This week teachers in Minneapolis and Saint Paul are voting whether or not to strike. There is a possibility that both the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Educational Support Professionals (MFT59) and Saint Paul Federation of Educators will be voting to strike. Their demands include better wages, smaller classroom sizes, equity in hiring practices and mental health support for their students. These are not novel demands. Teachers have been fighting for these things for years. The pandemic has just made the plight of educators more obvious and urgent. The Biden administration has all but given up on managing the pandemic and is swiftly pushing a back to normal narrative. At the forefront of this narrative is the reopening of the already cash-strapped public schools systems. In a capitalist economy, schools essentially function as daycare centers for the children of workers. This makes it essential for schools to reopen to allow workers to return to work and for students (the future workers) to get trained to maintain the means of production. On Saturday, thousands of teachers and supporters braved subzero temperatures and marched in support of the teachers.
Left Voice spoke to Mandi Jung who is a middle school teacher in Saint Paul. Mandi teaches seventh grade in a Spanish immersion program and has worked in her current role for six years.
What are the current conditions in your school, especially in the context of the pandemic?
We are successful in the school because things are held together by the unity of the teachers. Middleschool is the worst time of many people’s lives and we want to make it better. We want to see people as individuals and help them be successful. I am fortunate to teach at a “good school”. The economics of the neighborhood makes it a “good school” but I teach in a Spanish immersion program so most of our students are first generation Latine [which doesn’t necessarily reflect the socioeconomic status of the residents of the neighborhood]. Because we are a “good school” we also get less support from the district. My classroom budget is zero dollars. In a normal year my classroom budget is $40. I use websites like DonorsChoose to fund school supplies for my class.
The challenges have been inconsistent messaging of what we are supposed to do. For example, student absences because of quarantines, scared parents, illnesses, truancy. Some kids missed 100 days of school. The district got rid of community attendance liaisons and now we have no one. Parents are finding out about truancy after the kids are already truant. It’s the lean production model. Administrative tasks are being passed on to teachers for example, providing masks, finding housing support, food support, school supplies and mentorship programs that we previously were not doing. Teachers are doing these things now like grant writing, talking to the bus company and crowdfunding for school supplies.I have had to beg, borrow, and steal for everything I need in my classroom.
How do you feel about the strike? What are the educators asking for?
We will know the vote results on Friday. We voted to strike in the last three contract negotiations. In 2018 we settled. In 2020, we struck for three days before a deal was reached. And now in 2022 we are voting whether to strike or not.
There are lots of things in our contract worth fighting for but the most important thing for me is to resist further corporatization of our contract and the corporatization of our public schools. We are at an impasse with our school district because they are insisting that we remove things from our contract that help students. They are calling them our “working conditions” without thinking about the fact that our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. They want to remove our guaranteed recess language, they want to remove our mental health support team language and they want to remove our class size language. These are three things that we fought so hard and actually struck for in our last contract negotiation. We fought hard for those things because we know that if they are not in our contract we are not going to get them. I am voting yes so we can keep fighting for the schools our students deserve. What happens next? SPFE has called themselves a social justice union. We ask for conditions that improve our student’s lives. I teach a class of 33 kids. These kids are not getting the same level of attention and care as my other class of 24 students. The job is so personal and individual and centered on relations. When I can only give you less than 1/30th of my attention, that affects the academic outcome. SPFE educators union was the first union to go on strike ever (first organized teacher’s strike in the country) in 1946 and we struck for the exact same things.
Do you think there will be a strike?
I think we will vote yes. The union doesn’t call for a strike vote unless we think that they are going to strike. Do I think that the vote will be yes? I think so. Do I think we will strike? Who knows? If we strike, I think the district will make us strike for a week. The district wants to make us hurt. They have been impossible to negotiate with. They called for mediation in October which is super early. During the mediation, which are closed doors, not open to rank and file (between district and the union leadership with a mediator), they proposed to remove the class size language and the mental health support language. I think they didn’t want to have that discussion during negotiations before the mediation because negotiations are open to rank and file. The district likes mediation because no one is there to boo them. The district said that these are not terms of employment so they should not be in your contract. They said that we don’t have any money. I think they are lying. There is a surplus in the state. They could lobby for that money to get released. They could [for example] not give the superintendent a raise. The superintendent Joe Gothard makes a quarter of a million dollars a year. Do you know how many times I have seen superintendent Gothard in my classroom? Not a quarter of a million times. They got all this COVID money and they wanted to spend it on contractors. Joe Gothard did not sub when we were short-staffed like other superintendents. Tell me that you are out of touch without telling me that you are touch. He could not be bothered.
What has it been like for Minneapolis (MFT 59) and St. Paul (SPFE) unions to be collaborating?
It was never our intention. No one wants to strike or go without pay. We were both hoping that the others, our sister union’s (MFT 59) contract would get settled and they would get all the things they are asking for. It just worked out this way because we are on the same cycle. The district put us on this timeline. We are on the same school year calendar so that is why this is happening at the same time. We want a settled contract but we are not going to settle for crap and that is what they are offering. The plan is always to settle.
