“Who are we? SPFE” was heard across the entire city of Saint Paul during a three-day span in March 2020.

The members of the Saint Paul Federation of Educators, which include licensed and non-licensed staff, went on strike March 10-12, 2020 after nine months of contract negotiations. Education Minnesota is honoring their work and dedication with the union’s 2021 We Are One Solidarity Award.

“Our bargaining survey went out to folks and we really saw, this last year especially, some key issues and folks really felt strongly about them. We expected that we were going to have to work harder to get them, right from the start,” said SPFE President Nick Faber. “We didn’t necessarily think that we were going to go out on strike, but we knew it was going to be an uphill battle and that are members were ready to take that on. And that’s pretty exciting as a bargaining team to know that you’ve got that effort and commitment behind you.”

SPFE President Nick Faber led the crowd during a rally after their first day on the strike lines.

During negotiations, the union’s top priorities were:

More mental health supports in schools, including more social workers, counselors, psychologists, school nurses and behavior intervention specialists.

More multilingual staff to help our students and families who need interpreters.

Additional educators working with students with special needs and appropriate assignments for educators so they can give students more one-on-one attention.

Expanding restorative practices to build community and a positive climate in schools.

In the end, the union’s agreement included more staffing in the areas they had wanted, expanded restorative practices and prep time for interpreters.

“We stopped talking about what we deserve and we started talking about the schools our students deserve,” said Erica Schatzlein, a member of the bargaining team. “There is almost no issue we care about more than our students’ well-being. When we were talking about the mental health of our students, who weren’t being able to show us all they could do in our classroom, our membership couldn’t stand by anymore and watch those needs being unmet. They were willing to take it to whatever it takes, which this time it meant shutting down downtown St. Paul and our school system for three days.”

SPFE leaders know there was potential for more, but the then-new COVID-19 pandemic meant that their members needed to be back in buildings before they were closed by the district and they lost any leverage.

But in the year since, the unity built during the strike has meant SPFE members were ready to fight for what their students and themselves needed during the pandemic.

“We left that bargaining table and immediately told the district and said we demand to bargain over the changes to work conditions due to COVID,” said Faber. “We took the trust and the energy from our members and said, we’re not going to take a break. We’re going to continue to fight.”

“One thing that has come from our strike is our members know we don’t just have to take things,” said Schatzlein. “When members started having safety concerns over schools reopening and what was going to happen and how they and our kids were going to be protected, they were asking, ‘what are we going to do about it?’”

The solidarity shown during the 2020 strike didn’t happen overnight.

“It wasn’t even something that happened in the last bargaining round. It started years ago when we started letting our district know we were serious about things,” said Leah VanDassor, SPFE vice president. “We did an informational picket, and that was enough. Then we scheduled a strike vote and that was enough. The next time we came within a day of striking. We ramped up our membership. They were ready for it, more and more ready for it each time.”

Members were ready for the strike, saying enough is enough, said Sylvia Perez, who was director of non-licensed personnel during the strike.

“Our members just got tired of playing ping pong. All this time and effort and we just got tired,” she said. “(The district leaders) are not the ones in the schools, in the classrooms, we are. Finally we said, enough is enough.”

This round of bargaining marked the first where all three SPFE units were on the same team, fighting together.

“It was powerful to see teachers and ESPs together, in unity. We all were fighting for each other,” said Yasmin Muridi, an ESP member of the bargaining team.

“So often when our smaller bargaining units go to the table themselves, they say this is what we need, and they’re right, but when 3,000 other educators say no, our schools do not function without these essential personnel, that amplifies the message that they’ve been saying for years,” said Schatzlein. “We all stood together and saw that it’s the same fight and our students need all of us.”

Besides the contractual wins, SPFE leaders say the biggest win is the collective power their union feels.

“We have had more connections between colleagues and even across the district,” said VanDassor. “There has been a major shift in how we work together.”

“We realize the things that we had together on the line and the solidarity we felt and the strength and hopefulness,” said Schatzlein. “Those are things that are life changing.”

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