Teacher-Community Unionism: A Lesson from St. Paul

By The American Federation of Teachers

By Mary Cathryn Ricker, Executive Vice-President, American Federation of Teachers (AFT)

When I was elected president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) in 2005, I thought my own story might help transform the relationship between teachers and administrators as well as improve the image of teachers in the community. I was a veteran middle school English teacher, and I’d been honored for my work. And I had been active in the SPFT as a political and community volunteer as well as the union’s professional representative on local and state committees.

I had also spent enough time in my classroom and in the city to know—and be bothered by—the dominant story told about public school teachers and our union by the mass media, a number of Minnesota legislators, and in many local communities. On a local TV station’s evening news show, a Minnesota Republican state senator, Richard Day, had even declared, “We all know Minneapolis and St. Paul schools suck.” In too many conversations, I got accused of failure unless I quickly told people about the awards I had won for creating a model English/language arts classroom and running a program for my colleagues on how to improve writing in middle schools. If local citizens, especially parents, could learn about our talent, our dedication, and our ideas, I was convinced their perceptions would change

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Students in urban public schools deserve teachers who are both creative and optimistic. Additionally, spending many years of your career teaching in an urban setting can stimulate good ideas about how to improve that work.

In St. Paul, we knew we were doing wonderful things both inside and outside the schools. We applied for grants to teach middle school science to students alongside environmental and historical community activists while rebuilding the historic watershed on St. Paul’s East Side, a largely working-class neighborhood. We held public sessions where students read their essays and stories. We designed geography and history lessons about the immigration patterns of our city and our students. We lobbied our school board to maintain funding for peer mediation programs. We were thrilled to wake up every morning and share our love of these subjects with our students.

We also knew the value—and the potential—of our union. We were committed to achieving a high-quality, universal public school experience for every child. The members of the SPFT could be on the frontlines advocating that goal, and our contract could be the document that helped make it happen.

But first, we had to parry negative images about us. Administrators and politicians treated students and their families as the “consumers” of an educational system, whereas we saw them as partners in building better schools. That consumerist mentality framed us as nameless and faceless workers, instead of people who were forging relationships with children and their families. It’s no wonder that the notion of teachers as greedy and lazy had taken hold.

To dispel that falsehood, we had to forge an active bond with the people we served. St. Paul is a city of about 300,000 people. Over three-quarters of children in public schools belong to communities of color, and more than a third speak English as a new language. Over 70 percent of students in St. Paul qualify for a free or reduced-priced lunch. Only by talking, listening, and working with our students and their families could we change the pernicious perception of teachers and become the union we aspired to be.

The first step was quite simple: to talk to one another. In union meetings, we deliberately discussed why we became educators in the first place, what public schools meant to us, what unions meant to us, and what a decent contract would look like. We crafted A New Narrative for Teachers, Educators, and Public Education, which became our guiding document. Our narrative was anchored by five key themes: we are committed to building a good society; we believe in honoring the value of and cultivating each student’s potential; we believe that working in community is essential to student success; and we believe that educating students is a craft that requires talented and committed professionals. We are committed to working collectively as a powerful force for justice, change, and democracy.

We read from this document at the beginning of nearly every union meeting. We shared it with new teachers and asked them if this was the kind of union they wanted to join. We relied on it so much that the Narrative practically had a seat on our executive board. It was not unusual for a union leader to ask, in response to a question or during a debate: “What does the Narrative say we should do about this?”

One practice that clearly needed to change was how we negotiated our contracts. By Minnesota law, public-employee contract negotiations are open to the public; anyone can attend and observe the negotiations. Usually, a union team of five or six members sits across the table from administrators. But in 2009, we invited special education teachers to attend, and encouraged them to invite members of the families they served. In one session, we even had the traditional bargaining team get up and join the audience to allow special education teachers to advocate directly for themselves.

These actions were limited, but we learned a great deal from them. We learned not to assume that members were too busy to participate in negotiations. We also learned that families were interested in collaborating with their teachers and education assistants on issues that affected them all.

In 2011, we went into contract negotiations with a more developed plan to democratize the process. We encouraged anyone involved with the education of St. Paul children to attend. We managed to schedule negotiations on the same evening every week—Thursdays from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.—to help fit it into busy lives. The first session attracted just eight people, but the audience grew steadily after that. By the end of the nine-month-long process, nearly a hundred union members, parents, and others from the St. Paul community were showing up—and we had both parent and rank-and-file voices on our side of the table.

We focused on demands to improve the quality of our teaching. We want to expand a successful pilot program in which teachers helped one another. We wanted to require that any teacher who applied for a leadership position have a recent evaluation of their classroom performance on file. And we wanted to see that class sizes would not vary widely over time. We also wanted administrators to recognize Future Educators of St. Paul, our union’s program to encourage local high school students to become teachers, as a valid extracurricular activity.

Over time, we built trust within our ranks and with the residents of St. Paul who cared about and had a stake in the health of the public schools. The more we engaged them, the more they believed in our cause and our motives. One union member stood up at a negotiation meeting and said: “I came to prove that you guys weren’t doing your jobs at the table and that you were slacking off—selling us out—and what I learned was that you are fighting relentlessly for us.”

“Us” had become the rank-and-file members who no longer felt the negotiations were being conducted behind their backs. Now, local shop stewards were being treated as leaders in the process instead of just following orders. “Us” had become a neighborhood group that had been organizing independently but were now our partners. “Us” became parents who attended negotiations and shared their hopes and dreams for their children in our public schools at the bargaining table.

This post is an excerpt from a longer article in Dissent Magazine. Read the complete piece to learn more about the St. Paul Federation of Teachers' work and teacher-community unionism.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

Image by Chris Lott, via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)