Lunch ladies strike after Hastings, Minn., school board stonewalls contract negotiations
Rebecca Pera / People's World

HASTINGS, Minn.—With signs reading “Our Kids Deserve a Hot Meal” and “Superintendent Bob gets 35K Raise, Food Service Offered 35¢,” school food service workers in Hastings, Minn., are heading into their fourth week of a strike, demanding a fair contract that respects these essential workers who keep students nourished every day.

The 35 school cafeteria workers, members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 284, join a wave of workers around the nation bringing attention to unfair wages and understaffing issues. A statement from the union noted that workers “have been clear that any settlement needs to include a fair wage increase to combat the impact of historic inflation and maintain stability through regular hours and health insurance benefits.”

Despite repeated attempts by Local 284 to settle a contract with Independent School District 200, several conservative school board members stonewalled negotiations for months, forcing workers to vote with 92% support to authorize a strike on Jan. 6 and hit the picket line a month later.

For months during the COVID-19 lockdown, school food service workers delivered healthy meals to children and ensured all 4,200 students in the district were regularly fed. During the pandemic and the subsequent reopening of in-person learning, the Hastings school district allowed the food service department to become short-staffed, adding additional stress to what was already a taxing job.

Bennett Norgaard, one of the newest Hastings school food service workers, held a sign at a recent event detailing the significant amount of money the district saved by understaffing the food service workers. For three years, the workers have been short four cooks, equaling over $170,000 in unpaid wages for the district.

Striking workers at the school board’s March 1 meeting. | Rebecca Pera / People’s World

The money the district has saved by understaffing and overworking the remaining cooks could help cover the cost-of-living wage increases and guaranteed hours that workers need. According to Hal Goetz, contract organizer for SEIU Local 284, “our final number and the district’s last and final offer are about $170,000 apart over two years.”

Additionally, in November 2022, the board approved a lucrative three-year extension contract for district boss, Superintendent Robert McDowell, which included a severance buy-out of $35,000, several additional vacation days, and more.

While the school board offered a 35-cent hourly raise to food service staff, union workers like Luke Varien, Communications Coordinator for Local 284, made note of the large surplus of funds that the district is leaving in the bank. “Why is the district refusing to compensate the lowest-paid workers when they have millions and millions in their reserves?” asked Varien in a phone interview with People’s World.

Regardless of the school food service workers’ pandemic heroism, the board continues to ignore their additional professional stresses, as well as their need for adequate pay raises and dignified working conditions during a period of inflation and corporate price gouging.

To make matters worse, several board members have employed dubious tactics, including sending out letters to workers threatening to remove their health care coverage with “End of Employment” listed as the reason. According to Minnesota public sector labor law, bosses are prohibited from firing striking workers. In addition, since workers had already paid for their health care plan, they should have been allowed to utilize this coverage until the end of the month without threats from the school board.

Additional bullying from the board of Independent School District 200 included forcing workers to take unpaid days during snow emergencies (a practice that was not required of workers for many years in the past) and refusing to grant bereavement time to a worker for her father-in-law’s memorial service.

On Feb. 15, school cafeteria workers spoke out on the picket line when the board decided to abruptly cancel a public board meeting, citing a supposed scheduling conflict. It was also reported that one of the board members was posting photos of herself with former Trump Vice President Mike Pence on Facebook in real time while the board meeting was supposed to have been occurring.

Workers are drawing attention to the difference in their wages compared to those of food service workers in surrounding school districts.

Across the river in Cottage Grove, a nearby suburb, school food service workers’ starting pay is approximately $17 per hour, while Hastings workers’ starting wage is $13.89. Starting wages being offered to pizza delivery workers in Hastings are anywhere from $20-23 per hour.

Addressing school board members directly, Kelly Gibbons, SEIU Executive Director of Local 284 stated, “Shame on you for not coming to the table and not talking to these employees! You were elected to represent the community, and this hurts the community. It hurts the children, the workers, everybody!”

