A group of 45 Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59 members, primarily educators of color, have filed a grievance against their union’s chapter president, Greta Callahan, because of the way a collective of educators were treated during the strike in March. The grievance alleges Callahan “committed cruelties… and condoned other members’ cruelties which has set a precedent that racism and white supremacy can exist and persist in our union.”
This collective of educators from Henry High School attempted to organize other union members to push union leadership and negotiators to prioritize contract language that would protect educators of color from layoffs and excessing outside of seniority order. The collective believes it was working appropriately within its union to organize members around priorities the union leadership had previously said they supported, too.
While the protection language was eventually included in the tentative contract agreement, the provision had been removed from the union’s bargaining proposals on March 5, unbeknownst to union members at the time. The Henry High School teachers said they suspected the union’s negotiating team had removed this priority early in the strike, which spurred the collective organizing. The strike began March 8.
Before going public with their grievance, the educators at Henry High School had tried to handle the matter internally, meeting with Callahan and the union’s education support professional chapter president, Shaun Laden, on March 17. At the end of that meeting, the collective asked for an acknowledgement of the racialized harm they had experienced and an apology. Laden sent a draft apology letter that the collective said was “inadequate,” Callahan did not send an apology. Callahan has also not responded in private to these union members, but has acknowledged their anger in interviews with North News and the Star Tribune. She referred to the anger as, “misdirected.”
On April 25, the collective of educators filed a grievance with the MFT Joint Executive Board against Callahan alleging a series of attacks and harms to the Henry High School educators and Black educators within Minneapolis Public Schools. In the grievance, the educators seek an acknowledgement and an apology from Callahan, as well as disciplinary action against Callahan by the union’s executive board. On May 6, twelve days after filing the grievance, the Henry High School educators finally heard back from the executive board. Ari Rocca, who is running on a slate of candidates in the current union leadership election, said that the initial response has not included a clear path forward to address the grievance. Rocca said she is hoping to be able to work out a formal process.
“Our whole grievance is just to acknowledge the harm done. Then we can move forward,” said Alex Leonard, a counselor at Henry High School. “We want the rank and file membership to know at what cost this stuff happened.”
The events described below happened before, during and after the MFT educators strike in March and were shared through extensive interviews with Nafessah Muhammad, Ari Rocca, Alex Leonard, and Alexis Mann. Muhammad is Black, a parent of two MPS students, currently teaches at Henry High School, and previously worked at North High School.
Alex Leonard is Black, is a counselor at Henry High School, where he previously worked as a dean. Ari Rocca considers herself a white ally and is also a teacher at Henry High School. She is currently running for the MFT Executive Board on a slate of candidates challenging current president Callahan’s slate. Alexis Mann is Black, a special education teacher at Harrison Education Center, and is running for MFT president on the same slate as Rocca. All four educators are members of the MFT teacher chapter union. As a dean, Leonard was also a member of the MFT ESP chapter union. In addition to these interviews, educators at Henry High School provided a number of documents, meeting transcripts, messages among union members, leadership communications with union members and other evidence of these events to corroborate their accounts.
Southwest Voices reached out to Callahan for a comment about the grievance. In her response, Callahan said “This was filed by a group of educators, some of whom are running in an MFT election, and not all are BIPOC.”
Leading up to the strike, MFT leadership said that protections for educators of color outside of seniority order were a negotiating priority. Henry High School union members stressed to leadership that this was a priority for them.
On Dec. 7, 2021, the negotiating team members held a public presentation for MFT members on the proposals they were taking into bargaining. The first proposal presented was supporting and retaining educators of color in a memorandum of agreement, or MOA. “Exempt Educators of Color from [layoffs], Including those who might be subject to non-renewal,” the slide read.
In addition, in an undated flier posted to the MFT website titled “Contract Bargaining Priorities,” read, “Exemptions from excess and layoff procedures” under the heading “Support & Retain Educators of Color”. Members received this flier in an email from MFT on Jan. 31, 2022.
