On Tuesday, March 10, those in St. Paul with a careful eye noticed school-age children out and about, enjoying the spring sunshine. With all of the chaos caused by the current coronavirus pandemic, one could be mistaken for thinking schools had canceled as an early social distancing measure. The real reason schools shuttered that week, however, was because St. Paul teachers and other school staff went on strike — the city’s first since 1946.
2018 was famous for educators nationwide making courageous stands and going on strike, citing middling salaries that couldn’t keep up with cost of living, crumbling school infrastructure and no support for mental health professionals and nurses. These factors that motivated teachers two years ago were largely what motivated teachers in our own community last month. As contract negotiations dragged on, teachers, nurses and social workers requested more support for teachers as well as both a nurse and a mental health professional in every school building. The St. Paul school board refused to fulfill this request and the local teacher’s union, the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE), mobilized, threatening a strike if negotiations did not go their way. The school board held their ground.
Just a few days later, Bernie Sanders held a massive rally for his presidential campaign at the St. Paul RiverCentre. Surrounded by thousands of people, it was just my luck that I ended up right next to a middle school teacher. We made small talk, and I asked about the strike. Instantly, her demeanor changed. A mixture of defiance and desperation filled her voice as she explained to me the teachers’ demands and why they were willing to strike.
Later in the evening, Senator Sanders announced his support for the teachers. The uproar, both in the crowd and right next to me, was tremendous. The teacher I was standing next to lifted her SPFE beanie in the air and yelled raucously. Around the auditorium, I noticed several other people do the same. And the entire rally broke into a cheer for them, indicating their support for the needs of the educators.
Ten days later, when the strike was initiated on March 10, I and a sizable group of Mac students made our way to where the crowd of striking teachers and staff would march to the school board headquarters. Even with our small handmade cardboard signs, dozens of passing cars honked their horns as they passed us. People we had never seen before and would never see again stuck thumbs out of their car windows and whooped and hollered at our signs. We shouted back.
The crowd that marched downtown was unlike any I had ever seen. Thousands of teachers, staff, students and community members (a rumor spread among strikers that the crowd size was estimated to be in excess of 2,500 people) marched in tight quarters. Strikers beat drums and slung slogans to all who could hear. Red-framed signs were hoisted high and people in houses pressed themselves against the windows to watch the throngs of people march by.
In front of the school board headquarters, the union had a trailer parked, from the top of which the leadership of the SPFE rallied the strikers. On the fourth floor of the building, I saw people staring nervously at the mass of righteously indignant educators below.
Although it was just a start and largely a show of force, members of the crowd departed the strike in good spirits. The community seemed to be behind the teachers, and they resolved to picket outside of schools for as long as it would take to get the concessions from the school board that they demanded. It turned out that “as long as it would take” would only be two days. Late on Thursday, behind the backs of rank-and-file union members, SPFE leadership and the school board agreed to resume school in light of coronavirus-induced uncertainty. SPFE members won none of their demands. The next day, Governor Walz moved schools online, throwing teachers and staff into an entirely different realm of uncertainty. They were now entering a new world with none of the support they asked for, support that would greatly benefit them and their students during the current crisis.
Teachers have always needed more financial support. In 2018, the Economic Policy Institute indicated that teachers earn 18.7% less than workers of comparable merit and workload. Schools have always needed more mental health professionals, with the American Civil Liberties Union reporting that American schools have 2 to 3 times as many police officers present on campus than mental health officials. Now, teachers are learning how to navigate an educational landscape without any support at all. Students, many of which already face mental health crises without any meaningful support from their schools, face an even worse obstacle. The SPFE’s demands were perfect for this moment. And educational staff in St. Paul and indeed around the country are currently facing the specter of the coronavirus empty handed.
I come from a family of teachers. Perhaps I’m biased, but there is no braver profession than public education. Ours is a country that has systematically crushed public schools and depressed the salaries of teachers, nurses and social workers, and at the same time healthcare benefits have become less generous and cost of living has spiked nationwide. Public educators face a litany of challenges: weakened unions and hostile austerity, an oppressive standardized testing regime that turns teachers into near-meaningless cogs in a massive education-industrial complex and students facing the bleak landscape of mental illness with very little resources based in schools to help them. It isn’t a stretch to say, as many have said, that teachers are now serving as social workers, nurses, drivers or personal tutors, on top of their normal roles because of how starved public education is in this nation.
And that’s how things were before the coronavirus. Now teachers are being forced to adapt and learn from the ground up, with the same shitty salary and shitty funding that they had before. If anything, there will be further budget cuts and layoffs in the coming months and years due to the magnitude of this crisis. It’s not looking like a great time to be in public education.
So, join me in fighting for public educators. Wherever you are, get in contact with local teachers’ union organizers and stewards. Support strikers. Don’t break picket lines. Oppose standardized testing. When you grow older, send your kids to public schools. Approach private schools and charter schools with a healthy dose of skepticism and challenge those who uphold them over public schools. If you have the right to vote and view it as an acceptable strategy for change, vote for no candidate that isn’t 100 percent committed to public schools. Build power with educators and welcome them and their needs into your lives. Those in charge of our country value nothing but the austerity that has held public education back. That’s why we have to strive to create a future that values teachers even more than that.
Teachers have always fought for us. It’s only right that we return the favor and fight for them.