U.S. and World Politics

Minneapolis Teachers Strike

By Adam Ritscher

On March 8, 2022—International Women’s Day—over 4,500 teachers and professional support staff went out on strike. This decision was made after months of frustrating contract negotiations in which the Minneapolis School District refused to seriously address the multi-faceted crisis that education workers are currently facing. During the strike vote, a whopping 97 percent of teachers and 98 percent of support staff voted to strike. The voter turnout was 96 percent of the district teachers, and 93 percent of support staff.

The union representing the workers is the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers—Local 59.

The union’s demands address serious concerns in six categories:

  1. inadequate mental health support.
  2. the need for more affordable, quality health care.
  3. low and non-competitive pay.
  4. COVID safety protocols.
  5. overly large class sizes and workloads.
  6. and the need to put resources into retaining educators of color.

The school district cited a lack of resources, but the workers pointed to the fact that money is always available for high up administrators, not to mention that the state of Minnesota is sitting on a $9.25 billion surplus that could be used to help schools and workers. Neighboring school districts pay several thousand dollars a year more on average to teachers than the Minneapolis schools. And even more shocking is the low pay that education support workers in the school district have had to endure—just $24,000 per year. Those poverty wages have resulted in many support workers having to juggle multiple jobs, and some have even had to live in their cars.

Likewise, the chronic de-prioritizing of education spending that is being seen across the country, has seen teachers having to endure not only stagnant wages and benefits, but dramatically increasing workloads as vacancies are often not filled. For example, school counselors in the district must juggle up to 350 students. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the crisis.

Education workers have been doing everything they can to draw attention to this crisis for years. While their voices have been ignored by the powers that be, they’ve been heard loud and clear by many other workers and community members. As a result, once the strike began, the union saw incredible participation on its picket lines, not only from the striking workers themselves, but from thousands of students, community members and other unions.

The strike was kicked off with a massive march to the school district headquarters on March 8, followed by a rally at the State Capitol building on March 9. Pickets were held every day, starting at 7:30 A.M. And almost every afternoon the union held a rally or other action at lunch time or in the middle of the afternoon. Among the actions held were picket sign waving dance parties, a march through downtown Minneapolis on March 10, a rally outside the Governor’s Mansion on March 18, and a massive student sit-in at the school district’s Davis Center.

This was the first teacher’s union strike in Minneapolis since 1970, when workers went out on a 20-day strike over mostly the same issues.

Several negotiations sessions were held between the District and the Union during the strike, and after 14 days of picketing, the district offered major concessions resulting in a tentative agreement being reached on March 25. Workers voted to approve the agreement over the following weekend. The vote was 76 percent of teachers voting to approve, and 80 percent of education support workers. The workers returned to work on March 28, and students returned on March 29.

The contract that the strikers won contained a number of things that the School District had previously said that it could never agree to. Among the gains were a dramatic increase in the amount of mental health support that the schools will provide (in particular, more nurses, school counselors, psychologists, and social workers.) For the first time ever, the union was able to get contract language limiting the size of classrooms—lowering the number of students in each class. Support staff saw their wages go up $2 to $4 an hour, and the overall wage increases will be two percent in year one of the contract, and three percent in year two, with a $4,000 bonus. Some job titles that had been particularly underpaid, like the Adult Basic Education/General Equivalency Diploma instructors, will see as much as a 20 percent raise.

Particularly noteworthy were the gains made regarding educators of color. The union had been calling for more action by the district to hire and retain workers of color. This had initially been blocked by the Administration, but the union was able to win contract language updating the seniority language so that educators of color will be exempt from the layoff process. This change will go a long way to reverse the historic problem of educators of color being the “last hired and first fired.”

The union issued this statement about the strike settlement:

“These historic agreements include significant wage increases for ESP (Education Support Professionals) and nation-leading protections for teachers of color, including exemptions from the excess and layoff process and more. In addition to improving our students’ learning conditions by adding more counselors, social workers, nurses, and specialists, this strike also helped set the conditions for significant change within Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and how it approaches its work. Union leaders recognize that there is more work to do, and this is just the beginning of turning around the MPS and are committed to continuing this work in the months and years to come.”

More work does indeed remain to be done to improve working and learning conditions in Minneapolis schools. But by taking such a militant stand, the teachers and other education workers made significant gains in a very difficult political and economic climate. In doing so they set a powerful example for educators and other workers everywhere. We salute the Minneapolis teachers and support staff for their courage and determination. They are an inspiration for us all!