Analysis: Minneapolis Will Eventually End Its Teachers Strike, But Its Troubles Will Have Just Begun

Minneapolis school teachers strike in front of the Justice Page Middle school in Minneapolis on March 8. (Kerem Yucel/Getty Images)

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Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears most Wednesdays; see the full archive.

The Minneapolis teachers strike entered its second week with some apparent movement by the school district on union demands but no discernible end in sight. In time, a settlement will be reached. While teachers will likely receive much of what they want, the repercussions will be felt for years to come.

The union will get class size caps, at least at schools with the highest needs, and substantially higher pay for support employees, though not nearly at the levels desired by the union.

The biggest chasm is between what the union wants for teacher salaries and what the district is willing to pay. According to the district, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers’ proposal would raise salaries by 21 percent over two years, while the district is offering a 7.4 percent increase over the same period.

“Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) today presented counter proposals to Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) that school leaders and board members predict will steer the district toward long-term financial crisis,” reads an update on the district’s web site. “MPS faces a $59.5 million budget shortfall for fiscal year 2022-23. Due to one-time COVID-19 federal funding (ESSER), MPS is able to reduce the budget deficit to $21.5 million, which ultimately prolongs the deficit. Union proposals will worsen it.”

It’s clear from the union’s messaging that it wants average teacher pay to be on par with that of St. Paul Public Schools, which avoided its own strike with a last-minute settlement. The average Minneapolis teacher made $71,535 last year, and the average St. Paul teacher earned $85,457.

It’s understandable that the union wants to match its neighbor’s pay, but the district has its own messaging, which is that it’s tapped out. Its remedy for the budget shortfall should open the eyes of all Minnesotans.

Even if the union accepts the district’s offer, “we will have to make other drastic cuts unless the state provides additional funding in the next two years,” said school board treasurer Kimberly Caprini.

The union would probably welcome a state bailout as well, but it wants its demands met regardless of what the budgeters say.

“We can no longer have this middleman of HR and lawyers and data scientists in the way of making the decision,” said President Greta Callahan. “We’re really hopeful that today we’re going to see more intervention from the real decisionmakers, from elected leaders and the superintendent.”

Callahan sees the dispute as something larger than working conditions. “Our fight is against patriarchy, our fight is against capitalism, our fight is for the soul of our city,” she said at a rally at the Minnesota State Capitol.

However the strike is ultimately settled, it will have little to no effect on the school year. State law requires at least 165 days of instruction. Teachers are not risking lost wages while on the picket line. Strike days will be made up, and since teachers will presumably receive a raise in any settlement, they will receive more pay for those days than they would have had they not walked out.

Everyone will be relieved when teachers and support employees return to work, but problems will linger. School districts that make long-term commitments with short-term money inevitably find themselves in a budget hole. In an enterprise as labor-intensive as education, the ensuing cuts will fall most heavily on personnel. Oakland, California, endured a seven-day teacher strike in 2019 and has responded ever since with school closures and layoffs.

Union seniority rules ensure that the most recently hired are the first to be let go. This means that all the effort and expense to recruit teachers, particularly those of color, is wasted as they quickly become ex-teachers. Such a jolt can happen in any profession, but how will those discarded educators respond when the district and the union next sound the staff shortage alarm? Once bitten, twice shy.

Also, things will not improve if the district continues to hire staff without being realistic about enrollment. Adding employees while losing students has been a Minneapolis tradition for many years. The COVID pandemic exacerbated enrollment loss across the country. Districts can keep that up until they have one teacher, one bus driver and one cafeteria worker for every individual student, but they’ll have to make payroll with scrip, because they’ll be out of cash.

People reflect on these types of problems when strikes end, but their concerns are soon displaced by other issues. They forget that the problems of tomorrow are a consequence of today’s concessions. Minneapolis will eventually fade from the headlines, but its lessons won’t be learned. Sacramento, you’re up next.

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