If we strike, the best case scenario would be that we win super big and inspire unions all across the country to shake off their shackles to stand up for their workers and we would be the catalyst for change. The worst case scenario would be that we get blamed for killing public education and the pro privatization-of-education folks will point to us and say this is why we should privatize schools. Most likely scenario would be that we will settle, the district will give us some stuff and it will be like every other time.
What has been the response of the students and parents?
Community support comes from people who know us and backlash typically comes from people who are not stakeholders (people whose kids don’t go here or who don’t live here). I’m striking for my students. I am not striking for anybody except for my students. I know that if we all go [strike] at the same time, people will be inspired but if we can settle this contract we are going to settle this contract. We are not doing this just because we can or because we want to start a revolution. We are doing this because our students deserve better. Dude, I have so many rats in my class. It’s demoralizing to come to a class that is rotting on the outside where students didn’t sleep and didn’t eat. How do you teach people who are traumatized? The pandemic has just made all the problems really obvious. None of the problems are new. It’s just that there are more kids that have them now. On an average year I would have had two homeless students. This year I have four that I know about. One of my students lost both parents (one parent died of COVID and the other was deported). Everyone of my middle schoolers knows someone who has died in the last two years. People with this white culture stiff upper lip keep calm and carry on. Yeah, that doesn’t work for my students.
In January there was some talk of virtual learning for two weeks. The district said that the schools didn’t go virtual because the union didn’t sign off on the district’s plan. Gothard blamed it on the union but he didn’t need the union’s permission. The union rejected the district’s plan because it was poorly written. It could have created a situation of having one auditorium packed with students and EAs (Educational Assistants) while students learned on ipads.
There was all this talk about “learning loss” with COVID restrictions. How kids did academically corresponded with their parents’ ability to help them at home. So it depended on the socioeconomic status of their parents. Some kids had to juggle and learn a lot of different things. When it comes to “learning loss,” my students learned to do a lot. They learned how to cook a meal, change diapers, and learned how to teach a parent how to communicate via email. Our students were not prepared to do distance learning and we were not trained how to do distance teaching. There are schools who have always done distance learning even before the pandemic and no one seemed to look to them on how to do this.
What are things like for the EAs (Educational Assistants)?
Their pay is terrible. They don’t receive basic things they need to do their job. Every licensed teacher has a macbook. EAs have iPads and they can’t print so they have to borrow macbooks from teachers. The district won’t provide them with cell phones. They have to use their own phones to call parents. All of our contracts are tied together (EAs, teachers, School and Community Service Professionals [SCSP] – they run before and after school programming) and the district wants the contracts to be separate but we know that power is collective.
What has been the effect of BLM movement (especially recently in the context of Amir Locke’s murder and the federal trial of the three cops who stood and watched Derek Chauvin kill George Floyd) on the possibility of a strike?
It has been hugely influential in showing the power of the people. People lost trust in Mayor Frey. We saw Black activists making change with their bodies and their voices. Derek Chauvin was not charged until the precinct was burned down. The uprising was definitely a motivator for many of the teachers. We have talked about white supremacy and the school to prison pipeline and how teachers become cops in cardigans. We have started book clubs, shared articles and during all of this we have seen leadership fumble over and over again. They keep shifting the goalposts. So from George Floyd to present day negotiations, all of this has had a profound impact on a lot of teachers. The BLM activists showed us that it can be done.
Are the students talking about any of this?
We have a class called Dare to be Real, but it’s only one section. Our kids are very involved in it. Some of my students are children of activists. There is a BLM poster and a poster of Amir Locke in my class. Kids are really switched on and really aware. But they are less aware of teachers’ problems and the strike. I think it’s because a lot of us [teachers] feel ethically icky bringing it up with our students. But at the march on Saturday, I saw several current and former students. And that is so cool. So I would say with the BLM movement, students are independently interested but with the teachers’ struggle it depends if their parents are talking about it or if their parents are teachers. It also hasn’t been in the media as much.
What would you want people to know? How can others support you?
When you think of your teacher, think of your favorite teacher. Most people like to think of their least favorite teacher and those teachers are probably on the picket lines too but think of your favorite teacher. I would like people to know that we are not doing this for ourselves. I am doing this for our students. It’s not about wages and benefits. I’m not going on strike for a 2% raise. I’m going on strike so students can have mental health support, EAs are supported and I can have a smaller class size. If I was going to strike for a raise it would be for a lot more than 2%. There are probably other people who might be striking for wages and that’s fine and their prerogative but that is not why I’m going on strike.
People need to care about schools even if they don’t have kids or are never going to have kids. I care about schools because education is a right and we need to resist privatization if we want quality and equity. If you are a radical you need to care for public school and fight for public school regardless of your public educational experience.