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MFT closes the doors again, making it seem both arrogant and out of touch

The talks are a weird theater of the absurd, where freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, data doesn’t count and Godot never shows.

classroom door
The MFT already has the contract it wants.

Dang, these people are touchy. On Monday, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) asked a state mediator to ban all parents and citizens — including yours truly — from watching contract negotiations.

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Lynnell Mickelsen

This is the second time in two years the union has closed the talks. Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson has protested both times, saying negotiations should be transparent and open to the public.

She’s right. The MFT contract is worth over $250 million a year and makes up 50 percent of Minneapolis Public Schools’ half-billion annual budget. It directly controls who is teaching in the classroom, the length of the school day and just about everything else that happens in a school. And it’s entirely funded by taxpayer dollars.

So the MFT’s demand that this contract be negotiated far from the prying eyes of the (paying) public, seems both arrogant and out of touch. Which, alas, describes much of what we’ve seen in these talks so far.

Theater of the absurd

For the last six years, a small group of MPS parents and citizens (almost all Democrats, just sayin’) has quietly watched these talks because the stakes are so high. It’s a weird theater of the absurd, where freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, data doesn’t count and Godot never shows. The talks go on for months, sometimes even years, and almost nothing ever changes — which seems to be the goal, at least for one side of the table.

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Like their peers in St. Paul, the MFT negotiators have spent most of the last four months talking about early child care, social services, theories of play, class size, health care, nutrition, the role of parenting, transit, and just about anything else that is NOT included in its actual contract.

This tactic used to baffle me. I mean, why would a union spend months actively avoiding its own contract in contract negotiations?

I’ve concluded it’s because the MFT already has the contract it wants. Yes, it’s wildly tilted to the comfort of senior teachers — at the expense of students, junior teachers and the common good. Yes, it forces our schools to operate like it’s 1959, even as thousands of kids keep failing. Yes, it blocks key changes that could help close the worst achievement gap in this state.

But from the union’s perspective, it’s been working out just fine. So the MFT’s game plan in negotiations has been to just say no, run out the clock and agree to a few tiny tweaks that are then hailed as Huge Steps Forward On Behalf Of All Children and so forth.

It works like a charm

What can I say? It works like a charm. The union usually controls the school board, so MFT leaders don’t have to worry about being taken to strike. They can be the Union of No without penalty. 

None of which bodes well for Superintendent Johnson’s new “Shift” agenda.

Last May, in a blunt speech at the downtown library, Johnson publicly laid out her bold “Shift” agenda for the MFT talks. She called for better teacher quality, flexibility in hiring and layoffs, a longer school day at lower-performing schools and more.

Mayor R.T. Rybak strongly supports her plan, as do many business, nonprofit and religious leaders. At a recent mayoral forum, five out of the six leading candidates gave the “Shift” plan their unequivocal backing. (The sixth, Mark Andrew, has been the most tentative about education reform, which may explain why the MFT is passing out his lawn signs at its union headquarters.)

MFT is essentially dismissing ‘Shift’

So with all this political support, what kind of progress has the “Shift” plan made in the negotiations so far? Zip. Nada. None. The MFT is essentially dismissing the plan as a non-starter — along with almost anything else the district proposes.

Two weeks ago, for example, the district asked for the right to dismiss unplaced tenured teachers who refuse to show up to job interviews (because, under the MFT contract, these teachers will be placed in a classroom no matter what.) The MFT angrily turned the district down.

“But why would a teacher who needs a job refuse to show up at a job interview?” asked a weary district negotiator.

“Because maybe these teachers have an ungodly fear of interviews,” MFT President Lynn Nordgren argued. “Or maybe they’re on vacation in the Netherlands and don’t want to return for an interview. Or maybe they think interviews are a sham. It doesn’t matter.”

At which point, readers, I lost it. Look, I’m an active DFLer. I got my first union card at 16. I think teachers need a union. But what this MFT leadership routinely defends and demands is just plain nuts.

“Seriously?!” I interjected. “This union is arguing teachers shouldn’t have to show up for job interviews because they may have an interview phobia or because they’re vacationing in the Netherlands?!?!?”

In my defense, it was my first and only outburst at negotiations in six years; it was over in seconds, the talks went on and I returned to quietly observing. But still. My bad.

Two weeks later, the union filed to once again close the talks. Was it me? I doubt it. The truth is, the MFT has always hated having any parents and citizens in the room. On some level, I can’t blame them. The MFT’s positions don’t hold up well under public scrutiny, so the fewer witnesses the better.

And as I said, they’re touchy.

Lynnell Mickelsen is the co-founder of Put Kids First, an all-volunteer, progressive group seeking contract reforms in Minneapolis.


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