Bold moves come easy to the St. Paul Federation of Educators, and now, two years after taking the district to the brink of a strike, the union says it is again ready to walk.
Whether a strike actually happens Tuesday depends on mediation sessions that run through Monday. Daily updates have not been encouraging.
Mayor Melvin Carter, a district parent himself, is ready to step in, if needed. But the union and district are at odds over wages plus student mental health supports that the SPFE deems essential and Superintendent Joe Gothard says are too costly.
For the federation, it is all part of a multifaceted “bargaining for the common good” strategy that has influenced teacher strikes elsewhere in the United States — most notably in cities where concerns over poverty and racial inequities make their way into union agendas.
“Obviously, this is part of a trajectory — big-city unions organizing with these kinds of demands,” said Jon Shelton, associate professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. “The crucial thing is they have been able to win. They’ve mobilized the community.”
Gothard argues that a strike is bad for St. Paul — and unnecessary, too.
St. Paul has 2,000 fewer students than it had in 2015-16, he has pointed out, and state and federal aid has fallen short, he added. This year, with teacher contract talks in mediation, the school board learned the district was taking a $4.4 million revenue hit in 2019-20 after a projected loss of 625 students this year rose to 948.
Board members, who are mindful of budget pressures, find themselves adversaries with a federation whose endorsement they covet.
At a union rally in January, St. Paul City Council Member Nelsie Yang pledged solidarity with the SPFE and described its platform — priced at more than $50 million by Gothard — as a pursuit for “bare minimums.”
“We’re going to hold the school board accountable,” she said to cheers.
Yang’s past political work has included handling communications for the campaign of Marny Xiong, the school board’s chairwoman.
“Bargaining for the common good” finds unions organizing members and the broader community behind proposals for better working conditions for teachers and enhanced support for students. That means taking contract talks beyond wages and benefits into areas districts view as managerial prerogatives.
Eight years ago, the St. Paul federation won concessions on class sizes and special education caseloads.
Months later, Mary Cathryn Ricker, then the union’s president and now the state’s education commissioner, observed a Chicago teacher strike — an event that inspired her and other leaders to rally community support around class size ranges and support staff hires as part of a 2014 deal.
Contract positions were added again in 2016.
Then, in 2018, when the district said it had only $4.5 million in new money available over two years, the two sides managed to forge a deal calling for the hiring of 30 new teachers of English language learners and 23 people to work with special-education students.
As was the case this year, teachers voted then to authorize a strike — a move that also had been threatened in 2014.
Talks have been scheduled through Monday, if necessary, and with no set end times, said Kevin Burns, a district spokesman. Both sides have sent word to families about safe places their children can go if a strike happens.
Two years ago, a midnight deal was reached just two days before a scheduled walkout.
Gothard, looking back, recalls thinking then: “I never want to be here again,” he said.