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St. Paul Public Schools threatens layoffs if strike continues

Leadership at the teaching assistants' union are calling it an attempt to coerce the teachers into settling. Others are calling it a "dick move."

Leadership at the teaching assistants' union are calling it an attempt to coerce the teachers into settling. Others are calling it a "dick move." St. Paul Federation of Educators, Twitter

Classes at St. Paul Public Schools were canceled for Thursday as teachers prepared to strike for a third straight day. This is the district's first strike of its kind since 1946.

In negotiations with the district, teachers have pushed for more resources, including mental health staff, interpreters, nurses, and other support professionals. They also want wage increases for themselves, and for the district and the union to work together lobbying the state for education funding.

The district isn’t budging. According to the Star Tribune, negotiations broke off around 3 a.m. on Tuesday after six long days of mediation, and they haven’t resumed since.

If anything, relations appear to be getting worse. On Tuesday, Workday Minnesota obtained a letter from the district to its teaching assistants, who are represented by a different union: Teamster Local 320. It didn’t mince words.

“I am writing to inform you that as a result of the current strike of St. Paul Federation of Educators you will be placed on layoff status. The purpose of this communication is to notify you that should the strike continue, your last day of employment will be March 23rd, 2020. Pursuant to the layoff conditions set forth in the 2016-2019 agreement between St. Paul Public School and Teaching Assistants, Article 14.1, this is the official notice of your layoff, which will be effective March 24, 2020. This letter may be used for purposes of applying for unemployment compensation benefits. Unemployment compensation information is available at http://www.uimn.org or 651-296-3644.”

Local 320 officer Brian Aldes says the sudden layoff doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Teaching assistants have “plenty of work” to do around the district, from working with students who have special needs to making sure kids are safe when they ride the bus. And, since many of them work part-time, lower-wage jobs, getting let go would be “an extraordinary hardship.”

“To be honest with you, I think it’s the district’s way to apply pressure on the teacher’s union to settle,” he says.

He isn’t alone. Workday called the district’s decision “an apparent attempt to pit workers against workers.” 

The district declined to comment, but the layoffs were covered in a press conference Wednesday afternoon. District Spokesperson Kevin Burns says layoff notices were sent out Tuesday to about 2,000 employees who were not a part of the teachers' union, but they were not—and won't be—concentrated on just the teaching assistants.

"Revenue is directly tied to employment, and completing a full school year.... Layoffs, at this point, may become necessary to protect the district from loss of revenue," Human Resources Director Kenyatta McCarty said. Notices had been sent out to "all potentially affected employees" as a precaution against a "prolonged strike." The hope, she said, is further negotiation would preclude that from happening. 

Local 320 told Workday in a statement its union stood “in solidarity” with the striking teachers, and that its members were picketing before and after work, and on their unpaid breaks. Aldes says they’ll support out-of-work assistants however they can, including helping them find other work.

But they’re really hoping it doesn’t come to that—for their sake, and the district’s. Aldes thinks if the assistants are let go, many will choose not to come back.