At Minnesota’s St. Paul Public Schools, 300 workers work hard each day feeding 39,000 kids. It’s not an easy job, but these nutrition service workers love what they do. Many have memorized thousands of kids’ names and which kids have which food allergy. It’s a population where 72 percent of the kids are eligible for free or reduced-rate lunches and some receive three free meals a day to ensure they get enough to eat.
Meanwhile, many nutrition service workers themselves are having a hard time feeding their own children because they’ve been getting paid less than what experts say is a living wage.
Teamsters Local 320 in Minneapolis represents over 1,000 workers in the St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS). Last year, Local 320 won a contract to raise teaching assistants’ wages up to at least $15 per hour by 2018. But when Local 320 began negotiations for the nutrition service workers it represents, the St. Paul school board attempted to pit workers against each other by stating they would either give everyone small raises or bring the 110 lowest-wage workers up to $15 per hour, but not both. The school board also wanted to take away Medicare supplements from a group of workers when they retire.
“The nutrition service workers work tirelessly to provide nutritious meals to the children of St. Paul, in some cases the only meals the kids get all day, yet they are among the lowest paid workers in the school district. We knew we had to fight for a fair agreement that would raise the standard for everyone,” said Brian Aldes, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 320.
The St. Paul community rallied to support the workers who feed their children. Workers and community members came out to school board meetings, and the St. Paul teachers and teaching assistants showed strong support as well.
“We fought long and hard to get a fair contract,” said Erin George, a 13-year nutrition service worker. “We’ve always been on the bottom—the District felt it could step on us, but we finally stood our ground. We deserve respect and to be treated fairly. It was amazing to see the support we got from the teachers, teaching assistants and so many community members. We now know that when we stick together and keep fighting, we can win.”
After months of pressure, it came down to a very late-night mediation session and the workers prevailed.
St. Paul nutrition service workers will receive annual raises and step increases every year of the contract, and by 2019 everyone is guaranteed to be paid at least $15 per hour. They also won their fight to keep retired workers’ medical coverage. The nutrition service workers ratified their contract in a 92 percent vote on October 26.
“This is a historic achievement for workers not just in St. Paul, but throughout the United States. The fight for living wages is galvanizing workers and communities like never before, and the Teamsters Union is proud to be leading the way!” Aldes said. “We’re going to build on this victory and continue to organize. We lined our contract up with the teaching assistants, and in two years it won’t just be 300 Teamsters negotiating their contract; it’ll be 1,000 Teamsters!”