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MN2020 - Tuesday Talk: Can Union Bargaining Power Improve Communities?
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Tuesday Talk: Can Union Bargaining Power Improve Communities?

March 03, 2014 By Joe Sheeran, Communications Director

Something special is happening in Minnesota. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers’ recent contract negotiations helped pave new ground in combining community priorities and staff concerns to broadly advocate for better schools. Parents and students wanted smaller classes sizes, wider access to early childhood education, and fewer standardized tests. Instead of the typical fight over salary and benefits, teachers made the community’s issues their main bargaining priority in the contract negotiations.

How should organized labor use its collective bargaining power to build better communities?

What issues should be front and center in other bargaining fights?

Last night’s Tuesday Talk preview featured Saint Paul Federation of Teacher’s President Mary Cathryn Ricker discussing steps her union took heading into the negotiations and what others can learn from their process.

This morning, between 8 and 9:30, Tuesday Talk will explore how workers and communities can collaborate to solve broader societal problems through the power of collective bargaining. Moderating that part of the discussion will be MAPE’s Dan Holub, who was on the front lines when Scott Walker declared war on unions, and Elianne Farhat from PICO, a faith-based community organizing group.


Post your comments or questions in the box below, scroll down to see the ongoing conversation, and use "refresh" to see new comments.

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  • Joe says:

    March 3, 2014 at 7:50 pm

    Hope you had a good day. Mary Cathryn Ricker will join us shortly to talk about the teachers’ contract. In the meantime, please leave a question or comment.

  • Mary Cathryn Ricker says:

    March 3, 2014 at 7:59 pm

    Good evening!

    Thank you to Minnesota 20/20 for giving me the chance to talk about using the collective bargaining process to improve the community. I take the collective bargaining process very seriously. As a student of the labor movement, a current teacher union leader, and as someone with a vested interest in strengthening my community, I want the collective bargaining process to work for good. While I have worked with the member-leaders of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers to primarily focus on negotiating for a high-quality, universal, public school education for every student, I have been inspired by the collective bargaining processes of other unions to promote common, community-based interests as well. I’m looking forward to sharing some of our work, answering questions, and reading about other promising ideas tonight. Let’s get started.

  • Mary Cathryn Ricker says:

    March 3, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    One of the first things we did at the St. Paul Federation of Teachers before our 2011-13 contract expired was put together study groups, or book clubs, of SPFT members, parents, and community members in November 2012. These groups used the books Teaching 2030 (by the Center for Teaching Quality) and The Schools Our Children Deserve (By Alfie Kohn) as guiding texts to answer three, over-arching questions with our contract in mind:
    What are the schools St. Paul students deserve?
    Who are the teachers St. Paul students deserve?
    What is the profession those teachers deserve?
    They were invited and encouraged to bring in any newspaper articles, stories, or other materials to share with the groups as well, to keep the conversation lively and productive.
    Additionally, the groups held two listening sessions with additional parents, community members, and SPFT members. The feedback from all of these discussions, and all of that studying, turned into priorities that were presented to the SPFT Executive Board for adoption in April 2013 and became the contract proposals presented in May 2013.

  • Joe says:

    March 3, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    Walk us a little through the process, starting with using a community engagement process to formulate the priorities in the Schools St. Paul Children Deserve. How did that set up the rest of the contract process?

  • Joe says:

    March 3, 2014 at 8:12 pm

    What parts of your plan would be most easily adapted to other districts? What other types of unions could you see using this strategy?

  • Mary Cathryn Ricker says:

    March 3, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    I think it is important for any union doing this to think of those big, over-arching questions they want answered first. Then, to also determine the stakeholders they would like to bring together to help answer those questions. As an educator’s union, we wanted to keep our big questions focused on teaching and learning. We knew we wanted those who cared most about students to talk directly to each other. Different communities may have natural places to incubate these conversations. If there are community groups that your union is already active in, those would be great places to start the conversation, and work out from there.

