School board ducks meeting after striking workers plan to show

Laurie Potthoff, a food service worker at Hastings High School, speaks during an impromptu union rally after school board members canceled their scheduled meeting.

Striking food service workers in Hastings have a lot of questions for members of the local school board, who were scheduled to have a public meeting this afternoon.

Why won’t the district come back to the bargaining table?

Why does the superintendent deserve a 6% raise when 2% is the best he can offer food service workers?

What’s changed since the height of the pandemic, when frontline staff were praised as heroes for helping deliver thousands of meals to the community?

Unfortunately for workers, the board abruptly canceled its noon meeting, avoiding a face-to-face encounter with workers like Laurie Potthoff, a high school cook who spoke during a rally outside Kennedy Elementary instead of before the board.

“We are ready to settle this strike, and we are ready to go back and feed the kids. But the board won’t meet with us,” said Potthoff, who has six years of experience with the district. “Come on, school board. Bring us back to the table.”

In bargaining, the district’s negotiators have held firm that most food service workers should accept 35- to 40-cent raises. If the district’s elected leaders share that position, they should look workers in the eye and say as much, Service Employees (SEIU) Local 284 Executive Director Kelly Gibbons said.

“I have a message for the Hastings School Board,” Gibbons said. “Shame on you. Shame on you for not coming to the table and not coming to this meeting and talking to these workers.”

Local 284 represents the 35 food service workers who have been on strike since Feb. 7.

Workers have refused to accept the district’s offer to raise their wages by 2%, with a one-time bonus. Union members want the wage scale increased by $3 per hour, and they say one-time bonuses won’t do enough to keep Hastings’ pay competitive with other districts in the area.

Starting pay for food service workers in the nearby South Washington County School District is $16.50, compared to $3.85 per hour in Hastings, where some workers with three years of experience are making just $15.05 per hour.

Hastings workers also accuse the district of inequitable treatment when it comes to ensuring a minimum number of work hours, and they are fighting to maintain affordable dental and family insurance premiums.

Striking food service workers picket outside Kennedy Elementary in Hastings.

The two sides, who had been working with a state mediator, haven’t met since Feb. 2, despite requests from the union to resume talks.

Instead of sitting down with workers, school administrators attempted last week to bully SEIU members back to work, sending out letters that warned they would lose their health care benefits and citing “End of Employment” as the reason.

It is illegal to fire striking workers under Minnesota public sector labor law. Members who have paid into their health insurance should have access to their benefits through the end of the month, Local 284 Executive Director Kelly Gibbons said.

“The district should be coming to the table to find a fair deal to get these incredible workers back on the job feeding Hastings students,” Gibbons added. “Instead they are sending letters that are misleading and possibly even illegal, hoping to scare our members into accepting a contract.”

Gibbons, a former school food service worker herself, said she hasn’t seen “such solidarity and commitment from a group of workers in a long time.”

The Hastings community, meanwhile, has shown striking workers overwhelming support, with multiple deliveries of food and drinks to the picket line. The feeling is mutual, according to Potthoff, who said she and her co-workers are ready to “get the warm meals back into our students’ bellies so they have the nourishment they need.”

“A frozen sandwich does not cut it,” she added.

The school board’s next scheduled public meeting is Wednesday, Feb. 22.

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