The new St. Paul teacher contract agreement resulted from a process that began months before the two sides first sat down at the negotiating table. It’s perhaps the clearest example of teachers using the collective bargaining process to advance a wide-ranging, multi-faceted policy agenda.
While activism in education these days is most often about the testing-and-accountability reform movement (either for or against), the results in Saint Paul belong in a different category. It’s not as simple as a union digging in its heels, and we would be wrong to take that away as the primary message. Instead, there are a few different lessons to remember.
(Full disclosure: I spent a few months working for the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers as a researcher and organizer supporting their community engagement efforts.)
Lesson 1: Work with the Community
From the beginning, the teachers’ union knew it wanted contract negotiations to be about more than the conventional topics of wages, benefits, and conditions of employment. If they’d stuck to those topics, negotiations might have been quicker, but an opportunity would have been missed. Specifically, the contract discussions offered a chance to advocate for a range of community priorities without being ignored.
However, it’s not enough to pick an agenda and claim that the community supports it. The community has to be part of the agenda-setting process. In Saint Paul, this meant organizing discussion groups that brought together teachers, parents, and community leaders several times. The discussions were led by an outside facilitator, and the only union employee presence was me, taking notes and doing research to help inform the groups about topics of interest.
After discussing what the schools Saint Paul children deserve would look like and what the teachers in those schools would do, the discussion groups’ recommendations were evaluated by a larger community listening session. Finally, they were consolidated into a report, “The Schools Saint Paul Children Deserve.” The union brought specific proposals aligned with these goals to the first negotiating session, and they became a focal point of the process. The union also stayed in touch with the community, having conversations with hundreds of families in the months before the contract resolution.
This effort, begun long before the first session, was critical not just to building community support, but to ensuring that the union was authentically advocating for the community’s priorities.
Lesson 2: Organize
In addition to its community engagement effort, the union put significant energy into organizing its own members. This meant seeking their input on bargaining priorities, doing the work of making sure teachers would turn out in support of the final proposals, and building a strong Contract Action Team (CAT) with leaders in buildings throughout the district.
Union members are also community members, and when the union’s priorities reflect the community’s priorities, an organized membership helps create an organized community. Teachers knocked on hundreds of doors, distributed lawn signs, hosted neighborhood conversations about bargaining priorities, and collected thousands of signatures.
Lesson 3: After You’ve Done the First Two, Stand Firm
It was only after it had aligned its work with the community’s needs and organized its own members that the union was able to credibly stand its ground in support of its priorities. When it became clear that the district would have preferred a narrower range of topics, the union was able to prove the depth of support it had built. A petition to the school board gained thousands of signatures, teachers rallied with community members in a blizzard before school, and hundreds gathered in support of the union outside a school board meeting after the strike vote had been called.
This level of activity showed that the union’s engagement process was not a rhetorical exercise, but rather a reflection of concerns about which the community and teachers are deeply passionate. It was the long work of co-creating a positive agenda with the community and organizing its members that made the union’s firm stand possible and successful.
Lesson 4: Think Long Term
The agreement does not reflect everything the union was looking for, but there’s no question that the union made progress on all of its priorities. In doing so, it built on the achievements of past contracts, and it laid the foundation for future achievements. It showed not just a short-term concern about “getting the win,” but also a long-term perspective. The process of engagement and organizing the teachers used was an improvement on past work, and that process will continue to evolve and improve.
Honoring its commitment to an ongoing, wide-ranging effort that joins teachers’ voices with the community’s voices will help the union continue to play a major role in positively shaping the Saint Paul Public Schools for years to come. That commitment and that effort started before this negotiations process, and they will endure well after the final vote is cast approving the new contract.
There is much more that can and will be said about this year’s negotiations in Saint Paul. Unions and communities from all sectors and states can learn from it. Rallies and protests can get attention, but they matter most when they are joined to something larger and deeper. It is that bigger picture that we must remember when looking back on this campaign.