Workers have attempted to negotiate with the administration since June 2022, but according to Laurie Potthoff, steward of Local 284, the school board refused to come to the bargaining table until workers were eventually forced to reach out to the Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS). “That’s the only reason that they came to the table in September. Shame on you, board!”

In November 2022, workers attended a  board meeting in hopes of addressing their concerns and avoiding a strike. Instead of being allowed to voice their needs, they were told by the board there was no longer an opportunity for public comment during the meetings, and instead, the public commentary period had been changed to before the meeting began. This new policy was enacted suddenly, as workers had not been made privy to this information prior to the meeting.

Some in the community suggest that the new policy regarding lack of public commentary during a meeting was in regard to some conservative school board members’ attempts to ban books at a recent middle school book fair in the district. Nonetheless, “the timing was very correlational,” Varien said.

The board finally agreed to meet with the union’s bargaining collective for the first time since the strike began two days before the board’s rescheduled meeting on March 1. Even though the meeting was packed with food service workers, community supporters, union members, and families holding signs in support of workers, the topic of the contract was not on the agenda, and as of press time, the district had yet to respond to the workers’ demands.

Regardless, school board members had no objections to chastising audience members on March 1 when there was visible concern about the board voting to spend over $200,000 on a stone monument signage project.

Board members who voted in favor of spending the additional bonding funds on matching rock while simultaneously censoring any public commentary about the district’s treatment of essential workers said the $200,000 rock was a “point of pride for our community” and “represented the public face of the district.”

Workers, union members, families, and community supporters were appalled at the board’s lack of basic humanity and concern for the well-being of the lowest-paid employees in the district.

Undeterred by what appear to be concerted attempts to censor workers, the “lunch ladies” have received overwhelming support from the community, elected officials, students, families, and other union members.

On Feb. 17, U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn. (2nd District), attended the mega-picket outside Todd Field at Hastings Middle School. She addressed the workers and union supporters at the event: “We know that the people standing here on the picket line are the people who feed our kids every single day here in this school district.”

Almost 40 elected officials in the state legislature, as well as Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, called on the Hastings school board to get back to the negotiating table and ratify a fair contract for workers.

U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., attended the mega-picket outside Todd Field at Hastings Middle School. She addressed the workers at the event: ‘We know that the people standing here on the picket line are the people who feed our kids every single day here in this school district.’ | Rebecca Pera / People’s World

“Everyone in our country—especially those serving our students, our kids, deserves to make a living wage,” declared Craig on the picket line.

Attorney General Keith Ellison was also present on the picket line in March, expressing his support of workers: “You all do amazing work making sure our students are fed and cared for, and you deserve fair pay for your work!”

Former students of Hastings Public Schools have also shown up in support of the “lunch ladies.” Lesa Van Regenmorter, a registered nurse, traveled from Minneapolis to join the picket line on Feb. 17 and show solidarity at the March board meeting. “I attended Hastings High and was taught by my family to always support workers’ causes,” Van Regenmorter emphasized.

The majority of the community recognizes that these workers are the ones keeping students healthy, fed, cared for, and thriving. “This tight-knit group of workers is staying strong even through the weather because everyone believes these workers need to be paid more,” concluded Varien.

Even though Independent School District 200 board members are some of the few who are dismissive of frontline workers, the pressure from the workers and community members is appearing to be effective. On March 3, Superintendent Robert McDowell announced via email that he intended on resigning at the end of this school year, even though he recently signed a three-year extension to his contract in November.

SEIU steward Laurie Potthoff affirmed from the picket line, “This school board needs to step up and help us solve this strike and get the warm meals back into our students’ bellies so that they have the right nourishment to get them through their school day!”

Click here if you would like to support striking Hastings food service workers.


Rebecca Pera
Rebecca Pera

Rebecca Pera writes from North Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Peter Molenaar
Peter Molenaar

Peter Molenaar is a long-time Twin Cities People's World supporter.