Public school teachers in Saint Paul, Minnesota have prioritized improving their students’ learning conditions above all else. So much so that they’ve used their bargaining sessions with the school district, where negotiations are traditionally limited to salary and working conditions, to demand the changes that parents and teachers know are needed for St. Paul children to receive the education they deserve.
Three years ago when their last contract was set to expire, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) made great strides in addressing the social injustices that prevent students from thriving. They laid out common good bargaining priorities, then mobilized teachers and parents to voice their support for these proposals. With strong community support, they won: an expansion to the preschool program, an increase in hiring for additional support staff, a reduction in standardized testing, reasonable and predictable class sizes, and less severe disciplinary measures for students, as former SPFT President Mary Cathryn Ricker recounts in Dissent Magazine.
Now, as St. Paul teachers bargain for a new contract, they are once again going to the mat for better schools and a more just society. In this excellent Twin Cities interview, current SPFT President and Vice President Denise Rodriguez and Nick Faber explain why it is imperative for teachers to raise these structural issues in contract bargaining and perhaps even go on strike to ensure that St. Paul children receive the quality education they deserve.
Q: You’re in contract negotiations with the district. Besides salary and working conditions, you have proposals on things like school integration, responsible banking and opting out of standardized tests. Why does the union choose to include these issues in contract negotiations?
Denise Rodriguez: As teachers, we’ve always been focused on the four walls of our classroom. But we’ve learned as a union that our contract is the most powerful and enforceable way we have to improve our students’ learning conditions. So for our last couple contract negotiations, we’ve stepped outside of traditional wages and benefits, things that are traditionally bargained for and negotiated in a contract.
If there’s something we can do in bargaining for the common good and we can help create more stability in our students’ families’ lives, we want to be able to use our contract to do that.
Q: Does that complicate things, hold things up?
Nick Faber: Actually, those are the proposals we’re making the most progress on.
Our members are always told that they can only control what’s in their classroom, that they can’t do anything about poverty that kids come into the building with. Our union is about empowering our members to make a difference in their students’ lives, and this is one way that we can.
Our members are saying, no, we don’t want to work for a district that does banking with a bank that’s going to foreclose on our kids’ homes during the school year. That’s wrong. Let’s find a bank that won’t do that.