    • Joe says:

      March 3, 2014 at 8:31 pm

      Not to take away from what happened in St. Paul, but was it helpful to have a district that wanted some of the same end goals, as opposed to negotiating with a management team opposed to some of your key priorities? What would be your advice to folks in that situation?

      • Mary Cathryn Ricker says:

        March 3, 2014 at 8:45 pm

        This is an excellent question, Joe. If definitely helped that we had shared values. If union members are in the position of negotiating with a management team that doesn’t clearly communicate shared values, or communicates opposing values, the union needs to both connect their work with the community-based values and work at the bargaining table to get to a shared understanding of common values.

        The community-based values work must be done within the community, of course. Begin by having those community conversations about work you want to accomplish together. Take a lot of time to listen.

        Additionally, take time at the bargaining table to identify anything that is a common starting point with the management team. If worker retention is important to both of you (even if it is for different reasons) then start there.

        • Bernice Vetsch says:

          March 4, 2014 at 9:55 am

          It helps also that the St. Paul electorate chose School Board members who shared the vision you put forth here and that voters heard during the time they were campaigning.

          And I believe that keeping the public informed of the ways in which workers in any field and the public in general benefit when workers organize for the common good.

          • Elianne Farhat says:

            March 4, 2014 at 10:07 am

            Yes! School Board elections are really important! I know a lot of community, parent and labor organizations work very hard to get voters engaged in that electoral process. Major decisions about the type and future of our public school systems get made by School Boards and everyone - students, educators, parents and administrators - have a vested interest in who is making those decisions and how they get made.

  • Mary Cathryn Ricker says:

    March 3, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    I was really inspired by the work other local unions have done to use their bargaining power to address community interests, like when SEIU, Local 26 focused on green cleaning or when the Minnesota Nurses Association focused on patient care. I learned a lot from those campaigns, those leaders, and the rank-and-file members whose voices were lifted up in those campaigns.

    Additionally, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers is a very historical union. Aside from being the 28th union to join the American Federation of Teachers, we were the first teacher’s union in the country to go on strike. In 1946, Local 28 (the women’s union, also joined by Local 43, the men’s union) went on the “Strike for Better Schools” to fight for priorities including: improved teaching and learning conditions (no more teaching in the boiler room), improved student support (shoes for students who didn’t have any), and improved teacher recruitment and retention. Studying this illegal strike, and the community benefits that were central priorities in it, affected me profoundly.

    These are good examples for any union: sometimes the inspiration is in your own community, and sometimes the inspiration (or “playbook,” if you will) is in your own history. Take some time and take the lead from those who inspire you.

  • Joe says:

    March 3, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    So what’s next for SPFT and the broader progressive education movement?

    • Mary Cathryn Ricker says:

      March 3, 2014 at 9:04 pm

      A lot of the work we started in tandem or in concert with our contract campaign is going to continue:
      Our work within the community to support comprehensive immigration reform is incredibly important to us.
      Our work to continue to work progressively and creatively to advocate for avenues for stable housing for all students and their families, including finding a way to keep families with school-aged children in their homes for the school year even when they are facing foreclosure, must continue.
      It is imperative to continue the work we have been doing to improve parent/family support and the family/teacher/school partnership. Or Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project is growing. We won the ability to pilot Parent/Teacher Academic Teams. We would like all parents to have paid time off to be involved in their child’s education.
      That also leads to our continuing equity work. We want school conferences to fit the dynamics of all families and unique school cultures. We want an emphasis on restorative justice, to incubate leaders and practitioners in very much the same way we’ve grown participation in our Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project; and we want Restitution Theory (and practice) to be shared so that we can work together with our students to keep more teaching and learning time and less disruption or misbehavior.
      We have important work to do to advocate for a living wage for all families and paid time off for all workers, because there is dignity in all work—not just high-paid work.
      We have a teacher development and evaluation draft to complete, field test, polish, and present to the SPFT community in time to make sure we are ready to go for the 2014-15 school year for all 3,000+ teachers.
      We want “more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures,” as Samuel Gompers said. For the St. Paul Federation of Teachers that includes all of the above, and more, alongside our neighbors for a better community. We want to be here for good.

