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It’s Time for AFT’s Leaders to Support the Minneapolis Strike

The outcome of the Minneapolis strike of education workers will ripple across the labor movement. Now is the time for the AFT’s leaders to throw the full weight of the union behind the strikers.

Jason Koslowski

March 10, 2022
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Photo via Luigi Morris (@LuigiWMorris)

Today marks the third day of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT)’s historic strike

Thousands of educators are refusing to work. It’s a major escalation of a fight for better pay, especially for the extremely low-paid educational support professionals (ESPs), and for smaller class sizes, mental health support for students, and the retention of education workers of color. It’s the first time the MFT has gone on strike in fifty years. Yesterday’s march and rally alone brought over a thousand people into the streets of Minneapolis. 

This action comes as pressure is mounting on the ruling rich. Inflation is hitting new highs, cutting into working people’s ability to buy groceries and gas. Supply chain issues are hamstringing the economic recovery. The Democratic governor of Minnesota (Tim Waltz), the Democratic mayor of Minneapolis (Jacob Frey), and the Democratic president are all desperate to keep the economy open and profits flowing. 

The strike in Minneapolis’s schools is threatening that agenda. Education workers stand at a key choke-point in the economy. In the eyes of the capitalists, public school teachers perform a major service: they provide childcare for the children of the working class that’s being told to keep the economy running. 

Time for AFT’s Leaders to Step Up

But the importance of this strike goes far beyond Minneapolis city limits. Teachers and ESPs in Minnesota are pushing back against conditions found across the United States. They’re fighting the decades-long attacks — by both Democrats and Republicans — to dismantle the teachers unions, defund schools, demonize teachers, and privatize education. That means now is the time for the national leaders of teachers’ unions to champion the struggle. 

The MFT is a union local of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The AFT’s leaders could point out that the Minnesota struggle is just one more version of the fight in every urban public school district. They could immediately call for pickets, demonstrations, and marches in every union school in the country. And they could call — and start organizing — for a national day of action, like strikes and walkouts, for a show of strength. With teachers at a key choke-point of the economy, that flexing of muscle would go a long way to supporting the MFT.

None of this has happened. The AFT has not even issued a single official statement of support for the Minneapolis strike. It’s true the AFT president, Randi Weingarten, has offered support in interviews. And the AFT’s website has a general call for donations to an AFT strike fund — without ever mentioning the MFT, the biggest strike in the country right now. Education workers in Minneapolis and everywhere else in the U.S. need much more.

Why Haven’t They?

So why haven’t the AFT’s leaders done any of these things? One reason is our union leaders’ need to stay “inside the lines” of labor law. 

That legal system — set up by both Democrats and Republicans — exists to make it harder for workers to fight and win. 

The U.S. outlaws solidarity strikes by other workers and usually outlaws striking during the life of a contract. That aims to defang the strike — precisely because it’s one of the most feared weapons we have against the people who exploit us. Staying “inside the lines” means making sure the working class fights with one hand tied behind its back, blindfolded.

Because AFT leaders want to stay “inside the lines,” the main strategy has been to appeal to Democrats for better laws. That’s the reason the AFT endorses Democrats like Biden and donates our dues money to Democratic campaigns. The results have been dismal. In Obama’s first term, Democrats controlled every branch of government — then shoved pro-union legislation into a drawer. Today, Democrats control every branch of government, and pro-union legislation is still in the drawer. This isn’t an accident. It shows that the Democrats work for the ruling class, not the working class. They pump our unions for money and votes.

In fact, this union strategy — stay “in the lines,” support the Democrats, then sit back and wait patiently — has been an unmitigated disaster. Under Trump, Weingarten said she’d support “safety strikes” by teachers against unsafe school openings. Then Biden got what Trump couldn’t: he opened the schools, and he has largely kept them that way. One main reason Biden could do this is because Weingarten promised him she would help — even as the Delta and Omicron variants raged and the body count in the U.S. approaches 1 million. 

AFT: All Out for Minneapolis!

What happens in Minneapolis is going to be felt across the country. It will show public school bosses, and the ruling class at large, how much they can get away with in privatizing schools and slashing their budgets. A real win could inspire workers inside and outside schools to dust off one of their main weapons — the strike — and put it to good use.

Our union leaders aren’t stepping up to support the MFT. They almost certainly won’t, unless we organize ourselves to make them. Now is the time for every one of us inside and outside the AFT to organize and push our union’s local, state, and national leaders into full support — statements, pickets, marches, strikes. That can’t happen without bottom-up, rank and file mobilization.

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Jason Koslowski

Jason is a contingent college teacher and union organizer who lives in Philadelphia.

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