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

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.

mickelsen photo
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.

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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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/27/2013 - 09:18 am.

    Your problem is

    you need to re-exam your political belief system. “I think teachers need a union.” Really? How about shifting your priorities to what the kids and their parents need for a change?

    The whole idea of a public employee union for any alleged profession is antithetical to the idea of 1) what a professional is, and 2) that the taxpayers are their employer, not politicians who were placed into office by those same unions.

    Political candidates who want to actually represent the people should be running on a platform of eliminating public employee unions, especially teacher unions.

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/27/2013 - 09:28 am.


    I think not. Despite Ms. Mickelsen’s fervent (and somewhat defensive) descriptions of herself as a good liberal and former union member, the agenda that seems to be driving “Put Kids First” is the agenda of busting the teachers’ union. Shoot, if we just got rid of them and their unreasonable interest in protecting the rights of teachers, or education problems would be solved! No need to consider things like poverty, race, or parent indifference. Kick the teachers, and we’ve got it all solved!

    What’s “progressive” about that? I know anyone can use the term even if its inapplicable. Here, it’s being used as a smokescreen for another education Rhee-form group.

  3. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 09/27/2013 - 11:47 am.

    Glad my kids are in Plymouth…

    and they will remain there (or perhaps in the Netherlands) because of my ungodly fear of Minneapolis teachers. I’d spell it out in my twitter feed but I have a texting phobia.

  4. Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 09/27/2013 - 08:12 pm.


    Contract negotiations are just that – negotiations – and should ALWAYS be in private. No progress can be made when either or both parties are posturing for a public audience. Negotiations need candid discussion – not sound bites for public consumption. And this notion that public employee unions should not exist – complete and utter nonsense. People who hold that position have never been involved in managing public employees. If you think cities, counties, school districts and the state should negotiate with each and every employee you are nuts – it is completely unrealistic and impractical. No unions would simply leave management to unilaterally impose conditions of employment on employees – a completely unacceptable notion. You won’t get better teachers by prohibiting them from unionizing – you will get what the minimum will pay for – is that really what you want for your children?

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 09/29/2013 - 05:17 am.

      “Complete and Utter Nonsense”?

      “It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.” The words of labor movement titan and longtime AFL-CIO President George Meany. AFL-CIO Executive Council’s 1959 advice:
      “in terms of accepted collective bargaining procedures, government workers have no right beyond the authority to petition Congress—a right available to every citizen.”

      FDR considered public employee unions “unthinkable and intolerable”.

      Millions of public and private sector professionals are not represented by unions. Why is it that this is “complete and utter nonsense” for teachers?

  5. Submitted by Patricia Milbrath on 09/27/2013 - 10:40 pm.

    Tired of those who fan the flames

    As usual, Lynnell Mikkelson takes another opportunity to take a serious matter and fan the flames with her sarcasm, bullying and put downs. She seems to encourage drama at every turn and I for one am bored and tired of it. Civil discourse can occur between adults who don’t stoop to middle school tactics.

    MFT has not “asked” a state mediator to “ban” the public from negotiations. MFT requested for the mediation process to begin, and state law does not allow for public observation once mediation has begun. It’s the law, that is just how it is. MFT has asked for mediation in order to resolve our differences with the district in a more efficient manner, so we can settle on a contract, and get on with the work of providing high quality education to Minneapolis students. By asking for mediation to begin, Lynn Nordgren has made it clear that we do not want to be at the bargaining table for weeks or months, we want to get this done. MFT has also not rejected the Shift plan. We are still waiting to hear exactly what the Shift plan is! No details have yet been forthcoming from the district about specifics of the Shift plan that they desire to negotiate.

    MPS teachers are your neighbors, friends, and most of us are your fellow DFL party members. You see us at neighborhood garage sales, at the co-op, at your block parties, and while you walk your dogs at the park,. A huge number of us send our children to Minneapolis schools, and also are MPS alumni. We are both providers and consumers of the service known as public education. Our union is not some mysterious entity with misguided intentions. Our union is us, it is me. It is people, extremely hardworking people, you know and respect. Lynell talks about us like we are some back room union thugs rubbing our hands in delight at devising ways to take the public’s money without regard for our mission. It’s pretty comical actually, except for the fact that some of you out there take her incendiary and inaccurate statements seriously.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/29/2013 - 09:40 am.

      And therein lies the problem

      ” … and most of us are your fellow DFL party members.”

      When the NEA devolved from a professional educators association to a labor union in 1970, their concern shifted from the best way to teach the kids, to the best way to screw the taxpayers, like any other DFL concern. In fact, you can track the devolution of educational performance starting in 1970, not so coincidentally.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/29/2013 - 01:13 pm.

        And therein lies the problem, part 2.

        As Ms. Milbrath noted, “Civil discourse can occur between adults who don’t stoop to middle school tactics.” I would go a little further and say that getting away from the middle school tactics is an essential part of civilized discourse between adults.

        Personally, I think the “fellow DFL party members” bit is quite pertinent, given the amount of time and effort Ms. Mikkelson devotes to establishing her liberal bona fides.

