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Was holding the line enough for MFT?

Letter from a Minneapolis educator-activist

When Minneapolis teachers and educational support professionals (ESPs) stopped work on March 8, they hadn’t been on strike for more than fifty years. But they weren’t starting from scratch. They built on the starting point of the massive racial justice struggles that began in the city less than two years before, following the police murder of George Floyd.

By the time schools reopened on March 29, their union, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), had won some gains, including on racial justice demands. Educator-activist Dan Troccoli explains how they did it and how far there is to go.

Near the end of the second week of our 14-day strike, standing atop a concrete bench on Lake Street I watched a sea of blue hats, scarves, and hoods as educators from the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals swarmed intersections as far as the eye could see. That moment of music blasting, singing, dancing, and chanting will live on in the memories of MFT members and those of the rush-hour drivers who slowed and honked and got out of their cars to dance in the streets with us.

As we reveled in this joyful and passionate demonstration, I watched members looking into each other’s eyes and realizing something for the first time in their lives: true collective power. Our community was there with the union, physically and in spirit with the union. Being a socialist for my entire adult life, I’ve learned that unions have the tools we need to win what working people deserve. Strikes are powerful because they are the strongest collective tactic to wrest power from the wealthy. These actions are never complete wins, and our fight is ongoing. Socialists understand this struggle is constantly being waged between employers and employees, between those who have wealth and power and those who do not. And every contract negotiation is one small battle in that struggle for resources and control.

What did we win after three weeks on strike? First, contract language that exempts educators of color from layoffs. But since MPS is still firing educators of color at nearly 8 times the rate of white educators, we have much work left to do for just and equitable treatment of all. Our ESP’s (who are predominantly people of color) won 4–10 percent increases in pay depending on their job classification.

Social-emotional student supports meant new contractual caseload sizes for counselors, social workers, and psychologists. But not only are there significant loopholes in enforcing these new numbers, there are not enough people in the current job market to fill these crucial roles. We finally have class size caps in our contract. However, they are way too high and rather unenforceable.

The enduring success of these partial wins is that we re-oriented the balance of power in the school district.

If we are to continue to fight to win equitable learning and teaching conditions, we cannot ignore our members’ disappointment in not reaching all our goals, as well as take to heart lessons we learned. MFT underestimated how long MPS would try to starve us out, divide us, and how deeply they would undercut us in bargaining. This was a hugely important lesson for us, but now that the emperor has no clothes, we know we must maintain our resolve going forward.

We learned there are hugely powerful entities in our school district’s administration who do not want to see working people make demands through striking. Their huge donations to the Minneapolis Foundation and other astroturf education “reform” groups, is a vehicle to silence our collective voices. They’ve kept the emperor clothed for long enough, and MFT must bring their nefarious intentions to light.

We showed the city that it is the union, not the district bosses, fighting to meet our kids’ needs. The district ignores the fact that kids struggle in school because they struggle in life without access to health care or are food and housing insecure. Union educators will continue to fight for the individual attention kids need as a key step in addressing the effects of poverty, racism, and oppression. It takes resources to effectively address these systemic problems that MPS administrators pretend they can’t afford. MFT must center social and economic justice in all that we do from here on

How our union deals with internal problems is under new scrutiny, and for good reason. We must own up to our past for not seriously taking on fights around oppression. We made strides in our contract wins in this regard, but we have a long way to go for educators of color to live and breathe in a profession centered upon true justice. Our union must change in fundamental ways and we must start by bringing all voices and issues forward. Socialists see that leaning into our policy disagreements is part of repairing the harm of our union’s failures in not using more transparent and democratic internal practices, and space for open debates lays foundations for us to set goals as we collectively map our path forward.

“We must own up to our past for not seriously taking on fights around oppression. We made strides in our contract wins in this regard, but we have a long way to go.” Screen grab from MFT strike video, modified by Tempest.

A Union’s ability to win extended campaigns—including strikes—depends on the strength of its internal democracy, and its members’ understanding and consent about each step being taken. Nowhere has this been better illustrated than in Chicago, where the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU), under the leadership of the Movement of Rank and File Educators, has built a democratic organization and culture—and one subject to continuous strengthening by member participation and scrutiny. CTU has been able to lead a series of strikes, near-strikes, and de facto wildcat actions, between 2012 and 2022, based on a long-term vision of the needs of the public schools, its member-teachers, their students, and communities.

The spring before our strike, MFT launched the Contract Action Team and in the fall a Strike Preparedness Committees, both of which were member-run. When outside staff took over these groups were more or less disbanded into the strike captain structure. And those strong voices that got the strike off the ground were suddenly relegated to taking marching orders instead of being valuable sharers of information from the picket lines to negotiating teams and back to the picket lines. The lessons learned from this instance translate to much larger potential impacts if this kind of thing were to continue to occur.
Socialists understand that member-driven unions aren’t just necessary for avoiding blunders, like the school board member action that created some division amongst rank and file members, they are crucial for preparing working people to be ready for much bigger struggles, such as reorienting society to care for people, realizing economic justice, dismantling white supremacy and combating climate change.

Our unions are the key organizations able to democratize workplaces in every industry, but members need to feel ownership over the direction of their union if they are to invest their time to do the work. The MFT strike laid bare where we need to make our changes. We can start with member-run campaigns to address social issues like rent control, police brutality, health care rights, eco-justice and taxing the rich, to name just a few. To get serious about this, ‘bargaining for the common good’, we need to work so closely with members of the community that union members and community members begin to see little to no distinction between the interests and demands of either group.

In addition to looking internally, we cannot let up on building new forms of deep solidarity with other unions. MFT attempted this when we shortened our timeline to go on strike with SEIU, Nutrition Workers, and our neighboring district’s local union, the St. Paul Federation of Educators. This move undoubtedly inspired confidence among hesitant members, knowing we had potentially big numbers. We also saw solidarity in the many statements of support, substantial donations to our strike fund, and resolutions from unions across the country standing in support. Our fight is the same, after all, and people all over the country and the world saw that.

However, socialists and unionists need to own up to some internal debates related to creating change, such as supporting Democrats. Even with the best of the Democrats, like Ilhan Omar, who supported us during the strike, hoping that they will change things presupposes that our system is capable of substantial change in the first place. Socialists should recognize that capitalism, which inherently breeds systems of oppression and wanton destruction in pursuit of profit, is incapable of substantial change. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression are the lifeblood of maintaining a society of vast inequality, a system that—even when it’s creating the conditions for its own demise and threatening the health of the entire planet—is incapable of arresting those same systems and saving itself. Socialists of any stripe need to recognize the limits of the system’s ability to tolerate reforms, and thus the urgent need for a revolutionary system change. And in a district that paid attention to abolitionist teachings, educators are ready for system change, too.

Our strike continued the visible struggle for racial justice in our city. MFT built on our success from a mass, collective movement that brought a shred of justice for George Floyd, so publicly murdered by police. We built our muscle in the streets and stretched it further on the picket lines and rallying at the district office. Minneapolis is now known as a city where working people have stood up in unison to say to the district bosses, police departments, city council and the legislature: We will no longer be ignored. This is the nucleus of socialism. For this reason alone, our strike was a victory for the entire working class. Solidarity.

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Dan Troccoli View All

Dan Troccoli is a teacher at North High School and a union steward in the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. He was the Contract Action Team co-chair and served as a regional strike captain.