In an interview, one striking teacher explains how community support is providing energy and optimism on the picket line
On March 8, around 3,500 Minneapolis teachers and educational support professionals went out on strike, effectively shutting down a system of 35,000 students. The action, led by Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) Local 59, is the first walkout the city has seen in over 50 years.
Educators are demanding caps to class sizes, higher wages and more mental health support for students. While the school district is claiming a budget shortfall, union advocates have pointed to the state’s record $9.3 billion surplus as a potential untapped resource.
We sat down with Beth Dill, a 5th grade teacher at Whittier International Elementary School and an active union member, to talk about the strike, which is entering its second week.
What do you see as the key issues in this strike?
It’s about what kind of future thousands of kids will have. Specifically, we are fighting for smaller class size, more mental health support for children, recruitment and retention of teachers of color and increasing the pay for our lowest paid members?—?the educational support staff. They start at $24,000 per year. The educators make it work. Short staffing has been a huge problem over the years, but the pandemic has brought us to the breaking point and it’s unacceptable.
How are educators holding up so far?
I know we are only a few days into the strike but so far it has been amazing. On the picket line at Whittier Elementary it’s been like a raucous party with music, dancing and food. Every morning several schools in the area join for picketing. All over the city, the same thing is happening: Large boisterous picket lines.
The support from parents, students and community members has been unbelievable. We have parents, kids and their dogs walking the picket line with us, bringing us food. It keeps our spirits up to see Somali, Black, Latinx and white parents out here. We have 65% kids of color here and many English language learners. Children of color make up well over half of the school population.
Our union members went door knocking in neighborhoods across the city last Saturday and again today [Friday, March 11]. There were a thousand union members talking to neighbors. I just heard that we had positive feedback from 94% of those we talked to. I’m so glad we’re using this tactic. It helps keep us in touch with the community and gives a sense of confidence that we are supported. I haven’t heard of too many strikes that do canvassing.
We’ve also had great support from political leaders. The Minneapolis City Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting our fight on Thursday. Our three socialist city council members (Robin Wonsley Worlobah, Jason Chavez and Aisha Chughtai) have spoken at our rallies, walked the strike line and been a megaphone for us. Unions in the area have also come through for us, from the Teamsters to the Laborers. It helps a lot.
How do you account for the community support?
The public knows what we’re fighting for: smaller class size, mental health supports, educators of color and higher pay for everyone but especially the lowest paid. MFT has also been very involved in some important social struggles. Our union was part of the fight to try to remake public safety in the city after the police murder of George Floyd. We’ve been very involved in the struggle around rent control.
The fight to protect our kids isn’t just in the classroom. Their ability to learn and thrive is impacted by public safety, housing and environmental concerns.
How does the ?“education reform movement” fit into the political picture and the strike?
They are definitely trying to turn the community against us, especially the Black community. And we must be honest. The union has historically not always been seen as an ally to the Black community. Astroturf groups like the Minnesota Parents Union (MPU) are finding some sympathy for their point of view because of that. Of course, MPU does not represent the vast majority of Minneapolis parents. We see that clearly on the picket lines. So the Minnesota Parents Union is losing the battle.
The funding for the education reform movement comes from neoliberal operations like The Minneapolis Foundation. Under the guise of racial equity they attack public education and the union. They are aiming to privatize education because there is a lot of money to be made there and charter schools are largely non-union. We know the foundations and rich people behind charter schools don’t care about educating children because the products they promote?—?charter schools?—?don’t produce better outcomes for kids.
How long do you think this strike will last?
I’m not making any predictions. I think Ed Graff, the superintendent of Minneapolis schools, has underestimated us. He didn’t think we would get a 97% vote of the membership to strike. He thought educators wouldn’t stick together, that parents and the community would turn against us. Right before the strike he sent an email encouraging us to cross the picket line. All that did was make people madder.
Negotiations have begun again. That’s a step in the right direction. We will turn up the heat. We will hold the line. We will win.
This blog post was printed at In These Times on March 14, 2022.
About the Author: Kip Hedges is a school bus driver in St. Paul and longtime union activist.