Wednesday, December 19, 2007

EA Shout Out

Earlier today I was informed that the tentative agreement for Educational Assistants was approved by our membership. It went to the school board tonight and they approved it as well. When I spoke about the work of our EA negotiations team at the public comment period, as well as the evolving career paths and professional expectations of our EAs, I was met with a lot of agreement. EAs in this district need to know that many people felt that my comments expressed their feelings for educational assistants as well. They see EAs as vital to school communities. In fact, some see various EA roles as powerful forces on school climate, culture, and reputation. That is a compliment to the work our EAs do, as well as some great expectations for those who come after you because you are obviously doing high-quality work.

Thank you, EAs, for the faith you put in out bargaining team. Keep those ideas coming in. Thank you for the work you do. Your work is worth fighting for!

click your heels three times...

With all the ironing out we are doing, you would think we were negotiating for a pair of ruby-red slippers. No, only accessible and affordable health insurance. Now that I think of it, those shoes are probably more accessible and more affordable than health insurance has become for our members. We have spent a great amount of time as a team and in meetings with the district discerning exactly what is fair vs. equitable. In general, we are progressing and we are in agreement about the general situation for members and Minnesotans. Specifically, outside of the negotiating table, I would like a little something for the effort.

Health insurance costs are eating up more and more of the district's budget. Money that could be used to innovate, could be used to hire staff, could be used for high-quality professional development is being eaten up by rising health care costs. Yet, rather than offer some leadership on this, it has been our union, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, that has offered the only leadership on this issue. It is the St. Paul Federation of Teachers that has endorsed the Statewide Health Insurance Pool for School Employees for the last 4 years. It is the St. Paul Federation of Teachers that is researching the feasibility of getting our coverage cheaper through the Public Employee Insurance Pool, and it is the St. Paul Federation of Teachers that has committed to working with results-oriented groups like Take Action Minnesota to craft a real health care solution for all Minnesotans. We will work for everything we can at the bargaining table, but we are done with band-aids for health care. We will keep working for a solution, not just a settlement.

With that said, I do believe when you return from your winter break-in-service, you will have a settlement waiting for you, and your little dog, too.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Just keep swimming

I am a bit of a Pixar junkie, so it is appropo that I find a metaphor for quite a lot in Finding Nemo. Pardon the Chris Farley, but remember that time when the face mask falls into deeper and darker water? Remember when Dori keeps uttering "Just keep swimming" to Nemo's dad (played fabulously by Albert Brooks) as a way to find the face mask? Then they find it and it is a seminal moment in Dori's life because she gets what she wants, which is to remember something in her long-term memory? Yeah?

I liked that part.

I am still confident that we are working toward a settlement, but we do keep working.

We met with the district yesterday and today. We will also meet again next week, including a meeting on Thursday scheduled to go all day again. We need to make sure that we have exhausted our proposals, our ideas, and our energy. When we do have a settlement to report, you can be assured that we have left no points on the bench. When we do have a settlement to report, you can also be assured that we will share who got the most penalty minutes, too, but not until you have read the tentative agreement.

We will get this wrapped up, voting and all, by January 15th. We are committed to that. Having that commitment brings a modicum of relief and focus on all the other matters governing the daily work of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers: our members' questions about programming changes, work to support those on improvement plans, our National Board Certification "Take One!" Federal Grant site, researching the implementation of Peer Assistance and Review, encouraging members to sign up for the Education Minnesota Representative Convention, recruiting members and others to present topics of expertise at the April 12th professional conference, expanding our ER&D courses, implementing our ambitious organizing plan, and staffing committees, boards and councils looking for SPFT input.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

So close and yet so far

The teacher bargaining team spent all last week negotiating. It was hard to know what to post because after each meeting we would find ourselves on the verge of progress, but not enough to announce anything. After 2 marathon sessions on Thursday and Friday we still found ourselves on the verge of something, but you know close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, as well as the occasional bocce ball game, I suppose. We have 2 sessions planned this week: Wednesday 3-7 and Thursday 3-7. We will do everything we can to have something ready to share before teachers leave for winter break.

