A teachers’ strike in a small district in central Minnesota entered its seventh week last week, after talks between the Crosby-Ironton school board and the local teachers’ union broke down for a third time. The impasse triggered anger and frustration among teachers, administrators, community members, and students in the rural community.
The strike is but the first by Minnesota teachers in two years, and one of only three over the past decade. Currently, contracts are unsettled in nearly a dozen districts statewide, according to the local teachers’ union.
Also last week, the parties in the Crosby-Ironton district met in Cass County District Court in response to a union lawsuit over replacement teachers. In that hearing, district officials agreed to hire only licensed workers to replace the striking teachers. The union has also challenged the district’s decision to pay substitute teachers triple their normal rate. That part of the case was held over for trial.
The school board had scheduled a public hearing for this week to get community input on the strike and the contract dispute. School and union officials have reported the strike’s toll so far: Teachers are seeking second jobs; district sports teams have relinquished playoff slots because coaches are on strike; and some needy students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches are missing those meals because grades 6-10 are not back in class yet.
The district’s 87 teachers called a strike Feb. 9 over pay raises and the district’s health-insurance contributions for current and retired teachers. They had been working without a new contract since July 2003.
The latest of three mediated negotiation sessions ended in the early hours of March 16 after 17½ hours.
“We’ve had a couple of marathon sessions,” said Stan Nagorski, the president of Education Minnesota Crosby-Ironton, the local affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “We feel we’ve moved a great deal, and the board has moved very little.”
The district has proposed limiting its contributions to retired teachers’ health coverage to the first nine years after they leave the district. It also wants to raise the contributions for family coverage for current teachers. The union and the district are closer to agreement on raises.
District leaders say the offer is generous. “It is a very reasonable offer and something that the district will be stretched to afford,” Superintendent Linda E. Lawrie said in an interview last week.
The 1,300-student district, about 125 miles north of Minneapolis, reopened elementary schools late last month and recently scheduled classes for 11th and 12th graders, using about 40 replacement workers. Some of those workers are awaiting approval of their state licenses.
But the court agreement requires that the substitutes not teach until their licenses are approved. The substitutes are being paid $300 a day, Mr. Nagorski said.
Action in Denver
In Denver, meanwhile, the teachers’ union filed notice of intent to strike with the Colorado labor department after nine negotiating sessions ended without a contract agreement. The union and the school board are expected to enter into mediation next month.
Denver teachers are at odds with school officials’ proposed raise of one-tenth of 1 percent in the first year of the three-year contract. That would mean only a $50 increase on a $50,000 annual salary, noted Becky Wissink, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate. Teachers in the 70,000-student district also anticipate having to shell out about $30 more a month for their health insurance, she said.
The teachers are also seeking more say over instructional decisions. The Denver labor unrest is unrelated to the district and union’s performance-pay pact that will take effect if voters approve a tax increase when they go to the polls in November. (“Next Pay-Plan Decision Up to Denver Voters,” March 31, 2004.)
Under state law, the union cannot strike until April 15, 30 days after filing the intent letter.