Thousands of educators are on strike in Minneapolis, two years into a pandemic that has pushed public education to a breaking point across the country. With the future of education in unprecedented limbo, the stakes are high—and not just in the Twin Cities.
Public schools were in crisis well before Covid-19. Especially in predominantly non-white, working-class school districts like Minneapolis, decades of underfunding, privatization, high-stakes testing, and low educator pay made it increasingly difficult for teachers and support staff to provide the education their students deserve.
To overcome such conditions, an unprecedented upsurge in strikes erupted from West Virginia to Los Angeles in 2018 and 2019. “Red for Ed” succeeded in energizing educators, capturing headlines, and challenging the bipartisan consensus in favor of privatizing education, but its progress was abruptly checked by the pandemic. Nowhere was this dynamic clearer than in St. Paul, where teachers and support staff were three days into a strike in March 2020 when Covid-19 forced an end to their action. While other sectors of organized labor have recently shown promising signs of militancy, school workers throughout the pandemic have just struggled to keep their heads above water.
In the Twin Cities and beyond, the past two years have reversed Red for Ed’s political momentum and exacerbated structural stressors and inequities, resulting in increased educator outflows from the profession and increased family outflows from public schools. By late 2021, a quarter of teachers, and almost half of Black teachers, indicated in national surveys that they were considering leaving their jobs. Over the past 18 months, Minneapolis Public Schools have lost over 640 teachers and support professionals.
Schools have lacked basic resources necessary to address students’ mental distress in the face of pandemic conditions, the police murder of George Floyd, and subsequent social unrest. In line with a growing trend of progressive unions to “bargain for the common good,” one of the Minneapolis strike’s major demands is for every school to be provided with a social worker and counselor every day, as well as increased hiring of school psychologists. “As educators, we have been saying ‘What about the kids?’ for decades,” explains Greta Callahan, president of the teachers’ chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. “And right now we’re at a place where we can no longer allow students to pay for the mistakes made by those at the top.”
Shortages of support staff, substitutes, and teachers in Minneapolis and St. Paul have deepened the difficulties of those educators who remain. This is especially the case for educational support professionals (ESPs), half of whom are people of color. “If we’re going to talk about racial justice, we have to talk about how we treat everybody in our system,” explains Shaun Laden, president of the educational support professionals’ chapter of Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. “The district doesn’t treat our members of color and our hourly workers with the dignity and respect that they deserve.” Faced with increased work burdens and a less-than-living wage—many ESPs make as low as $24,000 a year—it is not surprising that Sahan Journal found a 22 percent vacancy rate for Minneapolis ESPs, with many choosing instead to work at McDonalds or as FedEx delivery drivers. Unions are demanding that the starting pay for 90 percent of ESPs be bumped up to $35,000.
Strikers are also pushing for significant teacher raises and greater retention of teachers of color. Educator pay in Minneapolis since 2001 has not caught up with dramatic increases in the cost of living, and the fact that pay trails so far behind other districts in the state has made it difficult to retain qualified educators. Such disparities have undercut efforts to increase the number of teachers of color, as has the noxious combination of education underfunding with layoff policies that disproportionately push out non-white educators, who tend to be younger. One casualty was Somali American educator Qorsho Hassan, who because of district budget cuts and her lack of seniority lost her position in Burnsville—only months before being named Minnesota’s 2020 Teacher of the Year.
School district leaders have responded to educators’ demands by pleading poverty. But such declarations ring hollow to strikers given that the district has recently received hundreds of millions in additional federal support through the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan. Likewise, the state of Minnesota currently has a record $9.25 billion dollar surplus, much of which could be used to correct systematic underfunding. “When any elected official says there’s just not enough, or that we can’t afford it, it’s just not true,” argues Laden.
Despite a relatively favorable budgetary context, despite the dynamic mobilization of the Twin Cities’ unionized educators, and despite their emphasis on popular “common good” demands, this will not be an easy strike to win.
Educators are not the only ones whose patience has been tried by two years of the pandemic—how parents will respond to the strike remains to be seen. In the wake of polarizing school closure debates and a reinvigorated right-wing offensive against teacher unions nationwide, the Minneapolis walkout will resurrect many of the exhausting child care dilemmas imposed on working-class families by remote learning. Especially if the strike begins to drag on, community anger is sure to rise. Whether this gets directed primarily at school district leaders or at the unions may in large part determine the strike’s fate.
No matter what happens in this struggle, its political impact will certainly reverberate well beyond Minnesota. A demoralizing defeat for teachers and ESPs will embolden pro-privatization, anti-union forces across the country to ramp up their efforts to dismantle public schools.
A victory, in contrast, will infuse fights against K-12 with a much-needed jolt of hope and enable organized educators to reshape the political narrative over the future of our schools. “It’s because of the national [Red for Ed] movement that we’re here,” notes Callahan. “And we are really hoping to see this energy spread from what we’re doing in Minneapolis and St Paul. We’re helping people feel powerful for the first time in a long time.”