School & District Management

Minneapolis Labor Leaders Mold A Different Kind of Union

By Julie Blair — January 30, 2002 4 min read
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The president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers knows that her youngest union members don’t rush home after school to paint union placards.

“They go to the club,” said Louise Sundin, referring to the many fitness centers located in the metropolitan area.

Or to a coffee shop to work on their laptops. Or to cooking class.

And that’s perfectly OK with Ms. Sundin. The young teachers aren’t slackers, she explains, but a radically different kind of union member from those who entered the ranks in the 1960s, the 1970s, or even the 1980s. She recognizes, too, that they need a different kind of teachers’ union.

Over the past decade or so, Ms. Sundin has helped design a new model of organized labor in line with the needs of Generation X, those educators now between the ages of 22 and 39. In doing so, she’s created an energized base of newcomers for her American Federation of Teachers affiliate who would otherwise shun organized labor.

Partnership With District

The key to success, Ms. Sundin said, is understanding the temperaments and work ethic of new educators, then overhauling the union to ensure the organization is meaningful to them. In the case of Gen X, it has meant expanding the union’s role beyond bargaining for salaries and benefits to focus on the practice of teaching, an interest expressed by rookies.

Such efforts began in Minneapolis with the state’s first wave of class-size- reduction initiatives in the early 1990s, Ms. Sundin said. Nearly 1,000 Gen X educators were hired at that time just as district veterans were retiring or taking buyout packages.

“Eighty-five percent of the teachers now working in Minneapolis have been hired since 1990,” the union president said. “About 50 percent of them are Gen-Xers.”

Suddenly, school hallways were filled with teachers in their early- and mid-20s, people who were fiercely independent, technology-savvy, and versed in MTV.

They were also people for whom the union was a tough sell. Though they are required to pay agency fees in Minnesota, many were not immediately interested in participating.

Overall, Generation X tends to be distrustful of institutions and disdains politics, Ms. Sundin said. As she sees it, educators in that age group function very differently in the workplace from their older colleagues: They are typically outspoken in meetings, demand immediate feedback upon completion of a project, and aren’t afraid to leapfrog from one job to another if they’re dissatisfied. And they favor quality of work over the number of hours spent working, according to the union leader.

That’s not to say they don’t value the practice of teaching, Ms. Sundin said. On the contrary, they value it highly and work diligently to improve their skills.

To tap in to such attitudes, the union began to overhaul the way it did business. The organization partnered with the Minneapolis public schools to start a mentoring program, and now offers both a master’s degree program at union headquarters and online professional development.

The union and the district came up with several other innovative ways to appeal to teachers: Those who achieve tenure are awarded with laptop computers or cash bonuses, and teachers can exchange unused sick leave for fitness equipment or gym memberships. Such efforts help ensure that teachers will continue working in the district and maintain their membership in the union, union leaders say.

Some 10 percent to 15 percent of new educators leave their jobs in Minneapolis within their first five years of teaching, the union reports, in contrast to the 50 percent of newcomers working in urban districts who leave the profession nationwide.

‘What the Union Does’

Such initiatives have worked to keep Bridget Rettke Berg teaching in the 49,000-student district. She became so interested in union activities that she ran for a leadership position.

“There are a lot of options in place, and that makes for a good model,” said Ms. Berg, a 31-year-old 1st grade teacher who was recently elected union steward of her building.

Ms. Berg said she especially appreciates a system in which the union and district work together to enable professionals to expand their roles beyond those of classroom teacher to, say, mentor.

She also points out other opportunities that have grown out of the relationship between the union and district, such as job sharing for those who want to work fewer hours.

Administrators, meanwhile, say they greatly respect the union and believe that organized labor has had an important role in improving the Minneapolis schools.

“We come together for the common good,” said Kerry Felt, the executive director of human resources for the district. “We can’t do it alone. They can’t do it alone. But we can do it together.”

Word of the MFT’s efforts has so impressed others that union leaders in Minneapolis field some 25 phone calls a week from union and district officials elsewhere asking how they, too, can integrate Generation X educators into their labor organizations and school communities.

Despite the Minneapolis union’s innovations and successes, much work remains, MFT officials say.

“I don’t think everyone knows what the union does,” Ms. Berg said. “There is the impression that they are there to get higher salaries and deal with grievances. They don’t recognize all the other opportunities the union gives.”

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including governance, management, and labor relations—is supported by the Broad Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2002 edition of Education Week as Minneapolis Labor Leaders Mold A Different Kind of Union

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