“Bargaining For Common Good” Takes A Backseat To Naked Self-Interest

St. Paul’s teachers union leaves district $4 million in-the-hole, while screwing over their colleagues in the process

A few years ago, the St. Paul Federation of Educators was boasting about how it was “bargaining for the common good” by using contract negotiations to advocate for policies that benefitted not only teachers, but parents and community stakeholders.

As then-SPFE president (and current Minnesota Commissioner of Education) Mary Cathryn Ricker explained in a piece for Dissent, the aim of “bargaining for the common good” was to show that the union sought “to improve our teaching and our schools, and not simply file grievances and try to protect our wages and benefits.”

SPFE’s approach was lauded in union-friendly media outlets like The American Prospect and was soon imitated by other teachers unions across the country.

Before her appointment as Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education, Mary Cathryn Ricker led the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.

However, recent events suggest that SPFE has dropped the “bargaining for the common good” schtick in exchange for a new mantra: “Every man for himself.”

Earlier this month, SPFE announced it was unilaterally pulling out of the district’s health insurance plan to join the state-managed Public Employees Insurance Program.

The union’s decision to leave halfway through the district’s two-year contract with HealthPartners means that St. Paul Public Schools will have to pay a $4 million early termination fee to the company.

Ironically, SPFE spent the better part of the past year decrying school funding cuts and protesting corporate tax breaks, which the union claimed had left St. Paul Public Schools chronically underfunded. SFPE was also the driving force behind a tax levy referendum last November that would raise an additional $20 million in annual revenue for schools.

SPFE spent the better part of last year campaigning against corporate tax breaks and urging voters to approve a new tax levy for schools.

“We have enough money in our state to fully fund public schools,” SPFE president Nick Faber told NEA Today at the time. “We just have to have the courage and the will to bring it back to our students.”

To their credit, St. Paul voters stepped up and approved the tax levy by a 2-to-1 margin. Yet now SPFE has the audacity to turn around and throw a $4 million chunk of that new revenue right out the window.

Even worse, SPFE’s decision to pull out of the HealthPartners contract a year early means that the 1500 district employees who remain covered under the plan (a group that includes some of the lowest-paid workers in St. Paul Public Schools) will see their premiums increase by 22 percent next year.

So much for worker solidarity.

SPFE’s willingness to squander taxpayer money and screw over their colleagues makes clear that all of their talk about the “common good” is little more than empty rhetoric. Don’t believe the hype.


Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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