It is aggravating, to say the least, to try to wrap up negotiations and bring forward a settlement we are not just willing to show members, but are proud to show members, and to have 7 different program changes going on as well. Any sort of change, even if it is exciting, expected, and good, can be scary because it involves giving up some or much of what you know for what you don't know. Add to that pages of the contract that don't get read by entire staffs very often, programs and teaching methods that some members are absolutely committed to, programs and teaching methods that some members are being asked to give up, staff teams who have been told they and their work is extremely valued, staff teams who have been told that their ideas just aren't cutting it, teachers who want a say in proposed changes, teachers who just want to be told what it is going to be so they can commit or move on, and other school staffs quietly waiting for the other shoe to drop on them and you have a heckuva time talking about contract language in the abstract. SPFT is completely committed to getting our contract settled and getting questions about these program changes answered simultaneously. It reminds me of my favorite quote from the Marines: The difficult we do right away, the impossible takes a little longer.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Thanks EA Team!

Negotiating contract language (or defense of it), quite honestly, falls into the Twain-ish category of laws and sausages unfortunately. While you should not want to see it made, invariably someone looks at the ingredients list and gets grossed out. Terri, Rosie, and Katie deserve much thanks for diving in with Terri Ellisen and me and grinding away until every last item was defended or bargained to within an inch of its existence. It is easy to look at what a tentative agreement does not have, and that is natural, but I was fortunate enough to watch these women work with tenacity up close. This was a team of experienced negotiators and experienced employees. They had a broad understanding of the contract and they were fabulous storytellers when we needed to highlight the professional needs of EAs.

I certainly came into this team with my own agenda: St. Paul's living wage ordinance as an inspiration when talking about salaries and professional/leave language that more closely matched the teachers' contract. As a teacher, my stories of EA wages, benefits and working conditions were all from colleagues, but I was familiar enough with EAs to know that some EAs work for health insurance for their families alone, some are still working 2 or 3 jobs deep into their careers as EAs to make ends meet, and that there needs to be a shift in thinking about EA work as career work. I am committed to the belief that progressive contract negotiating can address all of this.

I see the colloquial notion of EAs in the past and the growing sophistication of EA work now. Many still think of EAs as some sort of farm team that is waiting to be called up to the teaching ranks with the right offer. We know that EAs love their careers and see themselves as professionals adding value to the district with exactly what they are doing. Unfortunately, many still want to think of EA work as a "mom job" for a little extra income, when the reality is that these are now careers that need and deserve living wages. Some still want to see EAs as expendable helpers when sheer determination, self-worth, No Child Left Behind, and a high value on education has brought us a corps of experts in the work EAs do. I want to thank the EA team for representing this evolution of EA work so well at the bargaining table. I am proud of the work they did and I am determined to do what I can to encourage this evolution at every opportunity in order to honor the work they did.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Our friends in Minneapolis, Local 59

The editorial in Sunday's StarTribune regarding one, specific issue being bargained was completely inappropriate. To have a local newspaper come out on one side of contract language that could still be live at the bargaining table sets up bargaining in good faith to fail. The specific issue addressed was the role teacher seniority plays in transferring from school to school. To take a shot at seniority as if it would be some magic bullet for the complexities of Minneapolis Public Schools is to have watched one too many Lone Ranger episodes. To assume that 'if we have what St. Paul has we'll be perfect" (while understandably a fabulous standard in which to aspire in so many other capacities) is to have listened to far too little Prairie Home Companion.

MFT, Local 59 and the Minneapolis School District were already in mediation when Sunday's editorial ran. The best use of soy ink spent on their negotiation process would have been wishing both sides well in their work on behalf of Minneapolis and the Metro area. To have suggested that the community should cheer for a successful, healing, and forward-thinking settlement would have acknowledged what many of us who actually care for the students, staff, and community of Minneapolis' public schools already know: the success of Minneapolis students is our collective success and the failure of Minneapolis students is our collective failure. Therefore, we all have a stake in the successful completion of these contract negotiations as well as the deliberation of a thoughtful strategic plan.

The teachers serving on MFT's bargaining team spend every day teaching the students of Minneapolis Public Schools. The teachers serving on MFT's bargaining team have their own children in Minneapolis Public Schools. I trust the teachers serving on MFT's bargaining team. Despite mediation, despite the StarTribune editorial, I wish the teachers serving on MFT's bargaining team well and I wish the staff and students of Minneapolis Public Schools much success.