When Joe Cerar was in eighth grade, the teachers in his school district went on strike and he saw first-hand the values of unions.
“My dad (a teacher in Eveleth) was the lead negotiator during the strike,” he said. “No one crossed the picket line—not garbage workers, no one. They couldn’t even get enough scabs, who were paid $150 a day, because no one was going to cross the picket line.”
Cerar took that lesson, as well as what he learned from his mom— who was also an educator and union leader—and has been an active union member and leader for his entire 29-year career.
That legacy is why Cerar is the 2020 Education Minnesota Peterson-Schaubach Outstanding Leadership Award winner. This award is the union’s highest honor.
“Rich with history, quick with a story, or an amusing quip, Joe Cerar leads by example, doing the work required of a leader, engaging multiple perspectives, and facilitating change,” said Matt Wilmes, who leads the Hiawatha Valley Teachers United intermediate organization with Cerar and nominated him. “He is an accomplished and exemplary leader, worthy of standing among the other recipients of Peterson-Schaubach Outstanding Leadership Award.”
Cerar spent the few years of his teaching career in northern Minnesota, but then came to Plainview-Elgin-Millville, where he has remained for 25 years.
“I wanted to get involved, so I started going to HVTU meetings,” Cerar said. “And you know what happens when a young teacher starts showing an interest in being active, I was approached to take one some roles.”
Cerar has served both as president and vice president of Education Minnesota-Plainview-Elgin-Millville, and has also served as negotiator and chief negotiator. He currently serves as president of HVTU.
“He’s always looking to expand the reach of our organization,” Wilmes said of Cerar’s HVTU leadership. “We have seen a growth in education support professional members, because Joe really made sure we elevated the voices of ESPs. He includes unaffiliated locals in our area so they can see the benefits of being in an IO. He always tries to find a way to include people.”
He also knows the connection to the larger labor movement.
“Our IO was the first to fully affiliate with our Area Labor Council,” Cerar said. “We worked really hard to make those connections at the regional level and then at the state level. As the biggest union in the state, we need to play a role and support them and they support us.”
Cerar sits on the Minnesota AFL-CIO board and is a delegate to the Southeast Minnesota Area Labor Council.
At the local level, Cerar says it’s been important for the union to be seen as a leader and advocate and work together with administration.
“It’s so much better when we’re working together,” he said. “We don’t always see eye-to-eye, but we have trust and that’s important.”
Thankfully, Cerar’s current superintendent knows that value, too.
“I was the vice president of the teachers’ union when I taught,” said Superintendent Bill Ihrke. “Joe and I were peer teachers together. We negotiated contracts together when I was a teacher. Now I’m on the other side. In our district, the administration and union feels like a partnership. Joe’s a big reason why that is.”
Cerar has also been very active in Education Minnesota and the National Education Association, serving on the state governing board and as a NEA Director. He also has sat on the state Council of Local Presidents and the Political Action Committee.
This kind of involvement is the reason Wilmes said he nominated Cerar for this award.
“He has lived and breathed Education Minnesota for a long time,” Wilmes said. “As our organization shifts and grows, we need to listen to the voice of history and know where we came from to inform the direction we need to go.”