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St. Paul teachers await an approved contract, or a strike

A room full of people wearing red sit at tables looking at their laptops.
SPFE28's bargaining team in a contract mediation session. (Photo courtesy of SPFE28)

The Saint Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE28) has voted to strike on March 11 if it is not able to reach a contract agreement with Saint Paul Public Schools. 

Arts educator and SPFE representative Lolly Haas recently spoke at a panel on unions at the University of Minnesota. She says teachers need an agreement that reflects the post-COVID economy and the higher demands that come with increased classroom sizes and outdated building infrastructure.

“If you sit down and ask a teacher what they're fighting for. It ain't gonna be to become a millionaire. Teachers don't go into this field to be rich. I don't know who needs to hear that anymore,” said Haas. “Has anyone tried to teach 36 middle schoolers? 80% of our schools don't have air conditioning or even open windows. If we’re those mean awful teachers that are doing all these things just because we want a cushier job, I'm sorry, but where we work is also where your children go to school. Don't you want them to have a good school? The people who know what the schools need are the people who work in them.”

At a press conference earlier this week, SPPS Superintendent Joe Gothard said that the district faces a $107 million deficit, but despite that has invested $20 million in literacy and safety. 

"Our budget priorities have been based on the needs of our students, staff and families," he said. "We'll do whatever we can to settle this contract in a way that's fair for our taxpayers, constituents and certainly our students and families." 

A man pushes a cart filled with four stacks of strike signs, wrapped in clear plastic and bound together.
Strike signs (Photo courtesy of SPFE28)

Since September, Haas says SPFE has been negotiating for better wages, reduced health care costs, staffing to match classroom sizes, as well as the resources to establish better mental health and special needs support in schools.  She says union negotiators are working 14 hour shifts fighting for this; and that the union plans to strike as long as it takes to get a reasonable contract.

“We notice, especially every single time we go into negotiations, the district hires a PR person, and there is a hell of a spin that gets put on, oh, ‘we've got no money, oh, woe is us,'“ said Haas. “Looking at how many different things that we have negotiated so far, and not a single one of them had a dollar sign attached to it so far. What has settled has no money involved. So we've got to get that figured out in about a week and a half.” 

In the State of Minnesota, teacher union negotiations are required by law every two years. Haas says this is her fourth negotiation within the last 7 years. She says a 1% pay increase is not enough in today’s economy with the demands teachers have experienced since COVID. 

“We've got the Superintendent of the Year in Saint Paul, Joe Gotthard. That man makes six figures. He makes more than the governor of the state. He got a 6% pay increase in his last negotiations. Guess what else Saint Paul has? The Teacher of the Year. And they went and they had the gall to offer a $25 pay increase towards his health insurance, and a 1% [salary increase]. Let's talk about that. That's the reality of it”.

Haas says the union’s biggest hope is that it doesn’t take too long to have the nature of its essential work honored, as strikes result in major wage losses. Haas says she believes an agreement can be reached before the anticipated strike on March 11. In 2022, SPPS approved the contract just 27 minutes before the union was set to strike.

“Nobody wants to strike – nobody does. Strikes hurt, and that's why they're effective. But they're very challenging, and they’re scary. They affect a lot more than just the workers, and that's why they work,” said Haas. “But it's not the goal. The goal is to not strike. The goal is to avoid it. The goal is to have a fair contract, to have workers that are happy and able to do their jobs well. So when we have to strike, that is the breaking point where we have to walk off our jobs to make sure that we are getting our needs met.”

Teachers held an informational picket at the Carpenters Union in East Saint Paul on Friday.

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