elected president of the Oakland Education Association, said Friday. He participated in the St. Paul Institute a year ago and has been in Minneapolis this week for the NEA assembly.
The court’s ruling is “definitely a setback for us,” Brown said. But he added that assembly attendees in Minneapolis “are energized to organize.” With talks in Oakland at an impasse, he said he is eager to glean lessons from the red-state teachers who walked out in the spring.
Oakland, like other locals throughout the country, had been preparing for the Supreme Court decision. Leaders went to school sites to forge deeper one-to-one connections with teachers, which helped boost union membership to 93 percent, Brown said. Parents and community groups also have been pulled in to advocate for moves like creating smaller class sizes and hiring more counselors to work with students with social and emotional needs.
All of which, he said, are lessons taught by the St. Paul Institute, an NEA-funded organization run by the St. Paul Federation of Teachers whereby the local union shares its skills in negotiating contracts that go beyond wages and benefits.
New way to negotiate
“Bargaining for the common good” is a strategy that finds unions mobilizing not only within but also with their communities to push for better working conditions for teachers and enhanced supports for students — more counselors, social workers and the like. In St. Paul, the union has taken a broad approach to negotiations over four contract cycles, and the three-day sessions it has offered in coordination with the NEA have drawn more than 200 people from 47 union locals in 25 states.
In its ruling Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court said public employees who choose not to join their unions cannot be required to pay “fair share” fees covering the cost of collective bargaining. Union budgets now are expected to take a hit. In addition, unions may be forced to rethink their political strategies to keep members in the fold.
The St. Paul federation faced criticism this year from past leaders who viewed the union’s tactics during the most recent bargaining cycle to be overly confrontational. Social media postings at the time pointed to a generational divide that had younger teachers more inclined to strike.
Faber, the union president, said that the union aims to be attentive to all members. By the end of the school year, 93 percent of federation members had signed forms recommitting to the union, spokesman Patrick Burke said.
The federation did not have figures available Friday on how much it collects in dues, and how much in fair share fees.
Statewide, Education Minnesota expects to lose $1 million in fair share fees, which it factored into the $28 million in dues revenue it has projected for the coming year. But the union also recently hit an all-time high of 90,000 members, and through its outreach efforts was able to convert 1,400 of last year’s 6,500 fair share payers to full member status, Doug Dooher, a public affairs specialist with the union, said Friday.
But the fiscal pressures by the new Supreme Court ruling throw into question the institute. Faber said that the fate of the St. Paul Institute will depend on the budget being set by the NEA in the coming days.
In the meantime, teachers and other attendees will be back marching and rallying in Minneapolis on Saturday — this time in support of immigrant families.