As strike preparations began, union members who work at Henry High School told leadership how important protections for educators of color outside of seniority order as part of any agreement. On Jan. 27, chapter presidents Callahan and Laden met with educators at Henry High School in a virtual meeting. At the meeting, a Henry High School teacher, who wants to remain unnamed, asked the union leadership to assure her that layoff protections for teachers of color would be a priority in negotiations.
Callahan told the Henry High School teacher that it was the teacher’s responsibility to uplift these priorities and organize around these priorities with union members, according to members present at the meeting. During this meeting union secretary, Brionna Harder, mentioned the protections for educators of color, and why it wasn’t being proposed as contract language but only as a temporary MOA.
During the discussion on Jan. 27 about the MOA, there was a question as to why the term “educators of color” could not be included in the MOA. Union leadership said that the district had rejected this term because of legal issues around using race-based language. While union leadership acknowledged that “race alone” cannot be the basis for any contract provision, they did not mention that in Robbinsdale and St. Louis Park, the school districts and the unions had arrived at alternative language that is broadly viewed as legal. The final contract language between the union and the district mirrors the language from Robbinsdale and St. Louis Park, using the term “underrepresented” along with references to historical harms.
Educators of color within Minneapolis Public Schools have been disproportionately impacted by last in, first out contract language for decades. According to the most recent MPS data, that disproportionate impact continues.
One of the findings in the 1972 federal desegregation lawsuit against Minneapolis Public Schools was that the district had purposefully limited the hiring of staff of color, and, when educators of color were hired, they were segregated into what were considered “minority” schools. While the district was under federal supervision to desegregate its schools, enrollment began to decline, requiring layoffs of teachers. Because educators of color were disproportionately represented among recent hires, as we have reported, and because of the seniority rules in the teacher contract, these educators of color were disproportionately represented in the layoffs, undermining the district’s efforts to desegregate its faculty.
This pattern continues into the present. While students of color make up a majority of students in MPS schools, according to MPS data, teachers of color are underrepresented among tenured staff, representing just 15% of all tenured teachers during the 2020-2021 school year. In addition, excessing continues to disproportionately impact teachers of color. In 2020-2021, teachers of color made up 17.9% of all teachers within MPS, but 22.7% were excessed at the end of the school year. Excessing disproportionately impacts Black teachers, who make up just 7.4% of all teachers, but 11.2% of excessed teachers in 2020-2021.
While teachers of color made up 29.8% of new hires in 2020-21, and 9.7% of new hires were Black teachers, these staff members are more likely to be probationary. Teachers of color make up 37.3% of probationary teachers and lack the protections of tenure and seniority when school building budgets are cut, and teaching staff is reduced. In the current budget climate, where MPS has declining enrollment and declining funding requiring reductions in staffing, teachers of color are disproportionately at risk of having their positions eliminated.
On the first day of the strike, Henry High School educators noticed an absence of formal support for the protections of educators of color.
On March 8, when the MFT educators went on strike, union members received an email update on negotiations. This email mentions negotiating priorities, stating “We will continue to remain strong in our insistence on a living wage for ESP and contract language around class sizes, caseloads, and competitive pay for licensed staff.” The email does not mention protections for educators of color from excessing and layoffs outside of seniority order.
For the collective of educators at Henry High School, this omission was significant because these protections were one of the reasons they had voted in February to authorize a strike. The educators pointed out that the picket signs and messaging sent to strike captains also did not reference these protections.
In the early days of the strike, there was no communication from union leadership about educators of color protections outside of seniority order.
For the next seven days, through March 15, there was no external media statement by union leadership or internal communications to union members about negotiating protections for educators of color. Earlier in the week, a group of educators from Henry High School had started to organize themselves around the absence of this priority from updates on negotiations from MFT. On March 11, they began a petition, which started with 37 signatures, to re-center negotiations on this priority. And on March 12, this same group of Henry educators began making plans to visit other school sites to have conversations with union members on picket lines about this topic.
