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What would it take for Minneapolis teachers to go on strike?

West Virginia led a series of states in demanding better pay for teachers. Could it happen in Minneapolis?

West Virginia led a series of states in demanding better pay for teachers. Could it happen in Minneapolis? AP

Minneapolis teachers are trying to figure out a difficult math problem, among the most fundamental for a labor union: how hard it should be to go on strike?

The Minneapolis Federation of Teacher’s bylaws currently dictate a two-thirds majority -- just under 67 percent -- of the union's 3,500 vote to initiate a strike. Union leaders have been combing through their constitution, discussing what that number should be going forward. For a while, they were looking at rounding up to 70 percent. Now, according to education specialist chapter president Shaun Laden, they’re considering lowering it to 60 percent.

It may sound like quibbling. But a lot rests on this number.

If they were to vote to strike, Laden says, they have to make sure the union really, really wants to. Otherwise, some members will simply go back to work. There will be infighting amongst teachers. They have to make sure they have a movement – not a grievance. (Michelle Wiese, president of the teachers' chapter of the union, repeatedly declined requests for comment.)

In April, the Federation voted to approve a new contract that runs through next summer. At the time, Wiese championed a contract that avoided "takebacks," but lamented the dismal pay hikes: teachers had come to the table asking for 5 percent raises, and settled for a formula that will amount to between 0.5 percent and 2 percent, depending on experience level.

Teachers "aren't very happy" with the deal, union steward Billy Menz told the Star Tribune, adding: "A 0.5 percent raise is not really a raise." Yet, 77 percent of them voted for the contract, which was negotiated under the pressure of a $38 million budget shortfall.

The strike-or-don't-strike question is especially relevant now. Over the course of the year, the nation has been experiencing a kind of “teacher’s spring,” with educators leading statewide strikes to demand better pay. The series of uprisings started all started in February, in West Virginia, where teachers and staff initiated the first walkouts since the 1990s. Schools remained shuttered for two weeks until Governor James Justice signed a bill to give teachers and other state employees a 5-percent pay increase.

The movement spread to Kentucky, then Oklahoma, then Arizona. In April, Colorado became the first blue state to join the ranks. All of them have managed to secure more money for teachers and schools.

Part of the movement is driven by the recession. According to the National Education Association, average teacher salary decreased 4 percent between 2008 and 2018, adjusted for inflation, mostly as a belt-tightening measure driven by state governments. But now that the economy is bouncing back, many schools haven’t bounced back with it.

Twenty-nine states had even less funding per student in 2015 than they had back in 2008, including Oklahoma and Arizona. Some states increased funding during that time period (West Virginia by about 4 percent; Colorado by 3 percent), and that list includes Minnesota – but only by about 1.5 percent.

Not all of the movement can be blamed on the recession. The average American teacher makes about 60 percent less than other professionals with roughly the same level of education. Minnesota schools, Laden says, suffer from “chronic underfunding.”

Minnesota may not be as dire straits as Arizona or Oklahoma, but the question remains: how much would it take to make the state’s teachers say “enough?”

The short answer, Director of Labor Education at the University of Minnesota Monica Bielski Boris says, is “a lot.”

“Strikes only happen a fraction of the time,” she says. Labor unions -- especially those in education -- will usually use every negotiation tool they have before they resort to a walkout. Strikes may be an effective way to send a message, but they’re difficult to start and even harder to maintain.

“Not only are they not going into work and not getting paid, they’re worried about their students,” she says. The last thing any decent educator wants is to leave their kids in the lurch.

The reason teachers from other states took to the streets is because every other measure had been exhausted. They’d gotten to a point, Bielski Boris says, where there was “no hope for agreement.”

Then again, as inflation and cost of living continue to rise in Minnesota, and salaries fall further and further behind the pace, it may someday soon be easier to imagine six- or seven-in-ten union members taking drastic action.