Minnesota unions push for bill extending unemployment insurance to striking workers

Catina Taylor has worked as a special education assistant for the past 25 years in Minneapolis Public Schools. She is a member of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers 59 (MFT 59) and president of Education Support Professionals (ESP). In 2022, Minneapolis teachers went on strike for three weeks. Taylor was on the picket line – she remembers not being able to feel her feet in the cold. Even though she looks back with emotion on this “historic” strike, she adds that it was a financially difficult period for many members.

A strike is one of the most powerful tools workers have, but it can be a difficult choice for workers who want to give up weeks of pay in hopes of realizing greater long-term gains. However, Minnesota is currently among the few states that can extend unemployment benefits to striking workers. Local unions and their allies are pushing for a bill that would allow strikers to access unemployment benefits for strikes that last more than a week.

“It would have been great to have had unemployment insurance at that time because it would have given workers a little more power and a little more leverage.” Taylor explains. “So many families find themselves without resources when we strike. But it is the only power we have as workers, to slow down our work.”

Minneapolis Federation of Teachers 59 at the Minnesota State Capitol during a strike in 2022.

Amie Stager

Minneapolis Federation of Teachers 59 at the Minnesota State Capitol during a strike in 2022.

Taylor says teachers relied on community donations for their strike fund so members could continue to stay afloat during the three weeks without pay. She said: “Some of us were already living on poverty wages. But we took a chance because sometimes you just have to take chances and take risks for what you believe in.

This is the first time this has been introduced in Minnesota, but it’s part of a growing national trend. Supporters of the Minnesota bill are using the model of New York’s unemployment policy, which since its inception in 1935 allowed striking workers to access unemployment. New Jersey included striking workers in its unemployment policy in 2018. In California, the bill was introduced and then rejected due to an extreme budget deficit.

The bill is authored by Senator Zaynab Mohamed of the Minnesota State Senate and Representative Kaela Berg of the Minnesota House of Representatives. SEIU Minnesota, Minnesota AFL-CIO, MFT 59 and other unions have pledged their support.

This bill comes after Minnesota led the way in worker protections in the region and nationally. In the 2023 legislative session, Minnesota workers won numerous gains, including paid family and medical leave, banning meetings with captive audiences, creating a Workforce Standards Council nursing home implementation, banning non-compete agreements, and protections for construction workers facing wage theft and misclassification.

North Star Policy Action released a report exploring the costs of giving strikers access to unemployment benefits in Minnesota. The report states that between 1993 and 2023, there were “only 22 strikes in Minnesota, involving more than 1,000 workers” and that the majority of these strikes were resolved within two weeks. The report highlights that strikes lasting more than a week are rare and would not result in a significant cost.

Advocates say some of the most vocal opposition to the bill comes from the Minnesota School Board Association, which says the bill is not financially viable. Other notable dissidents include a coalition of non-union contractors, an industry where strikes are almost rare.
A spokesperson said Workday Magazine that the bill was not included in an omnibus bill, indicating it is unlikely to pass this session. However, advocates plan to continue pushing to extend unemployment benefits to striking workers in the next legislative session.

Isabela is a senior associate editor at Workday magazine.