St. Paul teachers frustrated by a lack of progress in contract talks will vote Wednesday on whether to authorize a strike against the state’s second-largest district — bringing the two sides closer to an actual strike.
At issue is how to pay for a 2.5 percent salary increase and more support staff after years of budget cuts and enrollment declines in the district.
Adding to the voting drama, union members remain divided on whether a walkout is justified.
“This bar is not being met in many people’s eyes,” said Roy Magnuson, a Como Park Senior High teacher who has been a union leader.
No date has been given for a strike; Wednesday’s vote gives union leaders permission to call one with 10 days’ notice.
The last time union members set a walkout in motion was in 1989, but that strike was averted in the final hour. Later, the school board chairman recalled advice he got about the stakes involved: “You have to be sure this is the hill you want to die on,” he said.
Across the state, 56 percent of Education Minnesota’s teacher contracts have been settled, with average salary increases of 2.2 percent in the first year and 2.2 percent in the second year, said press secretary Chris Williams. Education Minnesota is not aware of any other union locals setting strike authorization votes.
In St. Paul, the current talks have seen the St. Paul Federation of Teachers build on its holistic approach to bargaining — seeking new support staff members and class-size caps — by pushing for the district to join it in pressuring corporations and tax-exempt institutions to help cover those costs.
On Monday, union president Nick Faber spoke at a rally outside Ecolab, a frequent target of union activities this year, and then marched with teachers, social justice advocates and parents and community members to a Super Bowl event at nearby Xcel Energy Center. Doug Baker, of Ecolab, and Richard Davis, of U.S. Bank, which also has been criticized by the federation, are co-chairs of the Super Bowl Host Committee — along with Marilyn Carlson Nelson.
Faber noted that the committee contributed $30,000 to the district for breakfast-to-go trays.
“We like the new trays, but we’d rather have a nurse in our schools,” he said. “We’d rather have a librarian in our library. We’d rather have 20 kids in a kindergarten.”
Faber said that no one wants a strike, and that teachers do not “want to walk away from our students,” but that sometimes it is the only way to get management to listen. When the march commenced, the line extended a full city block.
The union’s often confrontational stance against district leaders, businesses and nonprofits drew sharp criticism from Ian Keith, a former federation president who still teaches in St. Paul.
“I will vote no on authorizing a strike and vote yes for working collaboratively and respectfully with our school board and all of the stakeholders in our community to improve our schools,” Keith wrote in an op-ed piece published Tuesday in the Star Tribune. “Strong-arming allies; using strike threats every bargaining year; spreading fear among teachers and the community — these tactics compromise the integrity of our union and are simply not justified in this current round of negotiations.”
Magnuson, who as a union leader helped spark St. Paul’s Caucus for Change movement by calling for school board challengers in 2014-15, said that, he will vote no. A yes vote, he said, would require that all union members be “all in” on a strike. They should be convinced, too, he said, that the problems being identified are crucial and that the proposed action steps are correct, realistic and achievable.
Voices of support
There is passion and commitment among yes voters, too.
In a statement on the union’s webpage, Stephanie DeFrance Schmidt, of Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet School, said she’d been told by a professor that the district’s “best and brightest” English language learners often struggle with their writing in college — a sign that they could benefit from a fuller range of support services. About one-third of St. Paul students are English language learners, and they deserve equity, she said.
Both sides have been consistent in how they approach funding issues.
The union launched its contract campaign with a “Tax Day” rally in April at a U.S. Bank facility on the West Side. The union chose the location to point out that the district does not collect all it can in property taxes from corporations like U.S. Bank that operate within tax increment financing districts, and those that have the money should pay what it described as their “fair share.”
Last fall, district negotiators took the unusual step of announcing a united front behind limiting contract increases to 1 percent of current salary costs — or about $2.1 million per year in new spending for teachers. That came after several years of K-12 enrollment losses and budget cuts.