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A Year After Its Big Strike, MFT 59 Stays ‘Steady and Ready’

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MFT 59 on strike March 2022. African American man with bullhorn, multi-racial crowd, signs.

“What they thought would be our weakness was our greatest strength. We looked at the people who were getting paid the least, predominantly teachers of color and ESPs of color. And that became a rallying point for all of us.”

For the first time in 52 years, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Local 59 (MFT) went on strike last year. About 4,500 public educators from the union’s two chapters—one for teachers and one for educational support professionals (ESPs)—walked off the job in March 2022.  In bargaining MFT 59 prioritized wage increases, particularly for the poorly paid ESPs, along with improvements to working conditions, resources for student mental health supports, and programs to address racial disparities. After three weeks, MFT won significant gains and a new contract.

This contract is set expire at the end of June, and the union is currently building out a community coalition with many of the organizations that supported it during the strike. The coalition has work to do at both the local and state levels. Not only is the contract up, but a new school board has now taken office and there’s an active search underway to replace the superintendent who left after the strike. At the state level, the new Democratic trifecta means that the spring legislative session could pass the highest public education funding in decades.

Stephanie Luce from Convergence spoke about the strike with Marcia Howard, a teacher, activist, and newly elected vice president of the teacher chapter of MFT 59; Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody, an ESP leader and lead negotiator for the ESP chapter; and MFT 59 Organizing Director Nat Anderson-Lippert.

Stephanie Luce: Why did MFT 59 go on strike in March 2022? What was at stake?

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Marcia Howard: We went on strike because it was time. Both the teacher chapter and the ESPs were at this critical juncture where we had seen year after year for probably the last 20 years, a desperate gap between what we were getting paid and how we were being treated, compared to the suburbs.

The only direction that the district was willing to go was even more scarcity. It was as if there was a concerted effort to take away the dignity of our profession. They took away our pay, increased our workload and class sizes, took away our safety—every single aspect of our profession, in both chapters, was being threatened. After 51 years of not striking, it was time for us to do a labor action that involved collective action.

We were in the wake of the George Floyd protests, and somehow the district kept using teachers of color and educators of color as both this sacred cow and sacrificial lamb. They were saying, “We want to make moves in order to retain and recruit teachers of color, so seniority is a problem.” But we were all able to see the numbers and see that Black teachers were 7.9 times more likely to get fired. They were unsupported by the district. It was reprehensible that the district tried to use that to get rid of seniority, especially considering I’m Black, and I’m a veteran teacher. I’ve been in the district for 23 years.

And in those 23 years, what we saw was them stripping us of everything, year by year. So we decided collectively to fight. And the thing that they thought was going to be our weakness was our greatest strength. We looked at the people who were getting paid the least, predominantly, teachers of color and ESPs of color. And that became a rallying point for all of us. I don’t think they expected it to happen, but it did. And it has given us a path forward as a union.

Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody: We have been building for a strike for a while because we knew for a long time that as ESPs, we were not going to be able to get what we needed by just going to the table, doing the same thing. It’s been a process of changing how we approach bargaining and the way that we function as a union. Instead of being a place where people just come when they have a question about their contract, or a problem, we are making the union part of their identity. We really want people to be invested in their contract and their job, because we know that we can use the power that we have to really change the school system.

A lot of our folks are not paid very well. Our lowest paid folks were making $15 an hour, before the strike. Those were people, especially over the pandemic, that were working the whole entire time. When we started going back ESPs were the ones primarily in the buildings.

It’s been this fight to change how we run as a union, but also how people look at ESPs. We want people to respect us, and we’re not going to sit around and wait anymore for people to give us that respect. We’re going to demand that respect now.

We’ve been trying to have conversations with our members and build leadership in our union because our job is really important. But time after time, our members get the short end of the stick, having to work two or three jobs, just to make ends meet. We wanted wage increases that would actually change their life. I was one I was one of those people making $24,000 a year, having to work multiple jobs. And I have a lot of people at my site that are in the same boat. We have families, kids, houses, mortgages, and car payments, too. A lot of us thought, we’re not going to do this anymore. A lot of our members were ready to leave education or leave the city because we know that we can make more money in other places.

Stephanie Luce: A lot of teachers are frustrated with education but also frustrated with their unions. What inspired you to fight through the union for change?

