Teacher-Community Unionism: A Lesson from St. Paul

Teacher-Community Unionism: A Lesson from St. Paul

Milwaukee school board meeting on privatization, January 23, 2015 (Overpass Light Brigade / Flickr)

When I was elected president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) in 2005, I thought my own story might help transform the relationship between teachers and administrators as well as improve the image of teachers in the community. I was a veteran middle school English teacher, and I’d been honored for my work. And I had been active in the SPFT as a political and community volunteer as well as the union’s professional representative on local and state committees.

I had also spent enough time in my classroom and in the city to know—and be bothered by—the dominant story told about public school teachers and our union by the mass media, a number of Minnesota legislators, and in many local communities. On a local TV station’s evening news show, a Minnesota Republican state senator, Richard Day, had even declared, “We all know Minneapolis and St. Paul schools suck.” In too many conversations, I got accused of failure unless I quickly told people about the awards I had won for creating a model English/language arts classroom and running a program for my colleagues on how to improve writing in middle schools. If local citizens, especially parents, could learn about our talent, our dedication, and our ideas, I was convinced their perceptions would change.

Students in urban public schools deserve teachers who are both creative and optimistic. Additionally, spending many years of your career teaching in an urban setting can stimulate good ideas about how to improve that work.

In St. Paul, we knew we were doing wonderful things both inside and outside the schools. We applied for grants to teach middle school science to students alongside environmental and historical community activists while rebuilding the historic watershed on St. Paul’s East Side, a largely working-class neighborhood. We held public sessions where students read their essays and stories. We designed geography and history lessons about the immigration patterns of our city and our students. We lobbied our school board to maintain funding for peer mediation programs. We were thrilled to wake up every morning and share our love of these subjects with our students.

We also knew the value—and the potential—of our union. We were committed to achieving a high-quality, universal public school experience for every child. The members of the SPFT could be on the frontlines advocating that goal, and our contract could be the document that helped make it happen.

But first, we had to parry negative images about us. Administrators and politicians treated students and their families as the “consumers” of an educational system, whereas we saw them as partners in building better schools. That consumerist mentality framed us as nameless and faceless workers, instead of people who were forging relationships with children and their families. It’s no wonder that the notion of teachers as greedy and lazy had taken hold.

To dispel that falsehood, we had to forge an active bond with the people we served. St. Paul is a city of about 300,000 people. Over three-quarters of children in public schools belong to communities of color, and more than a third speak English as a new language. Over 70 percent of students in St. Paul qualify for a free or reduced-priced lunch. Only by talking, listening, and working with our students and their families could we change the pernicious perception of teachers and become the union we aspired to be.

The first step was quite simple: to talk to one another. In union meetings, we deliberately  discussed why we became educators in the first place, what public schools meant to us, what unions meant to us, and what a decent contract would look like. We crafted A New Narrative for Teachers, Educators, and Public Education, which became our guiding document. Our narrative was anchored by five key themes: we are committed to building a good society; we believe in honoring the value of and cultivating each student’s potential; we believe that working in community is essential to student success; and we believe that educating students is a craft that requires talented and committed professionals. We are committed to working collectively as a powerful force for justice, change, and democracy.

We read from this document at the beginning of nearly every union meeting. We shared it with new teachers and asked them if this was the kind of union they wanted to join. We relied on it so much that the Narrative practically had a seat on our executive board. It was not unusual for a union leader to ask, in response to a question or during a debate: “What does the Narrative say we should do about this?”

One practice that clearly needed to change was how we negotiated our contracts. By Minnesota law, public-employee contract negotiations are open to the public; anyone can attend and observe the negotiations. Usually, a union team of five or six members sits across the table from administrators. But in 2009, we invited special education teachers to attend, and encouraged them to invite members of the families they served. In one session, we even had the traditional bargaining team get up and join the audience to allow special education teachers to advocate directly for themselves.

These actions were limited, but we learned a great deal from them. We learned not to assume that members were too busy to participate in negotiations. We also learned that families were interested in collaborating with their teachers and education assistants on issues that affected them all.