  • Joe says:

    March 3, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    A special thanks to Mary Cathryn Ricker for joining us. The conversation will continue tomorrow morning at 8am.

  • Dan Holub says:

    March 4, 2014 at 8:54 am

    Dan Holub became Executive Director of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE) in January, 2013.  MAPE represents the 13,000 professional employees who work for the State of Minnesota across all agencies and MNSCU.  Prior to joining MAPE, Holub was a senior manager with the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), 2008-2013.  Holub has also worked as Director of The University of Iowa Labor Center, Business Manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 204, and as a public interest attorney with the Iowa Legal Services Corporation.

  • Dan Holub says:

    March 4, 2014 at 8:56 am

    It’s especially true in the public sector that issues in the workplace often overlap with important community issues.  For example, imagine the work of a pollution control scientist working to protect our drinking water from exposure to toxic pollutants.  This work is vitally important to our communities.  In this example, the collective bargaining process looks at ways to help that scientist do a better job at protecting our water.  This might include negotiating language that ensures that the scientist can speak freely (free from political influence) about her or his research findings.  It might include professional development that helps the scientists stay abreast of the latest research and technology.  Or it could even deal with staffing strategies that address critical needs of the scientist.  This is just one example of how the collective bargaining can result in positive changes for our communities.

    • Elianne Farhat says:

      March 4, 2014 at 9:05 am

      Good morning! I’m currently a Lead Organizer at PICO’s Center for Health Organizing. PICO National Network is the largest grassroots, faith-based organizing network in the United States. PICO works with 1,000 religious congregations in more than 200 cities and towns through its 60 local and state federations. Although I’m based in MN, I lead our coverage & care work across the country. Prior to joining PICO, I worked at the MN AFL-CIO as the Strategic Partnership Director. While there I focused my time building community-labor partnerships to advance issues important to working families.

      • Joe says:

        March 4, 2014 at 9:26 am

        Elianne, thanks for joining us. Talk about some of the partnerships that would be natural fits for unions and community organizations in Minnesota. What issues share common interests?

        • Elianne Farhat says:

          March 4, 2014 at 9:33 am

          The challenges facing our families, communities and nation are huge - historic income inequality, harmful & systemic race disparities, mass incarceration, broken immigration system, and on & on & on. It is clear that no one sector, group or individual can right these wrongs and that’s why it’s so important for community groups & labor organizations to partner to ensure everyone in America has the opportunity to prosper. One thing I try to keep in mind is that although labor is at historically low density right now - it is still one of the largest (if not *the* largest) membership organization working for progressive change. Community groups can’t create the change we want without labor allies, and, at the same time, the labor movement cannot realize its vision for a fair America without partnering with like-minded groups. Examples of issues to partner on are endless, some include minimum wage, paid sick days, fair hiring, transportation & transit, infrastructure, safe schools (i.e. anti-bullying), school funding, immigration reform, marriage equality, rights restoration, voting rights…

    • Joe says:

      March 4, 2014 at 9:15 am

      Dan, thanks for joining us. Elianne should be in the conversation in just a few minutes. Are there examples in MN or other states where public workers advocated for specific community-centered provisions in their contract?

      • Dan Holub says:

        March 4, 2014 at 9:26 am

        There are many.  Some make it into the media, but most do not.  From my own experience in Wisconsin with the Wisconsin Education Association, we were working on a number of such issues:  class size, teaching standards, opportunities for greater parent involvement in schools, protecting and improving the quality of school lunch programs, etc.  All that came to end, when Governor Walker essentially destroyed collective bargaining for educators in Wisconsin.

        • Joe says:

          March 4, 2014 at 9:30 am

          Not to veer to far off subject. What insight did you glean from the Walker experience? How has that helped you in Minnesota?

