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Rochester celebrates union history

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The Rochester Education Association celebrated 100 years as a local this year and honored its place in history as the birthplace of what would become the statewide union.

“One hundred years later, we are still meeting as a union to elevate the work that is being done on behalf of our students,” said Dan Kuhlman, the current REA president. “We also want to emphasize that we have strong roots in unionization since Education Minnesota was founded right here in Rochester.”

On Aug. 27, 1861, educators gathered at the Baptist Church in Rochester to form the Minnesota State Teachers Association, which then became the Minnesota Education Association which then became Education Minnesota.

Before the union—between 1841 and 1860—men teaching in rural schools could expect to earn $4.15 to $6.30 a week. Men teaching in urban areas were paid $11.93 to $18.07 a week. Women earned less.

“Imagine what it was like for the teachers, back in the day, to make the decision that teachers in our area needed to band together to achieve a greater purpose,” said Kuhlman. “For us to be here today, with approximately 1,300 members working with 18,000 students, is an incredible feat. I wonder if the educators that formed and chartered the Rochester Education Association ever imagined what we would grow into over the next 100 years.”

Nearly 100 educators, including teachers, college professors and administrators, came to Rochester for that first union gathering in 1861.

“The desirableness of such a meeting must be apparent to all. Every profession and every interest should be represented and guarded by its own members or adherents,” said John Ogden, principal of the First State Normal School in Winona, in an advertisement for the convention.

The MSTA constitution stated it was organized “to elevate the character and advance the interest of the profession of teaching and to promote the cause of popular education in the United States.”

The early fights for the MSTA included improved compensation and stringent teacher certification standards.

Looking back is a way to celebrate and honor the work of the union, especially given all that has happened during the pandemic, said Kuhlman.

“When you look back at all the work that our educators have done over the course of our time in COVID, it is truly amazing,” he said. “We have retooled education faster than any other time that I can think of in the history of education. Not only did educators do this, but they balanced it with their own personal needs for how to keep their children learning while they were gone. We continue today addressing the students that are learning in the classroom and those that are quarantined and are still needing to learn. This is only being accomplished because we are working together to meet those needs.”

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