In 2011, we went into contract negotiations with a more developed plan to democratize the process. We encouraged anyone involved with the education of St. Paul children to attend. We managed to schedule negotiations on the same evening every week—Thursdays from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.—to help fit it into busy lives. The first session attracted just eight people, but the audience grew steadily after that. By the end of the nine-month-long process, nearly a hundred union members, parents, and others from the St. Paul community were showing up—and we had both parent and rank-and-file voices on our side of the table.

We focused on demands to improve the quality of our teaching. We want to expand a successful pilot program in which teachers helped one another. We wanted to require that any teacher who applied for a leadership position have a recent evaluation of their classroom performance on file. And we wanted to see that class sizes would not vary widely over time. We also wanted administrators to recognize Future Educators of St. Paul, our union’s program to encourage local high school students to become teachers, as a valid extracurricular activity.

Over time, we built trust within our ranks and with the residents of St. Paul who cared about and had a stake in the health of the public schools. The more we engaged them, the more they believed in our cause and our motives. One union member stood up at a negotiation meeting and said: “I came to prove that you guys weren’t doing your jobs at the table and that you were slacking off—selling us out—and what I learned was that you are fighting relentlessly for us.”

“Us” had become the rank-and-file members who no longer felt the negotiations were being conducted behind their backs. Now, local shop stewards were being treated as leaders in the process instead of just following orders. “Us” had become a neighborhood group that had been organizing independently but were now our partners. “Us” became parents who attended negotiations and shared their hopes and dreams for their children in our public schools at the bargaining table. Dora Jones, executive director of Mentoring Young Adults, who came to work very closely with us through the last two contract campaigns said, “We can talk to the school board all day and try to make changes there, but if we don’t really start dealing with the issues inside of that classroom—where the teachers are every day—then we are not really going to change anything.”

Of course, tensions within the union did not suddenly vanish. One group of members, hoping to gain higher wages and better fringe benefits, wanted to push further than others wanted to go. Some veteran negotiators on our side were anxious about bargaining in the presence of other members. We spent time talking this through and, at the end of our conversations, it came down to one question, “Do you ever recall saying anything at the bargaining table that you wouldn’t have wanted our members to hear?” The answer was an emphatic “No!”

With our contract set to expire on June 30, 2013, I knew we had to prepare well before that and engage the community in the process along the way. So in the fall of 2012, eight months before our contract was set to expire, we began two monthly study groups—or book clubs—made up of a cross-section of members, parents and community members that met monthly until April 2013. One group read The Schools Our Children Deserve by Alfie Kohn; the other group studied Teaching 2030 by the Center for Teaching Quality.

With the help of each book, the groups tackled three big questions: what are the schools St. Paul students deserve? Who are the teachers St. Paul students deserve? What is the profession those teachers deserve?

In April 2013, the study groups presented their contract ideas to our union’s executive board. The priorities included: educating the whole child, authentic family engagement, smaller and more predictable class sizes, more teaching and less testing, culturally relevant education, high-quality professional development for teachers and education assistants, and a significant increase in access to our pre-school program. After a thoughtful discussion, we adopted their priorities and directed the union’s bargaining teams to negotiate on that basis. We dubbed this plan “The Schools St. Paul Students Deserve.” We were realizing the kind of partnership with the community we had begun to build four years earlier.

Unfortunately, negotiators for the school district did not share our vision. Together with some elected officials, they balked at negotiating with a union that didn’t behave in the narrow way they expected a union to behave. For years we had been told that “unions would be respected more if you acted differently and showed that you cared about students.” But now, school district officials and the lawyer they had hired to negotiate for them were essentially scolding us to get back in our box and “act like a union.” It was apparently “not our job” to concern ourselves with these teaching and learning issues.

In Minnesota, matters not directly related to a teacher’s wages, benefits, or working conditions are permissive, not mandatory subjects of bargaining. Of the twenty-nine community-supported proposals we presented in May 2013, district representatives refused to negotiate on twenty of them. For the first time in history, they hired an attorney to be their lead negotiator. She correctly pointed out that state law did not compel them to negotiate about class size, the expansion of early childhood education, or hiring an adequate number of school nurses, librarians, and counselors.

But we would not drop these or other issues in our contract campaign that we thought were important, simply because the lawyer said so. We knew these were all permissible areas of negotiations. We would make the case that it was in everyone’s interest to have agreements that made progress in each of these areas. So we arranged for representatives of the union, parents, and the larger community to present their views directly to the district negotiating team.

