Roy Magnuson: Labor unity is key as St. Paul turns the page

Roy Magnuson

An intense St. Paul election cycle ended with a decisive win for Melvin Carter as mayor and similarly decisive wins for John Brodrick, Jeannie Foster and Marny Xiong in the school board race. Labor was a united force in the less prominent school board race, and a split force in the mayor’s race. With the winners now known, what do these results mean for labor and for St. Paul?

Winning elections is always step one for local government. Governing is steps two through 10.

The political part of labor successfully flexed its muscle in both city races. As has been the case for many election cycles, it is very challenging to win election to the Board of Education without labor support. The new board will take office, as new boards always do, as negotiations for the district’s largest local, St. Paul Federation of Teachers Local 28, are heading to crunch time. The rest of the district’s unions will follow the lead of this settlement. And lurking in the background, almost certainly adding stressors, is the upcoming Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which could create right-to-work conditions throughout the public sector.

Finalizing contracts is rarely easy. These are not easy times.

The Mayor’s race featured a split in labor endorsement. Mayor-elect Melvin Carter partnered successfully with the two large public-employee unions, AFSCME and the Federation of Teachers, on his way to an overwhelming victory.

Residual strife with unions that endorsed differently will probably not be a major factor in the Carter administration, with one possible exception – the Police Federation. Moving to heal what appears to be a major fissure between the mayor and the city’s sworn officers will be challenging from both directions. That’s to say nothing of the public safety budget, which has been a sore spot.

The issues facing the city won’t disappear just because we have a new mayor. Budget shortfalls, taxation, tax-increment financing, the Ford site development, housing, public safety and the city’s role in supporting education are all major challenges individually. Collectively, they are truly daunting. Any solutions will involve labor as workers, taxpayers and policy advisors.

And these multiple problems face a limited supply of resources. That potentially means that the solidarity of labor will be tested as our various wings compete for a share of the limited pool of city-government money. In years past this tension has, in varying degrees, challenged labor solidarity.

How labor manages this tension is the challenge for all of us. Every union has a responsibility to its own members. But when we don’t hang together, eventually we run the risk of hanging separately.

Having been on the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation’s Executive Board since the mid-’90s, I have seen the challenge of maintaining labor solidarity up close and personally.

The role of the Regional Labor Federation as the umbrella organization of individual labor unions is critical in challenging times. I foresee some challenging times coming up locally. The RLF will need to be proactive, engaged and, I believe, respectful of each union’s needs in the coming months and years. Each union will have to work to see the viewpoints of other unions. We all will have to remember that the strength of all of us is stronger than any individual member or respective union. Stand up, stand strong, stand together. United.

Can we disagree without being disagreeable? Can we straddle the gap between our self-interests as members of individual unions and our ultimate collective interests as the Labor Movement?

And remember, we have to find a way to elect a governor next year. Together. Stay tuned.

– Roy Magnuson is a longtime social studies teacher and coach at Como High School and member of St. Paul Federation of Teachers Local 28. He serves as a St. Paul Regional Labor Federation trustee.

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