Leonard said that he began to wonder whether the proposed protections for educators of color that were presented as a negotiating priority to members before the vote to strike had been a “just a political move to get us all bought in? [Were] they using this as a bargaining chip?”
That Monday, March 14 at 7:30 a.m., two members of the MFT negotiating team, including Brionna Harder, showed up at Henry High School to talk to union members before they went out to picket. A group of educators of color at Henry asked one negotiating team member about the contract language to protect teachers of color from excessing and layoffs outside of seniority order. The negotiating team member said that the temporary MOA, which included several other provisions, including mentorships for teachers of color, would be moved to contract language.
According to Henry High School teachers Nafessah Muhammad and Ari Rocca, when the Henry educators asked for clarification about whether the contract language would include protections for teacher of color, a negotiating team member, said he was “playing his cards close.”
Henry educators told the two negotiating team members that they were going out to strike sites to have conversations with members about recentering bargaining priorities on the specific language on protections outside of seniority for teachers of color. After these site visits, the Henry educators shared with each other that some places had been receptive to their conversations, but that in other locations they were met with skepticism and distrust.
On the night of March 14, union leadership began telling members to be aware of “shenanigans” at picket lines, including from some fellow-union members.
Around 11 p.m. on March 14, the union leadership sent an email to members about negotiations with the subject line “MFT Strike Update, Shenanigans, Resources and More.” In the section titled “mediation update” there was no reference to protections for educators of color. According to a person familiar with the district’s negotiation team, at this point in negotiations, the union was only discussing educators of color in the context of its Anti-Racist Anti-Bias MOA proposal. The only MOA provision mentioned in the March 14 member email, was described as “a robust mentorship program for educators of color with current MPS teachers of color.” The same source familiar with the MPS negotiations said the MOA proposal at that time did not include protections for educators of color outside of seniority order. The district assumed that the union had dropped that provision from its priorities, but it remained a priority for the district negotiating team.
In the same March 14 email, under the heading “Shenanigans and Distractions,” union members were warned against “non-members, folks pretending to be members, or even some of our own members” showing up at picket lines to ask strikers to sign something. It goes on to say, “many of these are just an attempt to collect your information and build their email/phone lists.” The email then says “you should question anyone (in or outside our ranks) spending energy on anything else right now.”
Union members I spoke to, including Muhammed and Leonard, felt that these statements were directed at them and the other educators at Henry High School who had been organizing the petition about prioritizing educators of color in contract negotiations.
The Henry High School educators said they viewed themselves as pushing for one of the original negotiating priorities to be recentered in negotiations. They viewed their own actions as pro-union because it was an attempt to organize union members internally around a previously stated priority.
During the strike, the messaging from union leadership targeted at Henry High School educators intensified, and included accusations that they were affiliated with anti-union “ed reform” groups.
On March 15, educators from Henry High School continued their site visits, going to Transition Plus and Andersen United Middle School. At Andersen, a group of educators had started a similar movement to recenter the protections for teachers of color outside of seniority order. Later that evening, Callahan and Laden, published a video on the MFT Local 59 Facebook page that referred to the “shenanigans.”
“Whatever you’re seeing out there, be careful of what you’re doing, be careful of who you’re talking to, what you’re signing,” Callahan said in the video. “Shenanigans happen during strikes and we just need you to stay hyper focused on the schools our students deserve.”
By March 16, there still had not been any communications to members or the public about teacher of color protections. But, text messages sent between strike captains warned against signing the petition from the “Henry educators,” and labeled them as either members of “ed reform” groups, or aligned with “ed reformers.”
Union members and supporters tend to associate these terms and groups with attempts to dismantle public education unions. Other text messages read:
“I heard from a credible source on the executive board that we are not to sign this petition because it is undermining the bargaining team and our power is a united union.”
“Henry peeps… have an ulterior motive” and are trying to infiltrate MFT “from within.”
It is “very important to inoculate ourselves quickly” against the messaging behind the petition.