  6. Submitted by Robert Saxton on 09/29/2013 - 11:26 am.

    She’s dead right

    Wow, look at the arrows being slung towards Mrs. Mickelsen! Look at the assumptions being made of her motives and her belief system! To all the couch commentators here, I’ll say this: that woman has put more blood, sweat and tears volunteering for progressive causes and candidates than anybody you will ever know. It takes no courage to criticize politicians or platforms from the opposing party, but it takes a helluva pair to criticize members of your own and that’s what she’s doing and she’s dead right: Unions have a place in society (if there were no need for them, they would have never sprung up), but like any institution with power, they can become lazy and corrupt and she makes a very good case that this is what has happened with the Mpls teachers union. As a former teacher’s union member who has taught in regular public schools and charter public schools, I have seen this from the inside: everybody needs a kick in the rear from time to time and that is just what Mrs. Mickelsen is doing here – not for money, not for power, not for her own advancement, not for political favors, but for the kids. I can think of no better example of someone who is working for the betterment of her community. Keep up the good work Lynell!

  7. Submitted by Jane Swatosh on 09/29/2013 - 02:48 pm.

    Patricia Milbrath, thank you for your eloquent response. The only clarification I would like to add to Mikkelson’s piece is on the interviewing for excessed placement. Most teachers would prefer to stay in the positions that they currently hold. Being excessed is not an indication of a teacher’s performance; it is what happens when departments are cut, class sizes fluctuate, or programs change.

    There is a stigma attached to excess placement that has no merit. Interview and Select has cemented the principal’s ability to choose a candidate that they often already knew they were going to hire, so often excessed teachers find themselves going through the excess placement process, most never anticipating that this would happen to them when they made their plans for the summer.

    During the summer teachers take classes, teach summer school, work other jobs, participate in district PD or planning. Oh, and yes, they may have planned a vacation. Most teachers would prefer to interview for a new positions, but how do you plan for something that you don’t know will happen to you until the moment it happens in late June. Should we put our entire summers on hold in the event that we are excessed after budget tie out, and then don’t get a position during interview and select, and then find out when the excess matching date will be?

    Ms. Mikkelson continues her pejorative rants without a full understanding of the complexity of the situation. Or maybe she does actually understand and for some reason prefers the picture she paints.

  8. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 09/29/2013 - 07:59 pm.

    One clarification

    I made a couple of calls Friday after several readers asked, and it is true that state law says either party may unilaterally request the services of a mediator. The law actually does not say the talks must then automatically be closed. Rather it is the longstanding practice of the state Board of Mediation to close them.    

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/30/2013 - 04:53 pm.

      Which tells me

      that the MFT is not the one that “closed the doors”. The title of this piece is misleading at best, or an outright falsehood at worst.

      • Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 10/02/2013 - 06:23 pm.

        The MFT called in the mediator

        precisely to keep the public—-and younger MFT members– from watching its negotiating stance. The district has no problem laying out its full agenda and arguments in public while the union wants to do this in private. Which should tell you a lot.

        • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/03/2013 - 04:45 pm.

          What a completely absurd comment that is! What IS the Shift proposal? There are ZERO documents regarding the proposal on the district’s website, and what IS known is written in deformer code: “accountability”, “teacher quality”, “more freedom”, etc. What will it cost? Where will the money come from? What does it mean for teacher seniority rules? Why the 20-30 percent number? Yet strangely every deformer is way in favor of the proposal – what have they been told that the rest of us haven’t? The district isn’t serious about student learning – it IS serious about bullying teachers and destroying the union.

        • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/03/2013 - 05:00 pm.

          …adding, I have made about a dozen calls to the district, and a few emails, to try and find out about the Shift proposal – left messages, talked to secretaries, etc. They are dodging me on purpose. This is the district’s strategy – obfuscate, speak in coded language and bullying. It is really insane that they say so little about a proposal that seems like a backdoor attempt to charter-ize a third of the district – and that media – esp. MinnPost – isn’t up in arms about the lack of information. It seems like TFA and MinnCan are running the district.

  9. Submitted by Ross Reishus on 10/05/2013 - 07:17 am.

    No union is perfect

    There are very likely some things that need shaking up in the MFT. That doesn’t mean that the union, on face value, is the problem. First and foremost, a 10 year stranglehold on school funding, in addition to the full on attacks on urban districts by mostly white, suburban lawmakers, is firmly in the record books. The attacks were, and still are, all about privatization of all things public. The attacks and defunding create more problems, make the unions look bad, and still more students flee those schools. This tactic has played out and worked, meaning schools were closed and privatized, in several cities nationwide and the process continues. Philadelphia is in exactly that kind of crisis, and is being threatened by its own lawmakers that it will all be shut down in favor of private schools next year. Its not even a secret there. The PRIVATEERS have shown their hand in PA, and for them, things appear to be going well, all while students and teachers who can, flee. Those efforts are all about putting more taxpayer money into private hands. We’ve seen how this plays out in privatized prisons in other states. Corrupt politcians sign deals that pay the privateers whether the prison beds are full or not. Private schools get money whether the students pass the tests or not, which bears no resemblance to how public schools are financed. But if there are no longer public school options, the private schools can charge what they want, and that’s the point. This is not the America I want to live in. But apparently its alright with a number of writers and readers on this site. Dear Minnpost, how about giving a voice to public education that doesn’t bash it constantly?

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