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How to Halt Labor’s Slow Death

The success of a Minnesota teachers' union shows the way forward for a beleaguered movement.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Nick Faber thought he’d be spending this week on the picket line in a Minnesota winter. The president of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) was prepared for what would have been his union’s first strike since 1946, with the backing of 85 percent of the union’s membership. But at the last minute, in a marathon bargaining session on Monday, the union and the district came to a settlement that includes most of the union’s major priorities, including a push to seek additional revenue for the schools from big corporations located in the city.

The labor movement in general, and public sector unions in particular, are nervously eying Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, a case before the Supreme Court that could make the entire public sector “right-to-work”—meaning that teachers and other government employees can refuse to become dues-paying members of their union and still get the benefits negotiated by it. This conservative legal campaign is designed to strip unions of support and funds, but the SPFT’s success this week offers a hopeful model for how a beaten-down movement can regain its strength in communities across America.

This year’s contract battle was the third since the union began to include the broader community in the its work and its bargaining campaigns. Inspired by the Chicago Teachers Union, the SPFT issued a report in 2014 setting goals for the district that included smaller class sizes, family engagement, teaching over testing, and a racial equity agenda. Because their bargaining sessions were covered by Minnesota open meetings law, they invited parents to attend—and those parents found themselves on the same side as the teachers, even creating a Facebook group to support them. Last contract, in 2016, they negotiated support for a groundbreaking restorative justice initiative in the schools. Heading into this year’s negotiations, the SPFT created “TIGER” teams of teachers and community members who met monthly to brainstorm and organize, work that culminated in a deal with the district to lower class sizes, hire more EFL teachers and special education paraprofessionals, expand the restorative justice program, and press for more state funding and taxes on big businesses and the wealthy.

In labor circles, this is called “bargaining for the common good.” Faber noted—correctly—that unions have been stuck in one way of doing things for a very long time: They rely on lobbyists, who are easily overmatched by corporate lobbyists. With Republicans in control of the federal government and many states, and the Supreme Court likely to further diminish unions’ budgets, unions like the SPFT are trying something different. “You have this narrative of greedy teachers and teachers unions that just fight for wages and benefits, and when you do something different they tell you, ‘No, you are supposed to stay in your lane,’” Faber said. “We are not going to fall for that. We are going to decide what our lane looks like.”

The first year Kathryn Wegner’s daughter was at Groveland Park Elementary School in Saint Paul, there were four kindergarten classes, each with a teacher’s aide. Then the teachers’ aides were cut. Then there were three classes. The first year there was a full-time music teacher, and then they were half-time, and now there is no music teacher. The school nurse is only there a couple of days a week. There is no librarian.

So when Wegner—a former teacher herself, though not in Minnesota—heard that the union was holding a community training session on school funding, she signed up. She joined a TIGER team, and learned that school funding wasn’t keeping up with inflation. “A teacher’s working conditions are students’ learning conditions,” she notes. “While wages and benefits are really important and they deserve fair compensation, they also can use their strength and their numbers and their expertise to really be leaders for investment in public education, on curriculum initiatives, on changing discipline policies.” Parents, she says, really respond to the teachers’ leadership on these issues—it helps them see that the teachers share their concern for their children.

The funding research done in the TIGER teams and by union researchers culminated in a report looking at the district’s funding problems. In another unusual move for teachers—but one that seems to have paid off—the union focused on specific businesses located in their city and state, challenging their spending on lobbying for tax cuts that defund the schools. Making the corporations, not the school district, the enemy allowed them to make an offer to the district to work together, rather than at cross purposes. Union members and parents attended a speech by US Bank CEO Richard Davis and asked him to help use his influence to get funding for the schools. They wound up in a meeting with three US Bank executives. “They said, ‘No,’ very politely,” Faber said. “But, just like our traditional contract negotiation, that was stage one. Now, we recoup and we escalate and see what we get at the next time we sit down.”

Another key focus for the SPFT is racial equity. In Minnesota, most of the teachers are white, while many of the students are not. Minnesota also has large refugee communities and plenty of English-language learners from a variety of backgrounds. The union’s strike preparations came in the middle of a national Black Lives Matter at School week, with teachers around the country turning their attention to conversations about justice and an end to white supremacy. They also came as the Minnesota Department of Human Rights investigated 43 school districts and charter schools across the state for serious racial disparities in school discipline—in other words, for suspending black and Native students at rates that far exceed those for white students.

The restorative practices program in St. Paul began with teachers’ frustration at under-resourced schools and top-down processes imposed by the district. With help from colleagues in Chicago, they worked with nationally-renowned restorative justice practitioners to build a framework for their schools. Their program, which began with six sites and has expanded each year, aims to keep students in the classroom even when they misbehave, and to allow students to reflect on misbehavior rather than simply being punished for it. “It is not perfect, but it is a way that student and educator voices are being heard to repair harm and build community instead of just perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline,” Faber says.

Philando Castile, famously shot to death in 2016 by a police officer in a St. Paul suburb while his girlfriend broadcast it on Facebook, was a colleague of the St. Paul teachers. He worked as a cafeteria supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, and he was beloved by the students, whose names he remembered along with their dietary needs. The American Federation of Teachers convention was in the Twin Cities that summer, and the SPFT helped organize a march from the convention into the streets of Minneapolis, where they blocked traffic outside of US Bank. Twenty-one parents and educators were arrested during the protest—a rare moment where union members challenged the police as union members.

This approach can seem frightening to often risk-averse unions, who are looking at the looming Janus case and thinking only about holding on to what they have. But Faber argues that it’s the best way to make sure that teachers continue not just to pay dues, but truly participate in the union. “I think it is critical, especially in the age of Janus, to be taking more of an activist approach to being a union,” he says. “Especially our younger members coming into the profession, they want to teach, but they also want to be part of a movement. They want to make a difference in a holistic way. They want to part of something.”

The situation for unions is dire in 2018. The National Labor Relations Board, fragile even under Obama, is so unfriendly now that unions are pulling cases from it. The Supreme Court’s decision in Janus is due soon, and state governments are pushing private sector right-to-work bills. Americans are going to have to be convinced to be union members; unions can no longer count on simple maintenance. Bargaining for the common good has the potential to demonstrate the power and the importance of unions in raising living conditions, not just for members but for the broader population. If more unions organize like the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers does, the labor movement just might survive the age of Trump.