The “ed reform” accusations are consistent with what Muhammad said is a constant experience of union members of color who are working to change how the union functions. She says there is not a safe space within the union for educators of color to share their racialized experiences. Calls for a united front by the current leadership means that any dissent is “invalidated, minimized and quashed,” Muhammed said.
In the union’s teacher chapter, where the overwhelming majority of members are white, messages labeling a potential candidate for leadership as an “ed reformer” carry a powerful connotation, especially when targeted at educators of color.
For some, “ed reform” connotes images of Betsy DeVos, public vouchers for private religious schools, for-profit charter schools, and the dismantling of public school educator unions. According to Muhammad and other Black educators and parents I spoke to, “ed reform” has a more nuanced meaning for them. It signifies the many ways families of color try to access better educational outcomes for their children. This can mean efforts to reduce disparities between students of color and white students in academic proficiency within district schools, requests for district public schools to use culturally responsive instructional practices, access to culturally-affirming public charter schools, or open enrollment into public district schools outside of those available based on a student’s home.
Many white parents within the boundaries of the district exercise the choice to attend private, independent, charter, or religious schools or open-enroll into other districts. Many families of color within MPS boundaries also choose these alternatives.
On the eighth day of the educators strike, union presidents Callahan and Laden met with Henry High School educators.
According to transcripts of that meeting, Callahan admitted that protections for educators of color outside of seniority order were no longer a bargaining priority for the union.
By March 17, there had still not been any public or internal communication to members specifically about protecting teachers of color outside of seniority order. Around 40 members of the ESP and teacher chapters from Henry High School met with the presidents of the teacher and ESP chapters to discuss this and the protests earlier in the week outside of board member homes that had traumatized at least one Black board member. Additionally, school board Director Josh Pauly resigned on March 16 after protesters had marched to his home.
According to a transcript of that meeting, Henry staff asked explicitly whether protections for teachers of color outside of seniority order were a negotiating priority for the MFT teacher chapter. Callahan told them “This is off the table right now.”
The following is an excerpt from the March 17 meeting transcript with Callahan, Laden, and Henry educators.
Henry staff member: I’m so confused. This is where the backlash is coming from. This is the top down. We said we wanted [teacher of color layoff protection] and it is not on the table. This is my suspicion.
Callahan: Our union is not going to get rid of seniority. I want to say that.
Henry staff member: Are you going to protect teachers of color? Yes or No?
Callahan: We have attempted to. Right now, during excess and layoffs, we have teachers in the first three years. That is what we have.
Henry staff member: So it is off the table? Is this, right now, for teachers of color, off the table? So rIght now, as of right now, is protecting teachers of color off the table?
Callahan: This is off the table right now.
Henry staff member: Boom, there it is. Now it justifies the top down attempt to stop our organizing around this issue. Now I see the true colors of the union, of union leadership. Y’all wanted to stop us.
Callahan: This is exactly what the district wants.
Henry staff member: I voted for this strike because you said this is going to be a part of it.
Henry staff member: I did too. I did too.
During an exchange later in the meeting, the Henry High School educators asked Callahan why she was saying the district did not want protections for teachers of color outside of seniority.
Henry staff member: I’m questioning union leadership. I’m questioning Greta and the leadership, and how problematic it is to take this off the table. I’m questioning the leadership, not the union. I’m not questioning the union. I’m questioning that you took this off the table and not tell us. And lie about it.
Henry staff member: And propaganda! And saying the district is the one who doesn’t want more teachers of color.
Henry staff member: Between the two parties, the only party that is putting in effort and resources and time to protect and support and create educators of color is the district. What have you done, that is any type of comparable? I would like an answer.
Callahan: I wholeheartedly disagree that the district is trying to do that. Again, if they were–
Henry staff member: I don’t know how you can say that when you sat here and heard two people who are part of the Education Pathway program talk about the multiple grants that the district has written and programs they have created specifically to create more educators of color in MPS. How can you say that, when we know this is what’s happening? That’s actually happening.
Henry staff member: That’s actually happening. This isn’t just something that they said they would do. This is what they are currently doing. What is MFT currently doing that is anything like that?
