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St. Paul teachers union weighs first strike since 1946

In 1946, St. Paul teachers wanted equal pay and free textbooks for students. Now, they want a nurse in every school, manageable class sizes, and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes.

In 1946, St. Paul teachers wanted equal pay and free textbooks for students. Now, they want a nurse in every school, manageable class sizes, and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes. Minnesota Historical Society

Feeling that months-long contract negotiations have not been fruitful, the executive board of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) have authorized a strike vote for next Wednesday.

The union's 3,400-some members serve 65 locations in the St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) district, which has a total enrollment of 37,000 students.

St. Paul's teachers have not gone on strike since 1946, when union members walked off the job in pursuit of equal pay for men and women. Teachers also wanted district compensation for textbooks, which teachers and students had formerly been forced to purchase out of pocket.

That strike, which closed schools for more than a month, was the first organized teachers’ strike in the country.

This year, SPFT has been asking for a nurse in every city school (18 currently do not have one), smaller class sizes, and expanding restorative justice practices throughout the district. The district has not responded to these requests, but has offered a proposal of its own to extend teachers’ work day by an extra hour, which would be used for principal-directed meetings. The union says it's unclear what is supposed to happen in those meetings, or if principals even want to have them. Teachers would not be compensated for the extra hours.

The union and the district have also been at odds over finding new revenue streams to support the district, which has seen declining enrollment.

This winter SPFT launched a very public campaign asking for Minnesota’s large corporations, many of them founding sponsors of the Super Bowl Host Committee, to contribute more money to St. Paul schools. While corporations like Ecolab and US Bank have given millions to public education in the form of charitable donations and grants to individual teachers, they pay less than what they would pay in taxes were it not for Tax Increment Financing (TIF), money parked in offshore bank accounts, and other tax avoidance arrangements.

State funding for public education in Minnesota has fallen by nearly $1 billion since 2003.

So far, the district has wanted nothing to do with the union’s demonstrations, insisting that SPFT agree to sign up for the state’s Quality Compensation program, which provides alternative funding for districts that pay teachers based on performance. There’s currently no funding available for new schools under this program, but St. Paul Public Schools could join the tail end of a waiting list which is 22 districts long.

“Our members are incredibly disappointed that the school district has so far refused to work with us, but as educators, we remain committed to creating the schools Saint Paul children deserves,” said SPFT president Nick Faber.

If SPFT members vote on January 31 to strike, the union would issue a 10-day notice to the district. The union has not decided how long the strike could go on.

In response to the vote, the district has created a team to implement a contingency plan in the event of a strike. 

“Should an actual strike occur we will need to make difficult decisions and we know we will need to be prepared,” said superintendent Joe Gothard. “However, we remain confident that we will make progress during mediation. We also remain confident that we will continue to work together to avoid disrupting all of the great things that are happening in our schools.”