Marcia Howard: The union is all we had. We are the union. So, we started talking. Our stewards started organizing. And not just this year. When we started seeing that we had strong leadership in all the buildings who were like, come on now. That is what allowed us to start turning toward each other. We found new leadership within our ranks. The rank-and-file started standing up for itself. And I will say, standing on 35W, standing on Lake St., standing at George Floyd Square, we have the practice of standing up for the things we believed in, and we finally believe in ourselves. So we stood up for ourselves.

Standing on 35W, standing on Lake St., standing at George Floyd Square, we have the practice of standing up for the things we believed in, and we finally believe in ourselves. So we stood up for ourselves.

—Marcia Howard, MFT Local 59

Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody: I got involved in the union about four years ago. I’ve been in the district for six years. I did not know anything about unions. I had never been in a union; I did not have a family that was a union family. I really didn’t know what I was like signing up for when I signed up. I just was like, “Oh, you guys do stuff. All right, cool. I’ll give you my money. I like doing cool stuff.”

A teacher I knew that was active in the union really encouraged me and my coworkers to get involved. So I started reading the emails and came across one to run for one of the Board positions, and it paid $600 a year. So, I was like, “Ooh, I like money and talking.” So I came to a meeting, and I really loved it. Ever since then, I’ve known that unions can be a vehicle for change. I’ve gotten to be on two contracts now. I’ve been the first vice president, and I’ve organized every summer. So I can see that the union can change our school system. There’s no other entity I can use to affect what I need to do within my job and what we need like for our students to be successful.

We need to have somebody like a union pressing on the District because the people in charge—not just in Minneapolis, but in all public education systems—they’re steeped in white supremacy, and it’s gonna take work changing the culture. Our union can do that. We don’t have limits on what we can do as a union, and in the state of Minnesota, on what we can bargain for. So we really can use our contracts and the power that we do have, as a union, and really change things for kids—the kids that I work with that look like me, because those are the ones that are really getting the short end of the stick most of the time.

Stephanie Luce: What lessons did you learn from organizing the strike? What worked, what was effective?

Marcia Howard: Members need to be inoculated about all the things that we could gain through collective bargaining, but also the fact that it is bargaining — it’s a negotiation. And so, you’re not going to win everything. We want to allow our members to be realistic about the pressures that we were facing from the opposing force, because the District tried to give up nothing.

On the day we voted on our tentative agreement, it won by what I consider a landslide, more than 75% of the vote. I did a Tik Tok showing the exact moment when we in the war room knew that it passed. We were jubilant. We hugged, there were tears. When that hit social media, I cannot tell you how many members in-boxed me and said “Thank you. This showed me how to feel about our vote.” It was striking to me. But when we were on the strike line, we were a group, and it was a collective, mutual, cathartic thing. But then people get the voting results in isolation. They felt alone and a little confused as to what degree were they supposed to be happy or disappointed at the vote. So we needed to make sure they were aware of what was at stake, what we gained, what they could have lost.

And if we do this again, I think it will be critical to do a temperature check of the collective every step of the way. To say, “This is where we can win, this is what we could lose,” to make sure that everyone’s as realistic as possible, but also as hopeful as possible. Inoculation is key every step of the way.

Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody: One big lesson that I learned is that collective action works. We have some awesome powerful members. Also, I think it was eye-opening for our members to see how bad our District leadership really is. I think a lot of people didn’t really know that we had corporate weirdos that don’t really care that much about public education. That definitely pissed our members off to learn that.

For many years, we have bargained separately. We run separate campaigns, even though our contract expires at the same time. But this time we came together and that was key. It wasn’t perfect, but it moved us forward.

Our members did so well, staying powerful on the line together. We have to remind our members that they still have that power, and they need to bring it into their buildings, to change the culture of our buildings. Our administrators are still working in our buildings so we will constantly have to correct them to get things right. If the District is saying, “We want to be anti-racist, we want to be a school where all kids have access,” then we have to actually make that education accessible for our kids, and we have to create those comfortable environments. We have to hold the administrators accountable.

Our members did so well, staying powerful on the line together. We have to remind our members that they still have that power, and they need to bring it into their buildings, to change the culture of our buildings.

—Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody, MFT Local 59

Nat Anderson-Lippert: We learned through this that workers are ready to fight. That our members in particular are ready to fight and in fact have been waiting for decades for this fight. I honestly felt bad for members that retired a year before this strike because they spent their entire careers waiting for something like it.

The other thing I feel like our campaign did well—from a strategy perspective—was that it took advantage of our biggest strength and our opponents’ biggest weakness. A living wage for ESPs is a materially anti-racist demand. Our opponents (within the district and outside organizations) were forced to publicly support the strike because it was rooted in an anti-racist struggle, but not on a shallow basis that the district often touts.

Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody: Yes, absolutely. Our teacher chapter is a majority white women. And a majority of our ESPs are people of color. And ESPs make no money. So, it definitely was a righteous fight. You don’t look good by saying, “No, I don’t agree with these people asking for $35,000 a year.” 

In the union, and in the public, the conversation about MFT was always centered around our teacher chapter. But this time we centered the ESP chapter. To be perfectly honest, our ESP chapter led this campaign. And even the people who tried to argue against us failed, because we had support from people around the city. Especially parents with kids that had interactions with ESPs, which is a lot of kids, were standing up for us because they know the value of our work.

And when people heard that the teachers were asking for retention, and language around educators of color, class size caps, and more mental health supports, how can you argue against these things? I think our messaging and making it that fight was very strategic.

Marcia Howard: We had a labor agreement constructed by educators of color, for the retention of educators of color, for the mentorship of educators of color, and we wanted to protect educators that were in racially isolated schools. And every time that we pushed forward with this, the District would push back on some BS. They’d tell us, “If you strike, all that’s going to do is lay off educators of color, because they are the last hired so they’ll be the first ones laid off.” And we’re saying, that’s your choice. That’s not about us. And I don’t think our parents, the community, and our fellow teachers are going to blame us for what you’re holding over our head.

This time, the public didn’t do the knee-jerk reaction, that the teachers are greedy. They couldn’t say the teachers are greedy when we are fighting for someone making $22,000 a year. You can’t even say veteran teachers like me are greedy when a teacher with the same exact education and years of service makes $15,000 more than me in the suburbs.

The District’s arguments were falling flat, so they decided to say there is no money in the coffers when in fact there was. What they chose to do with that money said a lot about the priorities of the district, and about their agenda for dismantling public schools from the inside out.

Nat Anderson-Lippert: What’s going on in education that we’re seeing all these strikes? Why are educators specifically standing up right now? Across the country?

Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody: Obviously, low pay. This is true of a lot of industries, right? And really the reason why a lot of workers are striking is we’re the people that are doing the work. We are the people that are making the products, that are educating the kids, that are keeping our schools safe. But we don’t get any say in what happens in our District.

Year after year, we see that this has not been a stable place for our students. We’ve seen good people leave, we’ve seen bad people stay, we’ve seen our District reward people with promotions, when they’re doing things that are really outrageous and egregious. We can see, especially in Minneapolis, we have a lot less kids than we did five years ago. We don’t have the resources. The counselor that has 600 kids that they’re supposed to be checking in with—how are they supposed to effectively do their job? Burnout is real. Especially after the last two, three years – with the lack of mental health support for our students and for our staff.

Marcia Howard: This attrition of students to the suburbs or charter schools—this has been deliberate, and it has been part of the colonizer model and capitalist model of, “How do I gain this particular land? I undermine everything. I get people convinced that there are no resources there, that it is worthless. They scatter to the four winds after I’ve disrupted everything, and then I get to claim the property for myself.”

They’ve done that now. Minnesota was considered the number one state for public education in the country. We only fought with Iowa. I could have taken my license and gone anywhere. If somebody wanted to teach in Minneapolis, they would have to go to school in the state of Minnesota, you’d have to take more classes to come from another state and teach here. We were number one. That was a fact, in 1998.

And it only took a scant 15 years for them to convince us that we were failing students. That we were deleterious with Black families. That we were a problem. And then they started whispering into people’s ear, “Hey, take your kid somewhere else,” and the call was coming from inside of the house.

They were also jockeying for position for who was going to have the education zones that were full of charter schools. They did not want people like me 23 years and making the money that I have when they could hire two of me for less. It was union busting, plain and simple.

You might ask, “You mean they’re making people’s educational experience for the last 20 years worse than it had to be? For what?” For material gain. We saw it happen.

