Despite a windchill of minus 13 degrees, hundreds and hundreds of members of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and St. Paul Federation of Educators gathered at Wabun Picnic Area in Minneapolis Saturday, February 12 for a rally and a march across the Ford Bridge to St. Paul’s Hillcrest Regional Park.
Both unions had scheduled strike votes for the week ahead. They’re calling for better pay for teachers and paraprofessionals, lower class sizes, and more support for students, including more school counselors.
As teachers gathered in Wabun Picnic Area waiting for the rally to begin, they readily shared why they had turned out en masse for the event.
“I’ve been teaching 25 years and it keeps getting more and more challenging,” said Ray Lynch, Minneapolis. “I’ve taught in Minneapolis and St. Paul,” Lynch added, and currently teaches at St. Anthony Park Elementary School in St. Paul. For Lynch, class sizes are the paramount issue.
All bundled up for the cold, a group of teachers from Burroughs Community School in Minneapolis posed for a group photo. “We are fighting for safe schools and living wages — especially for our Education Support Professionals, who often need to have more than one job,” said Betsy May, Minneapolis, a first grade teacher at the K-5 school who has worked 29 years for the Minneapolis Public Schools.
“The time is now,” said Michael Templeton, Minneapolis, a second grade teacher at Burroughs who is in his 25th year teaching for the Minneapolis district. “I think the [strike] vote will pass.” He emphasized: “We’re here for the kids.”
The crowd kept growing at Wabun Picnic Area, with organizers reporting more than 1,000 people attending, and the rally began with remarks from Greta Callahan president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Leah VanDassor, president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators.
“We’re in the fight of our lives for our public schools… That’s why we’re taking a strike vote. Because we love our kids so much,” Callahan said. “It’s not just our fight. This is happening everywhere,” she noted.
As teachers in the two unions prepare for their strike votes, Callahan warned the crowd, they will be asked, “what about the kids?” She offered teachers what to say in response: “Exactly!”
The school districts’ current direction, she said, is harming kids.
To the teachers gathered in the cold, Callahan said, “you are being called upon to do whatever it takes for the schools our students deserve!”
“The time is now. We can’t wait any longer,” urged Leah VanDassor, president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators. To the Minneapolis and St. Paul school district’s two superintendents, she said, “we can make it easy for you, Ed and Joe… Put families and kids as number one!’
“We are here in strength and solidarity from both sides of the river… Our students and families are hurting,” said rally speaker Errol Edwards, a SPFE member and school counselor at Obama Elementary. “Our districts have given us no choice,” he said. “When the district wants to increase class sizes, what are we going to do?”
The crowd roared back: “Stand up, fight back!”
“Our children’s lives matter and we are the shepherds of those lives,” said rally speaker Marcia Howard, an English teacher at Roosevelt High in Minneapolis. “Don’t let anybody steer you away from what the fight actually is… If they say, ‘what about the kids,’ your answer had better be, “exactly!”
The crowd heard next from Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison: “You cannot deprive the teacher and not deprive the children,” he said. “You cannot deprive the paraprofessional and not deprive the children.”
“I am a proud alumnae of Edison High School,” Fifth District US Representative Ilhan Omar told the crowd. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without educators like Brenda Johnson.”
“If you care about the future of our communities, then you need to invest in the people who prepare the future generation,” Omar said. “To the Minneapolis teachers who have educated me and are educating my kids, I say, thank you!”
“As a former union member and a sibling and friend to union folks,” Omar said, “I say, I stand with you in solidarity! I say, when we organize, we win!”
Next, led by an antique 1945 fire truck, the crowd set out to march from Wabun Picnic Area across the Ford Bridge over the Mississippi River and then up Ford Parkway through the Highland Village shopping district.
Marching about 10 people across in the street, the line of marchers with their signs seemed to go on as far as the eye could see.
The march continued to Hillcrest Regional Park, where additional speakers addressed the crowd.
“With a $7 billion [state budget] surplus in St. Paul, our elected leaders need to know, instead of tax cuts for the rich, this time it’s different,” said Shaun Laden, president of the MFT Educational Support Professionals Chapter.
Ma-Riah Roberson-Moody, education support professional and first vice president of MFT’s ESP chapter, noted that many ESPs work two jobs and see one-half of their very modest paychecks going to health benefits. “Minneapolis Public Schools should be ashamed,” she said. “These poverty wages are not right.”
Roberson-Moody shared her own experience as a former student in the St. Paul Public Schools, saying the support from ESPs made a difference in her going on to graduate from St. Paul’s Central High.
“I want people to be proud of standing up and coming out here today,” Roberson-Moody said.
“We shouldn’t need to be here,” said Bernie Burnham, newly-elected president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO and former president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers. “Educators should be respected and paid well.”
“As I think about my colleagues in the legislature, we have work to do to fully-fund education,” said Minnesota State Senator Erin Murphy, St. Paul. “Our future rests on this fight!”
The rally concluded, with teachers heading back across the river on their own, and strike votes on both sides of the river coming up the week of February 14.
Members of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers will vote Monday, February 14 through Thursday, February 17.
Members of the St. Paul Federation of Educators will vote Thursday, February 17.
As teachers stacked up picket signs for future use before leaving Hillcrest Park, Kristen Melby, MFT member and teacher at Dowling School, told the Labor Review why she had turned out on such a cold day: “We need change. We need it now…”
Melby decried the Minneapolis school district’s unilateral decision-making, including returning to online schooling for two weeks in January with almost no advance notice. “We need to be and want to be a part of the conversation… The well-being of our kids in the buildings is impacted when educators are not a part of the process and aren’t part of coming up with the plans and how we allocate resources.”
“The district keeps doing the same thing — not including us in the decision making process,” Melby said. “This struggle is challenging that power dynamic…”