Teachers Strike

Lessons from Minneapolis’s First Teachers’ Strike in 50 Years

After 14 days on the picket lines, Minneapolis public school teachers ended their first strike in over 50 years. Fighting for basic conditions like smaller class sizes and higher wages for teachers and educational support personnel (ESPs), they sacrificed wages and even risked losing healthcare coverage during their strike, which was authorized with a nearly unanimous vote.

The agreement reached and approved by the membership included concessions from the Minneapolis school district around all of their demands, though it is still less than teachers deserve in Minneapolis and around the country. US teachers are often attacked and demonized by bourgeois politicians and the media, but the reality is they suffer from some of the most stressful working conditions and are paid less than 60% of what the average college educated worker earns. As a result, the OECD ranked the US 22nd out of 27 countries for its level of teacher compensation. In fact, nearly one-fifth of teachers are forced to work a part-time job on the side, which is nearly five times as frequent as other full-time workers.

Teachers on strike living wages
Poor wages, stressful working conditions, capitalism’s inability to deal with the COVID crisis, and racial inequality all played a role in the teacher’s strike. / Image: Chad Davis via Flickr

But this fight was over more than better pay and teaching conditions, it was also Minneapolis teachers’ response to the last two years.

Like every section of the working class, teachers were beaten down, overworked, and dragged through the pandemic. While the bosses were determined to keep their workers in the workplace, sacrificing their health and lives for the sake of profits, teachers became the scapegoat for capitalism’s inability to manage the crisis. First they were charged with improvising an unprecedented shift to remote learning. At a moment’s notice, and without adequate resources or support, they were expected to devise completely new methods of teaching.

Shut-downs and mask mandates were too late, insufficient, or ineffective for much of the pandemic. And despite the risks of contagion and the health threat to school staff, when capitalist politicians decided it was time to send students back to the classrooms, teachers were demonized for demanding precautions for a safe reopening. The media and politicians seized on the chance to blame teachers for the burdens of child care and the chaotic return to offline schooling.

On top of the health crisis, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police transformed the Twin Cities into ground zero for the 2020 mass movement against police terror. In a state with some of the worst indices of racial inequality in the country, the Black Lives Matter movement also produced a powerful push for Minneapolis educators to take a stand. So many of their students were out in the streets, directly experiencing police brutality and repression in the form of rubber bullets and tear gas.

Aside from the overt threat of police terror, the racism that pervades capitalism is evident in countless other aspects of life, from health and housing to education. A 2019 report by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank found that Minnesota ranked among the worst states in terms of educational achievement gaps for students—affecting students of color, but also, significantly, all low-income working-class students.

According to one analyst who released the report, “[there’s] a large disparity across socioeconomic status in addition to disparities across race and ethnicity It goes beyond just racial and ethnic groups—it’s a socioeconomic problem as well as a problem across different schools.”

Superintendent Ed Graff claimed lack of funds for teacher’s demands despite a $9.25 billion dollar state budget surplus. / Image: Minneapolis Public Schools

These issues point to the multi-layered problems facing young people and teachers alike. Even before 2020, a mental health epidemic was raging among the youth, with rising rates of depression and suicide among teens and young adults.

All of these broader social problems played a role in the recent strike, with teachers taking up demands for mental health support for students, including hiring counselors, social workers, and psychologists. This key demand was one of the victories of the recent strike—doubling the number of elementary schools with a school counselor, and ensuring at least one social worker for every school building in the district.

In light of the mass movement against racism—and the decades-long increase in school resegregation in Minneapolis—teachers also took up the demand for the recruitment and retention of more teachers of color. In response to this demand, the new contract offers layoff exemptions for teachers of color, and allows the union to conduct exit interviews for teachers leaving the district.

We agree with the sentiment of protecting teachers from discriminatory firing. But the way to fight discrimination is not through race-based exemptions from layoffs, which puts other teachers on the chopping block. Instead, the teachers should fight against all layoffs, and for union control of all hiring and firing as a direct way to fight discrimination and protect the livelihoods of all teachers. This class-struggle method of fighting racism rests on one of the oldest principles of the labor movement: an injury to one is an injury to all! Solidarity and class unity is the only way to seriously defend teachers of color, not liberal identity politics or anti-worker quotas.

This class-struggle principle holds true for all the other demands in the contract negotiations with the district. In the first week of the strike, Superintendent Ed Graff claimed there was no money to pay for the teachers’ demands, saying the budget was $166 million short. Meanwhile, the state of Minnesota has a $9.25 billion surplus that lawmakers refuse to spend on education, citing technicalities about falling enrollment.