We know education has been the backbone of a meritocracy. It’s the only meritocratizing institution left in America that was not completely capitalized. People wanted to make the money, so now? Health care: gone. Post-secondary education: gone. Public education: fair game.

And we have been at the epicenter of it in Minneapolis. And if they could have broken us—as Minnesota goes, so goes the nation. So we have to hold the line. Public education is at risk. And it’s not just my fight for my career. It’s the fight for the soul of this nation. For voting, for being informed citizens, for being critical thinkers. Everything is at stake with public education. It wasn’t just a contract: it’s for everything.

Nat Anderson-Lippert: So if those are the stakes, and if the corporate elite is so hell bent on privatizing our industry, what will it take to build a movement strong enough to take that on?

Marcia Howard: Just like we started forming coalitions with each other professionally, I honestly believe that that should be with families as well. We have to countervail the language about what is happening in the schools. We need teachers and parents to be united. I want parents to consider a school to be their school. The teachers are their teachers. Like how they see their pastor or their doctor. I want them to feel that type of connection.

And as a teacher, I try to stay in contact with parents so that they feel like we are in partnership and educating their child. As a union, we’re going to make sure that parents know that we are on the same side.

Our opponents are always trying to astroturf with actual parents. I am not saying that parents don’t feel the grievance or disappointment. But you only see five actual neighborhood parents there, and it’s the same five people every time. We need to make sure that we have an honest and earnest connection with those people too. And say, “What can we do to help you have faith in what we are doing? What are we doing together for these kids that we share?”

That is going to be critical, because when we were striking, we had family and community on that line with us. That is what scared the District. They thought those old tactics would play, that they would divide us. But we had high school students who were as loud as we were on the picket line. There were elementary kids at Green Central who were holding up the signs and letting the teachers take a break, and their parents were there and bringing us food and hot beverages. I don’t think the district believed that we had a community connection. They were wrong.

Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody: We really have to connect with other unions. We are trying to get alignment in our district, because that holds a lot of power. We can coordinate campaigns and have every single bargaining unit working at the schools out at the same time.

We also need to work with our other educator unions in the state and fight to fully fund education in Minnesota. Education is a human right. It’s good for our economy, it’s good for everyone. If public education fails, we’re done as a country.

We have to connect with other unions and make sure that these weird fascists who are trying to take away all of our rights shut their mouths. The wages that some people make in this country are ridiculous. That’s also a point where we can connect with other labor unions and really make it very clear, every single worker should have a union. And the people that have a hard time with health insurance and pay—a lot of the time, they end up being people of color.

Because a lot of educators do have unions, we have an opportunity that a lot of people do not have, and we need to use our collective power to make sure that people are getting what they need.

My students’ parents are making even less than me. I have students that can’t get a job because they have a disability, and they’re not making jobs accessible for people who have different types of disabilities. I think that unions, educator unions, specifically, but labor unions in general, are really going to be the key to fighting for the soul of America, because it’s definitely up for grabs right now.

Stephanie Luce: Can you say something about the unique role that Minneapolis played in the last couple of years, centering everyone in the world’s attention around the fight for racial justice? What should we know about your fight in Minneapolis?

Marcia Howard: I believe that Minneapolis will continue to serve as the epicenter not only for social justice, but also in labor. Including our near suburbs, the Amazon warehouse, or particular coffee houses that are under fire right now because workers are trying to organize but I honestly believe that this fire is going to catch.

But with that that means there will be someone with a high-powered hose trying to douse that fire. They are afraid of people in Minneapolis for our fighting spirit. Two days ago, we did a bike tour of the 1934 strike around Minneapolis. And Chicago Avenue, South Minneapolis, we’ve been about this life.

It turned into a general strike in 1934. It started with truckers and became a general strike. And the teacher strike probably is sort of like a match that can light other industries. Especially if we continue along the “fuck around and find out” spirit that we have right now. And if I have any say in it, I will continue to stoke that fire.

Just as we’ve seen at 38th and Chicago Avenue, otherwise known as George Floyd Square, I want to encourage us to stay steady and stay ready, because the thing that they will try to do with our industries is to undermine the industry itself in order to undermine our collective power. And that they cannot do.

Featured image: Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59 on strike, March 24, 2022. Photo courtesy of MFT 59.

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