Callahan: Try not to have more than 120 teachers of color leave the district, and have actual support for educators of color BY educators of color. If there is no one there to support–
Henry staff member: This is all future things. What are you doing now?
Callahan: This is what is on the table right now. But they did not accept our language. They said they will not accept language saying educators of color out of seniority order.
Henry staff member: With the petition that was started, we are members, we are in charge of the contract whether that language is approved. We are talking to members saying that we don’t care what MFT says and we don’t care what MPS says. This is what we want.
As Southwest Voices has previously reported, these layoff protections for educators of color had remained a priority for district negotiators. After the union had removed their MOA proposal with protections language on March 5, district negotiators continued to resubmit their own proposals to protect teachers of color outside of seniority order.
The Henry High School staff who participated in the March 17 meeting reported that they felt Laden was making an effort to understand the racism and harm they were sharing about the negotiating priorities, as well as the other actions taken by union leadership during the strike. But, the participants say that despite multiple opportunities to respond, Callahan would not acknowledge the harm they felt she had caused. These participants also said she wasn’t willing to make a specific apology for the way the Henry High School educators had been treated by strike captains and other members around their organizing to recenter negotiations on contract language to protect teachers of color from excessing and layoffs outside of seniority order.
In addition, the educators said neither chapter president was willing to take accountability for the specific attacks that had been made against Muhammad prior to the meeting. These attacks included labeling her as an “ed reformer,” saying she was “anti-union” and that she should not be trusted by fellow union members.
After the meeting, Henry High School educators asked Laden and Callahan to send a letter of apology to the Henry High School staff specifically acknowledging the harm they, and other union leaders, had caused. The chapter presidents were asked to explicitly acknowledge the racialized nature of the harm. While Laden sent a draft of an apology on March 18 to the Henry High School educators, they felt that it was inadequate. Neither Callahan nor Laden sent a follow-up to that draft apology, or reached out to any of the Henry High School educators to apologize individually.
“Just be honest. Then we can move forward,” Leonard said in an interview with Southwest Voices about the lack of apologies.
In the end, Nafessah Muhammad decided not to run for MFT Local 59 teacher chapter president because of the harassment directed towards her during the strike.
Based on her experiences before the strike as a Black member of MFT, as well as the way she was targeted during the strike, Muhammad thought about quitting her job at Henry High School and did not run for MFT teacher chapter president against Callahan. She explained her reasoning for not running included feeling like she would have to “assimilate to socialist values” before her anti-racist values.
One of the compromises Muhammad felt she would have had to make in order to run for union president is to not talk about the racism within the union.
“You’ll notice our union never talks about the racism within our union, which I believe would get to building true, real solidarity if we were able to connect on the truth and how we are treated by our union and our colleagues,” Muhammad said.
Muhammad said that Callahan does not like it when members discuss anything divisive.
“We can’t talk about anything that would upset white people, like seniority, which is why [the negotiating team] took [protections for educators of color outside of seniority order] off the table [in mediation] to begin with,” Muhammad said.
Muhammad decided to stay in her position at Henry High School.
Outside of her employment as a teacher at Henry High School, Muhammad has worked with external advocacy groups, including the Racial Justice Network led by Nekima Levy Armstrong, to advocate for a number of issues related to MPS. Before the strike, she was working with groups to promote the MOA to protect educators of color outside of seniority order within the community.
Muhammad said that because of this advocacy, Callahan accused her of campaigning for union president, in an attempt to negate Muhammad’s community engagement and leadership experience within MPS.
Muhammad said that Callahan’s comments acussing her of campaigning or working with ed reformers “[invalidates] all my leadership that I am doing on behalf of our union and our community because [Callahan] wants to maintain her power and position.”
The attacks that Muhammad is affiliated with “ed reform” groups are “an unfair demand of whiteness,” according to Muhammad. She said that the union has not worked to create safe spaces within the union for educators of color who advocate for “a deeper understanding of the union as an institution. This includes contract language, the constitution, and bylaws, transparency, and inclusion.”
