Teachers and support staff in the Twin Cities could be headed for a strike if contract negotiations don't go their way.
Teachers unions in Minneapolis and St. Paul are in mediation with their respective school districts, and union leaders have said they are prepared to strike.
The two unions are making similar demands, from smaller class sizes to more mental health support for students, which mirror what many public school teachers and staff across the country have been seeking for years — the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened their importance.
Here's what's going on:
The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals' (MFT59) joint executive board on Wednesday voted unanimously to give its members the power to vote on a strike if one becomes necessary.
“For almost two years, we’ve been trying to reach agreements around safe and stable schools for students and those closest to them, but progress has been frustratingly slow,” said Greta Callahan, president of the teachers chapter of MFT59. “We want the administration to feel the same urgency we do about addressing the mental health crisis in our schools, reducing class sizes, controlling caseloads in special education, and increasing educator compensation so that we don’t continue to lose staff, especially educators of color, to surrounding districts and other professions.”
The union says it is seeking living wages and better benefits for education support professionals (ESPs) and hourly workers at Minneapolis Public Schools. Shaun Laden, MFT59's education support professionals chapter president, said during a news conference Thursday, they'd like to see starting pay for ESPs be bumped up to $35,000 — currently, ESPs make about $24,000.
The union held a rally on Monday in downtown Minneapolis demanding better pay for ESPs and other educators.
MFT59 is also seeking better pay for teachers that's more comparable to educators in nearby districts, with Callahan saying they've lost hundreds of teachers this year to other districts or jobs that pay more.
Better pay is among the demands in the union's safe-and-stable schools bargaining agenda. Among the others: smaller class sizes; increasing mental health support for students by hiring more counselors and social workers; hiring enough substitutes and bus drivers; paying teachers and support staff more.
“Many of the challenges facing the people who work and learn in the Minneapolis Public Schools existed before the pandemic, and the pandemic has only made them worse,” Callahan said in a statement. “We are the guardians of public education and the next contract with the district is about making our schools safe and stable, pandemic or not.”
Wednesday's vote is the next step in the process — it doesn't mean there will be a strike among teachers and ESPs, Laden said. It means the executive board has the authority to call for a strike vote as the union continues negotiations with the district that have gone on for more than two years.
The union says striking is a last resort.
"While our bargaining teams remain hopeful and continue to seek fair settlements at the bargaining table, our union will steadfastly prepare MPS educators to take the necessary actions to change the status quo in the Minneapolis Public Schools," a news release said.
MFT59 says Wednesday's vote comes after "disappointing progress" on the union's bargaining agenda, noting this now gives them another tool to persuade the district to offer them a contract they consider fair.
"We're very hopeful that we can see some real changes for our students sooner than later," Callahan said during the news conference.
MFT59 has mediation dates with the district coming up related to the teacher contracts and union representatives for ESPs are still in negotiations and have filed for mediation, Callahan said.
Members of the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) have been rallying this week demanding more support and resources for teachers, staff and students as it continues mediation with St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS).
The union has launched a public petition that details some of their demands, which include smaller class sizes, more multilingual staff, adequate staffing support for special education students, more mental health support for students, and prioritizing BIPOC student and educator needs.
SPFE is also seeking more pay for staff, including educational assistants. The district has so far rejected this if it would increase St. Paul Public Schools' budget by more than 1.5%, the union said in an update last week.
And the union, like MTF59, is considering a strike if the district doesn't offer a contract they consider fair.
SPFE president Leah VanDassor told KARE 11 this week the "likelihood of a strike is really up to how strongly the district pays attention to what we're doing now."
"The workers have found the last two years that they’re needed and not being respected for the work they do," VanDassor told KARE.
Bring Me The News has reached out to SPFE for more information.