In September 2013 the board’s team unilaterally closed negotiations to the public in the only way they could: by calling for mediation. We weren’t deterred. We knew we had the community on our side, and frankly, they didn’t appreciate having their ideas cast aside.  At 5:00 p.m. on September 19, 2013, the district bargaining team walked into a room filled with over seventy-five people and journalists from both local newspapers, read their letter, and immediately walked out—a series of smartphone photos, gasps, and scattered hissing followed them. Because a small group of students, parents, and union members had been assembled to testify that evening on behalf of improved counselor-and-social-worker-to-student ratios and dependable access to physical education and librarians, we reassembled, listened to their prepared testimony and then opened it up to hear what the audience had to say. The audience—made up of SPFT members, parents, and community members as well as our student presenters—brainstormed ways to continue the public dialogue about our priorities now that open negotiations were no longer possible for us.

We knew we had the upper hand if we could rally the community that had worked to create these solutions only to have them dismissed; and so we went to work. We made phone calls, knocked on doors, put up “St. Paul kids deserve          ” yard signs (or, in our case, snow-bank signs) and let people fill in what they liked. We held “walk-ins” inspired by the organizers of Moral Mondays in North Carolina. Only, we held our walk-ins at the main entrance of nearly every school in the district at the end of January 2014, in a blizzard.

Some 2,500 teachers, education assistants, parents, students, and community members started their day by rallying for the schools our children deserve. Photos of signs were posted on Twitter proclaiming “St. Paul Kids Deserve Preschool”; Facebook posts depicted dozens of educators and their students outside a school, covered in snow, rallying with parents for reasonable class sizes or “More Teaching, Less Testing.” Some teachers played drums, others made up chants like “What do we want? Happy students!” or adapted the lyrics of popular songs to our cause.

Finally, SPFT members voted to authorize a strike. Our primary demands were better access to preschool, consistent class sizes, more teaching and less testing, and equitable access to nurses, librarians, counselors, social workers, art, music, and physical education. Two days before our last scheduled mediation, we held a rally in front of the district headquarters before the school board met. Parent after parent spoke to the crowd. They then filed into the school board meeting to make their views known.

When that final, mediated negotiation session before our authorized strike vote arrived, we spent almost twenty-four solid hours together with the district’s bargaining team—now including three Board of Education members, just for this meeting—negotiating on every contract proposal that was put forward. When we emerged (in the aftermath of another blizzard) we made progress in every priority area advanced by the study groups. And our cars had been shoveled out by a parent and community member, which almost brought us to tears.

In the end, we averted the strike and made progress on nearly every issue for which we had fought. We won a commitment to expand the preschool program and to hire additional nurses, counselors, librarians, and social workers. We won an agreement for reasonable and predictable class sizes and a reduction of standardized testing. We established School Climate Improvement Teams composed of educators and parents who would collaborate to make students of all ethnic and racial backgrounds feel welcome and reduce the number of suspensions and other measures used to discipline children. We also successfully negotiated a method of redesigning schools to replace the mandated school restructuring process, which had until then forced school closings, turned schools over to Charter management organizations, or forced removal of half the teachers. Our process would be teacher-led, allow teachers and parents to design school programs together, and draw on the assets of the communities in which schools were based.

In a larger sense, we felt vindicated by the democratic process we had created. Members of all the groups who had worked together asked one other, “What comes next?” I had negotiated almost a dozen previous contracts for the SPFT. But, for the first time, I felt that signing a contract was just one step in building a larger movement.

Later that year, in summer of 2014, I was elected executive vice-president of the national AFT. But the union-community partnership I helped build in St. Paul is a natural extension of the priority my national union has given to community engagement, since we seek to improve our teaching and our schools, and not simply file grievances and try to protect our wages and benefits. Similar things are taking place in Chicago, Los Angeles, Toledo, New Haven, Albuquerque, and elsewhere. In local after local, teachers are rebutting those who view them as failures. Everyone is learning that teachers can be a powerful force to create the kind of schools their students deserve.


Mary Cathryn Ricker is a National Board Certified middle school English/language arts teacher who is currently serving as executive vice-president of the American Federation of Teachers.