Minneapolis teachers go on strike for increased pay, smaller class sizes

Strikers march on Lyndale Avenue N.

Tuesday, Mar. 8 was the first day of a city-wide strike by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59 (MFT), a union of about 4,000 educators and support staff employed by Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS).

Both Minneapolis and St Paul’s teachers’ federations voted to authorize a strike on Feb. 20. While the unions of both cities had been in mediation with their respective unions, only St. Paul’s School District reached a deal that averted a strike.

Minneapolis Public Schools have had over 120 hours of negotiations with MFT but were unable to forge a deal.

Individual picket lines formed at public schools throughout Minneapolis Tuesday morning. The picket lines converged at MPS’ Nutrition Services Department building on Plymouth Ave. N. at noon and marched to the district’s Student Placement Center on W. Broadway.

Jim Barnhill, a former member of the executive board of MFT who currently teaches at Bryn Mawr Elementary, was at the picket line at Henry High School Tuesday morning. Barnhill said the strike has been building for a long time.

“This is not something that happened out of the blue,” Barnhill said. “It may feel that way for some people, but the reality is this has been 20 to 30 years in the making. We have come to accept as just a fact of life or normalcy that schools are not going to be adequately funded.

“We’ve accepted that from the State, then we’ve accepted this narrative from the school district year after year that we don’t have enough, so we’re gonna have to make cuts. So the question is what are you going to cut?”

Barnhill said MFT is demanding “safe and stable schools” for students in Minneapolis. MFT is also demanding smaller class sizes, that schools be adequately staffed with mental health professionals (such as dedicated social workers and counselors) and that each school has an onsite clinic.

Barnhill also noted that many employees at local schools have to work a second job to make ends meet, and that part of MFT’s demands in negotiations with the district involved a raise for teachers and support staff.

MFT is asking for a starting raise of $35,000 for education support professionals—a $13,000 raise from their current starting salary.

“I want people to understand that this is not just about or even primarily about our wages,” Barnhill said. “It’s about the fact that this narrative [that the district is unable to fund MFT’s demands] has [gone] on for 20 years that has caused our city and our students to watch declining schools.”

Many students and community members joined MFT members on the picket lines. Goshoua Vang, a senior at Henry High School, was out supporting the strike. “My teachers impact my life a lot, and if this is impacting them, it impacts me.” Vang said. “I think it’s really important my teachers get fair wages and support for mental health and smaller class sizes.”

Another of MFT’s demands is to hire more teachers of color to make the demographics of the staff more representative of the students they serve. According to a fact sheet published by Minneapolis Public Schools in Sept. 2021, 66.75% of the MPS staff are White, 17.93% are Black, 6.4% are Hispanic or Latino American and 3.91% are Asian, while 37% of students are White; 34% are Black, 17% are Hispanic or Latino American and 5% are Asian.

Barnhill was unsure if the district would quickly accept MFT’s demands.

“I think the district themselves believe the narrative they sell us every year,” Barnhill said. “The narrative being that there’s not enough money for schools, so we have to accept it, you have to accept it. I don’t think they understand just how serious we are right here.

“What I’ve seen today both around Henry and Bryn Mawr and other places as I’ve driven here, is this incredible energy. People are willing to go without their paychecks until we get the schools that we need and the kids deserve.”

Kaytie Kamphoff, an English Teacher at Henry High School, also did not believe the district was unable to afford MFT’s demands. She expressed frustration that the district was unwilling to make the changes MFT was asking for when school staff has willingly made so many changes requested by the district since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[The district] is saying, ‘Oh, we can’t change the formula; we can’t do things differently,’” Kamphoff said. “Well, you know what we did for a year and a half? We taught online. I have colleagues that are in their 33rd year and struggled checking their emails. And then we asked them a few years from retirement to totally change their way of teaching, and they did it.”

MFT members plan to form picket lines each morning until their demands are met.

MPS did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Updated 3/12/2021: Corrected story to note that Jim Barnhill is not currently a member of the MFT59 executive board.