          • Dan Holub says:

            March 4, 2014 at 9:37 am

            I think the Walker experience taught me that organized labor must do even more to build relationships with our communities and to advance issues that benefit all working families (union and non-union).

  • cathy says:

    March 4, 2014 at 9:29 am

    Conservative groups are quick to criticize unions and stir up anti-union rhetoric. Non-union workers are quick to jump on their band wagon. I think that unions need to do more public education on the community benefits of unionization. For instance: Our local hospital is unionized. The wages are good. Area hospitals and nursing homes have to keep their wages in line with our hospital or they find it hard to keep help. A good union not only benefits its members, but also keeps the surrounding wages and benefits from stagnating.

    • Elianne Farhat says:

      March 4, 2014 at 9:40 am

      Hi Cathy - this is a great point! Countless studies and our own lived experiences prove that strong labor density (% union members in a given geography) improves the living, working and business conditions of the entire community. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” as they say. It can be really challenging to break through the rhetoric that intentionally aims to pit workers against each other - in my experience, it’s easier for people to be angry someone has something they don’t rather than to ask, “Why don’t I have that? And, why aren’t I fighting to get it?” I hope campaigns like SPFT’s and the minimum wage work begin to bring unions into the public conversation in a way that starts to break through.

  • Dan Holub says:

    March 4, 2014 at 9:31 am

    This hasn’t received a lot of attention, but it’s a good example of small issue that can make a difference for the public.  Most recently a group of MAPE members have been working on set of issues that affect military veterans.  As many know, Minnesota has a “veterans preference” law that gives veterans certain rights when they apply for a job with the state or other employers.  The law doesn’t guarantee veteran’s a job, but gives them preference when they are qualified for a position.  MAPE members found that the system wasn’t working as well as it could for our veterans.  The problem is that language used to describe “military experience” doesn’t translate into the language used in state position descriptions.  For example, a veteran might describe her or his “command” experience and a state position might ask for “supervisory” experience.  We brought this issue to the attention of state management and they agree that the system could work better for veterans.  So now, MAPE members and state management will be working together through a negotiated joint labor management committee to work to resolve the problem.  When we finish the work, veterans from across Minnesota will have more opportunities to work for the state.

  • Sara Gjerdrum says:

    March 4, 2014 at 9:42 am

    Thank you for the work that’s been done to pull together the community & teachers to improve our schools. How can parents best support these efforts, even when their work schedules & obligations dominate their time?

    • Joe says:

      March 4, 2014 at 9:51 am

      Sara, brings up a really good point. I saw this working with more direct action organizations earlier in my career. There are good people who want to help wright wrongs in their community or in their state as a whole, but just don’t have time. With technology, there are so many more opportunities to engage volunteers.  Dan, Elianne how do we better engage folks to get active?

    • Elianne Farhat says:

      March 4, 2014 at 9:51 am

      Hey Sara, the good folks at MN 2020 should definitely help you get in touch with your local teachers union and/or the statewide union - Education Minnesota. They can get you the most relevant and specific ways to get involved. But, in general, when your time to physically participate is limited, I’d think about the power of your words. Sending a note of encouragement and thanks to educators could go such a long way! Also, contacting your local school board members and elected officials to express your vision for a strong public schools system is important. And, it’s always great to see Letters to the Editor from parents published in local press that support the work teachers & community are doing together.

      • Elianne Farhat says:

        March 4, 2014 at 9:55 am

        Also, when I see a campaign or story about interesting work, one of my first steps is finding their online space - Facebook, Twitter, website, etc. See what sort of online actions they’re asking supporters to take, like their page, and sign up for updates!

      • Dan Holub says:

        March 4, 2014 at 9:59 am

        The National Education Association webpage has a variety of great resources for parents.  Type in “nea and parent partnership resources” in your search engine.  On that page you’ll find a link to NEA’s “Raise Your Hand” campaign which is promoting parent and educator partnerships to improve schools.