Part of Muhammad’s work with the Racial Justice Network was advocating for the school board to sign a limited contract with Superintendent Ed Graff, with accountability measures, before he decided to leave his position when his contract expires at the end of June.
Muhammad says she sees herself as trying to hold both Callahan and Graff accountable, as they are white leaders in a district that is predominantly students of color.
External groups, such as Educators for Excellence and the Racial Justice Network, according to Muhammad, do provide a safe space for union members to learn about the functioning of the union and the district, and how to work within their union to address the challenges specific to educators of color.
Muhammad said that if the union and the district would center educators of color, and use their power and privilege to advance “the unique racialized issues important to educators of color who aren't a part of leadership's close-knit clique,” then there would be more progress within both organizations. Because that doesn’t happen, Muhammad said, “That leaves us vulnerable to ‘ed reform’ because ‘ed reform’ could use our grievances against us, too.”
Muhammad is a member of MFT, and has been for several years. Her children attend MPS schools. The allegations that she is trying to dismantle the union or public education don’t make any sense to her.
“If you put that label ‘ed reform’ on Black women and claim that they are trying to destroy public education… that doesn’t make any sense,” Muhammad said.
The final contract language includes protections for teachers of color outside of seniority order from excessing and layoffs.
As previously reported, the tentative agreement does include contract language to protect “underrepresented” teachers from layoffs and excessing, outside of seniority order, but these protections do not begin until next spring, during the 2023-2024 budget process. During the March school building budget process, before the strike, 50 BIPOC teachers were excessed from their school buildings, meaning they do not have jobs at those schools to return to next year. After the contract was settled, school budgets were further revised, requiring further staff cuts at some schools. Additional BIPOC educators will be among those excessed because these protections are not yet in place.
Callahan has spoken publicly about the “historic” contract protections for teachers of color, without giving credit to the educators who organized around this priority. The Henry High School educators have asked in their grievance that the union and Callahan acknowledge the role that the educators played in bringing these protections back to the negotiating table.
The Henry educators have been trying to resolve their grievance with union leadership since April 22, but have not received a response yet that they feel is adequate.
The Henry High School educators presented their grievance during public comments at the April 20 MFT Joint Executive Board meeting and formally sent the grievance to the same board on April 22. After no response, they followed up with the union leadership on May 2.
The educators received a response on May 6 from Robert Panning-Miller, the MFT Executive Board Parliamentarian. Panning-Miller wrote, “There are a number of options available to members when they feel an elected leader has acted in violation of their fiduciary responsibilities. This includes some of the actions you said you [are] taking. Some of them can be done at any time, and some require first steps – such as an appeal to Education Minnesota.” Education Minnesota is the statewide umbrella organization for AFL-CIO affiliated teachers unions.
Panning-Miller did not include any details on what the “number of options” are, or how union members could take them. The Henry High School educators have asked for more information from union leadership about what their options are and how to take them.
The Henry High School educators asked about the internal code of ethics in the union constitution. In a follow-up email, Panning-Miller told the Henry High School educators that MFT does not have an internal code of ethics. Rather the code of ethics in the constitution applies to behavior of members as it relates to their work with students.
The Henry educators have also reached out to Education Minnesota. Robert Gardener at Education Minnesota told them that this was a local matter, and not something that Education Minnesota would be involved in.
On May 11, the Henry High School educators reached out again to union leadership to discuss what additional options are available to them. At the time of publishing, they had not heard back.
Educators of color are using the connections they made during the strike to work with and push school board members on equity issues.
Leonard said the educators are working to form a BIPOC, or Black, Indigenous, and people of color, caucus within the union. A group of Black educators from multiple MPS schools, including Leonard, has met with Black school board members, and are trying to work on issues where they may all share common ground.
Leonard said their message to the school board members has been, “We need you to show up in the way that we need you to show up.”
“We kind of have two different districts here,” Leonard said. “The northside is totally different from the southside. I want to see them stand on equity because we have a district that loves to talk about equity but doesn’t actually practice equity.”