This is an all-too-common argument for covering up the chaotic absurdity of an economy revolving around the accumulation of wealth for a tiny minority. Whether it’s framed as a budget issue in the public sector, or a fight over the surplus produced by workers in the private sector, all the wealth needed to improve living standards—including a quality education for every student—exists, only it’s out of reach. Schools are forced to jump through the hoops of enrollment targets and testing achievement requirements in order to “deserve” funding, while US military spending is increased by $12 billion at the drop of a hat.

Throughout the strike, comrades of the IMT joined the teachers on the picket line in support. / Image: Socialist Revolution

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Police Department had its budget raised by nearly $30 million this year, despite the historic mass movement against racist policing, and the City Council’s phony pledge to dissolve the MPD. Additionally, 16 Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in Minnesota as of 2019, with a combined annual revenue of $562.2 billion. The expropriation of just one of these companies could satisfy the teachers’ demands many times over—and a workers’ government on a socialist program would certainly not stop there!

Throughout the strike, comrades of the IMT joined the teachers on the picket line in support, discussing their demands, perspectives, and recalling the lessons of the last time Minneapolis teachers struck, in 1970. Just like today, class size caps were a central issue. Then, as today, there was also a strike wave in the US, including in Minneapolis. From 1967 to 1971, there was a doubling in the number of workers who participated in strikes nationwide. Teachers were striking everywhere across the country. Air Traffic controllers, bus drivers and truck drives either had sick outs or were on the picket line. Politically, the tensions of the class struggle, the mass battles of the Civil Rights movement, and the militant mobilizations against the Vietnam War provided the backdrop for the strike. The trial of the Chicago 8 and the shooting at Kent State were fresh in people’s minds.

Then, as now, the state was hostile to organized workers and anything that smelled of socialism. In the 1950s, the state legislature had passed a law making strikes illegal for public workers. By going on strike, the teachers were prepared to risk their jobs and their livelihoods for the sake of their students and to gain the wages they deserved. As a result of their 20-day struggle, teachers won a historic victory in the form of a new law allowing public workers the right to collectively bargain with the state, something that was unheard of at the time. The comrades who joined the pickets this time witnessed in the teachers this same tenacity and willingness to fight as their historical predecessors.

The 1970s and 80s saw one attack after another by the bosses against the working class. Union-organizing efforts were undermined, wages were cut, and benefits won in the militant battles of the 30s and 40s and the postwar years were rolled back. The lesson from history for the labor movement is clear: Capitalism may grant concessions as a result of hard-fought battles by workers, but as long as they remain in power, the bosses will try to claw them back at the first opportunity. What they give with the right hand, they take with the left.

As in previous periods, teachers today are sending waves through the labor movement. The Reagan era exposed the rot of class collaboration that had set in at the tops of the unions during the postwar decades. After having purged the unions of the militant socialists who had been the backbone of previous struggles, the labor movement entered a protracted period of defeats. But the workers would only tolerate this one-sided war for so long. The crisis of 2008, followed by the weakest recovery ever, eventually led to the reawakening of the slumbering giant of labor.

The West Virginia teachers sounded the battle cry in 2018 with a wildcat strike, which started to turn the tide and sparked the “Red for Ed” wave across the country. They showed the working class that the only illegal strike is a defeated one. By the end of 2018, the number of US workers involved in major work stoppages, including strikes and lockouts, was the highest since 1986.

Socialist Revolution stands in full solidarity with the teachers and their struggle for higher wages, smaller class sizes, and other demands for better conditions. But the need for solidarity extends beyond Minneapolis. Teachers in the Saint Paul district, as well as food service workers and public defenders, were also poised to go on strike around the same time, but reached a deal before joining the picket line, thereby weakening the leverage of the teachers across the Twin Cities.

As of this writing, teachers in Sacramento, California are on strike for better wages and healthcare, and the 47,000 grocery workers across the Golden State have also voted to authorize strike action. If teachers struck as one across the Twin Cities, across state lines, and across industry lines, the struggles would have gained power and the ability to attain even bolder demands in the face of rapid inflation. Laws like Taft-Hartley were put in place to prevent these sorts of solidarity strikes from happening—in effect disarming workers of the most powerful weapon they have: class solidarity and strength in numbers. From the experience of the 1970s teachers’ strike up to the recent battles of the Red for Ed wave, it’s clear that any law that holds back labor is a reactionary one. If we fight as one, we can win!

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