    • Dan Holub says:

      March 4, 2014 at 9:54 am

      I can’t speak for the work that’s being done in St. Paul, but in general I would suggest a few strategies.  First, parents should talk with their child’s teacher about how to work together to improve the school.  Even a ten minute phone call can make a difference.  Parents should also engage school administrators and school board members and ask tough questions - how exactly is school leadership working with parents and educators to improve the school.  This is place to start if time is limited.

  • Joe says:

    March 4, 2014 at 10:09 am

    The other piece that’s important to the larger movement to improve communities, schools, working conditions and wages for all is funding to wage these public campaigns. A lot of the private foundation money to do this good work is drying up, so it often falls to unions through dues to finance the efforts. Can you guys talk a little about this and how right to work legislation hampers these efforts?

    • Dan Holub says:

      March 4, 2014 at 10:14 am

      Right to work legislation restricts bargaining rights in a way that reduces the financial resources available to unions.  As this happens, unions are less able to support a wide array of efforts that advocate for working families and our communities.  The balance between “corporate interest” and “public interest” is already skewed towards corporate interests.  Right to work only worsens this problem.

      • Elianne Farhat says:

        March 4, 2014 at 10:29 am

        Also, there is work being done right now to better align foundation and labor giving. The AFL-CIO recent partnered with major foundations to establish the LIFT Fund that supports workers centers & alt-labor organizing. And, there’s a long-standing community-labor work group convened by the Neighborhood Funders Group that’s worth checking out. Overall, the labor movement, social change foundations and community organizations need to collaborate not just on issues, but on strategic & innovative ways to fund movement building.

    • Elianne Farhat says:

      March 4, 2014 at 10:23 am

      Yes, it takes real resources - time, people and money to run campaigns. To be honest, it actually takes a lot more, and is arguably more important, to be investing the time, people and money in building the infrastructure (e.g. organization, base of people/members, etc.) through which to run these campaigns. Running campaign to campaign will never create the systemic, lasting change we need. But, that’s maybe another Tuesday Talk… 

      But, as you mentioned in your question, a union’s money to spend on public campaigns - really all a union’s money - comes from each union member putting their fair share into a collective pot. That collective pot funds the operations and program of the union. RTW is a strategy of corporate special interests to make it so that fewer and fewer workers are contributing to that collective pot, but the operations & program demands remain the same. So, with less money, but the same legal responsibility to serve those who are paying their fair share and those who aren’t, additional money to support allies and community-oriented campaigns rapidly disappears.

  • tony says:

    March 4, 2014 at 10:19 am

    If St Paul is actually getting smaller classes, meaning paying for more teachers. What are the protections, that the union will be giving to the senior, more expensive & experienced teachers, so that the district wont do what it has been doing in the last couple of years. Which is making up excuses so they can fire the high salary teachers & then hiring new less qualified teachers at much lower salaries, to keep their budget from expanding??  So far I havent seen much protection for some of our very best??

    • Elianne Farhat says:

      March 4, 2014 at 10:37 am

      Hi Tony, I have a lot of confidence that fair labor standards around this issue are part of the negotiated agreement, but don’t know the details. I would definitely follow-up with SPFT for specific information. Thanks for bringing this up!

  • Elsa Leven says:

    March 4, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    It is my understanding the unfair practice to pay women less than men. For example, $1 is paid to a man and only .77 cents to women in education, administration, retail jobs etc. The percentage is an average of 23%, a difference in pay for women and men.

    What is the indication that the Minimum Wage increase would also—-add a clause—- that all educators, administrators, retail jobs, etc. workers would get an actual EQUAL pay?  Wuld women be paid 23% more than men ?  To equate the women’s pay to the same job description=same pay scale as men?

    Where in the Index of the Minimum Wage indicate equal pay? Do we have a collective bargaining power to build a better community starting with equal pay (men and women = same job description = same pay)?