The announcement came in an email at 3:15 a.m. on March 10: The St. Paul Federation of Educators was going on strike. It was the first strike the union had called for since 1946.
By around seven, the time when they would normally be starting class, public school teachers began marching across St. Paul. Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, was among them, standing in solidarity with the striking educators, who gathered for a rally outside the city’s public schools headquarters.
“You are what democracy looks like, St. Paul!” Eskelsen Garcia shouted into a bullhorn, with the sun climbing behind her, adding that she was proud of the educators for “fighting for the schools students deserve.”
“Teachers are already paying for classroom supplies on their own, and now they should pay for translation services and counselors, too?”
The St. Paul Federation of Educators strike is the latest iteration of Red for Ed, a teacher-led movement that demands a greater investment in public schools while raising teachers’ wages and benefits. Red for Ed began in 2018, when thousands of teachers in West Virginia staged a ten-day walkout for higher pay. Though most strikes have occurred in Republican-controlled states like Arizona and Indiana, Red for Ed has also spread to more liberal regions, such as California, Colorado, and now Minnesota.
Red for Ed has not only been defined by teachers protesting their appallingly tiny paychecks—as they did in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and elsewhere—but also their students’ living and learning situations.
“We did not know then that this was going to be a movement,” Eskelsen Garcia said at the rally.
Striking teachers, along with those engaged in unauthorized, wildcat actions, Eskelsen Garcia continued, are angry that “kids are being shortchanged.”
With an increase in budget cuts across the country, the needs of public school students are going unmet, while hunger, homelessness, and mental health concerns are on the rise, according to Eskelsen Garcia.
Nick Faber, the president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, says the union is pushing for a range of additional resources, particularly for students who require English language or special education services.
The union represents more than 3,500 teachers and support staff, and has been embroiled in contract talks with administrators since last May. Rather than limit their negotiations to salary and benefits, the dispute in St. Paul has centered on addressing these broader student concerns.
On March 10, Faber stood alongside the picket line as chants of “Students! They Matter Here” and “Get up, Get down/Educators run this town!” rang out in the crisp, early spring air.
For the last decade, Faber noted, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers has focused on improving students’ experiences while at school, from pushing for restorative justice practices to implementing a parent-teacher home visit program. That program, which Faber led, has been shown to “break down implicit bias,” he argued.
These student-centered reforms are the substance behind the union’s resistance to the school district’s bargaining priorities, which reportedly included a last-minute offer to provide more funding for the classroom-based support the union wants—but only if the money to do so would come out of teachers’ paychecks.
Eskelsen Garcia scoffed at the offer. “Teachers are already paying for classroom supplies on their own,” she said, “and now they should pay for translation services and counselors, too?”
On March 9, the superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools, Dr. Joe Gothard, attempted to stave off a strike by proposing binding arbitration. When the union rejected Gothard’s proposal, district officials said there is simply not enough money in their budget to meet the union’s demands.
Gothard said in a statement that his aim was to provide factual information, rather than inflammatory talking points. He added that, essentially, his hands are tied, as the district is being impacted by larger factors such as declining enrollment and inadequate state-level funding.
These compounding issues are not lost on Ellen Olsen, a union member who works as a sign language interpreter in St. Paul, for students between eighteen and twenty-one years old. Olsen, whom I met at the picket line, insisted that she and her colleagues need more resources to properly serve their students.
In 2019, Minnesota’s teachers spent an average of $373 of their own money on classroom supplies, around seventy-five dollars less than the national average.
“People from the district’s central office need to come into our classrooms to see the level of need and understand what we are asking for,” Olsen said. She highlighted how a security guard at her school was asked to provide translation services because he was fluent in Somali—despite the fact he was not trained, and never received compensation for the extra labor.
With more than 37,000 students, St. Paul Public Schools is Minnesota’s second-largest district. St. Paul, where students speak more than 125 native languages, is also one of the most linguistically and racially diverse districts in the state. According to district statistics, around seventy percent of the city’s students are eligible for free lunch programs.
Negotiations stalled on March 10, and schools have since remained closed. Though a mediation date has yet to be set, the district said it will not be paying teachers during the strike. And that, if the walkout continues into April, it will suspend their benefits as well.
The St. Paul Federation of Educators has not called for a strike since 1946, when teachers walked out to demand better pay and smaller class sizes.
One of the issues strikers rallied around seventy-four years ago sounds eerily familiar to the present. Back then, teachers in St. Paul often had to buy textbooks for students who couldn’t afford them. In 2019, Minnesota’s teachers spent an average of $373 of their own money on classroom supplies, around seventy-five dollars less than the national average.
Now, as teachers are asked to sacrifice an increasing share of their time and money to compensate for budget shortfalls, St. Paul’s educators are standing up for a vision of public school that’s worth striking for.