It Ain’t About the Money

Could This Year’s Twin Cities Teacher Contract Talks Have More to Do With the Unions’ Survival Than With Steps and Lanes?


Have you read the sundry proposals and counterproposals on the table in the noisy and contentious teacher contract negotiations underway in Minneapolis and St. Paul? I have, and there are some doozies in there.

Like a Minneapolis Federation of Teachers proposal to require the district to ascertain whether anything it buys – carpeting, toilet paper, light bulbs – contains any element produced by a company with a relationship to the Koch brothers.

I mean, I don’t like the Koch brothers either, but this strikes me as absurd. Even if it didn’t run counter to laws and policies requiring competitive bids, how would Minneapolis Public Schools implement it? And how much, in a year where there’s a $33 million deficit, would it cost to start screening products to find out who produced their various components?

I mean, some of the items on the list attached to the proposals are enzymes.

I’m going to scooch out on a skinny, skinny limb here for a second and venture that the ugly name-calling, the pie-in-the-sky demands and the political theater aren’t about the money.

There isn’t any. Whether there should be is a political question rightly to be debated, but the reality is the districts don’t have it to give. Both have labor-friendly boards – not to mention board members who work for local unions or did before their elections — that presumably would love nothing more than to float all boats.

And in recent years, with the assent of those boards, both federations have gotten large salary increases above the automatic steps and lanes raises at the heart of their contracts. Half of teachers in St. Paul make more than $75,000 a year, which is significantly above the state’s median income of $63,000.

So how did this get so overheated, and why this year, with conventional superintendents who are not seeking anything particularly bold or controversial? I’d wager much of what we’re seeing is a response to an existential threat few union members are even aware of, much less the public.

On February 26, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Janus vs. AFSCME, in which an Illinois child welfare worker has argued that agency fees, the fees unions charge non-members for collective bargaining, violate his constitutional right to free speech.

It’s the second case in as many years in which public sector employees object to being made to pay fees that, directly or indirectly, support political candidates or efforts they don’t favor. The first case, Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, stalled when Justice Antonin Scalia died.

Janus is expected to win. Estimates of the immediate drop in teacher union membership ranges from 20 percent to 40 percent, depending on bargaining unit.

That’s punch number one. Number two: Members are disengaged, according to an array of surveys. Educators for Excellence – a policy-oriented group, it must be noted — polled its members in the run-up to Friedrichs and found just 17 percent knew of the case.

Closer to home, Education Minnesota reported that 33,000 of the state’s educators did not vote in the 2014 mid-terms. The union’s statewide membership is 85,000.

At the national level, one in five American Federation of Teachers members voted for Trump, as did one in three members of the National Education Association.

Disengagement begets a drop in membership, which translates into a lack of political might. Like I said, an existential threat.

There are a number of proposals on the table that are geared toward ensuring the federations’ ability to survive a loss in Janus. In Minneapolis, for instance, there are proposals that would give the union notice when new potential bargaining unit members are hired, as well as a long list of personal details, including cell phone numbers, addresses and the like.

The MFT has asked for the right to use the district’s staff email lists and snail mail systems, to have tables at events, to be present in schools during the day, for the district to continue to pay staff “released” to work on union issues.

Education Minnesota has asked its locals and affiliates to have members agree to membership terms that would require anyone who wants to leave to opt out in writing during a seven-day period each fall and pay a year’s dues anyhow – a clause that’s waaaay down in the fine print of the membership form.

(They’ve also asked – and this merits a standalone dissection soon – for both districts to agree not to hire teachers with tier one or tier two licenses in any school where more than 70 percent of students are impoverished or as teachers on special assignment. This would virtually entirely block the hiring of graduates of color from Grow Your Own programs, of recent arrivals from other states, of Teach for America corps members and so on.)

The other set of telling demands, like the Koch brothers resolution, are ideological. The St. Paul federation is running ads on Facebook suggesting that Twin Cities businesses are hiding money overseas in order to keep it from kids. They singled out Ecolab, which maybe now is feeling a little ill-appreciated for the $3.6 million it provided the district over the last five years.

The Minneapolis union demanded that the district stop making payments not required by state law to charter and “voucher schools.” Never mind that the district doesn’t make any such payment to public charter schools.

Oh and by the way, voucher schools is a term of art, not an actual thing.

There are proposals regarding the unionizing of teachers in non-district schools that buy mothballed district buildings, a demand that the district distribute forms to families suggesting they opt out of annual assessments, that teachers be allowed to decline to administer the tests and that the district agree to pay non-union employees $15 an hour.

Some of these proposals violate federal labor laws. Some probably violate state and federal education laws. But if my hypothesis is at all correct, none of that matters because at the highest levels there is no expectation that those items actually go into the contract.

No, this second category of provisions seems designed to rally the troops. To convince a disaffected membership that they need union protection. The irony being that there’s no shortage of levels on which that membership really does need protection – from lousy administrators, arbitrary dictates from a central office that’s desperate to stay in business, from micro-managing board members and so on.

I’m left wondering about the disaffection, both political and within the union. How did so many members lose interest? Why doesn’t the union feel relevant or vital to them? What about that disconnect between the union’s politics and those of an increasing number of its members? How come so few know Janus looms?

And most fundamentally, why rally the troops with boogeymen when we desperately need teacher leadership if we are to create the schools our children desperately need?


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