Union presidents: activists, counselors, collaborators, leaders

Women have the top posts in Minnesota’s teachers’ unions. MWP introduces you to three of them.

Sandy Skaar, Lynn Nordgren and Mary Cathryn Ricker are presidents of Minnesota Teachers' Unions.
Sandy Skaar, Lynn Nordgren and Mary Cathryn Ricker are presidents of Minnesota Teachers’ Unions.

Lynn Nordgren took her mother’s career advice … much further than mom could have imagined.

Teaching would be a good job, Mom said, since her daughter could also have a family. “I thought that was a bit odd-can’t women do any job and still be wives and mothers?” Nordgren recalled, adding that her mom was referring to the ability to be home during summer and after school.

She did become a teacher-and last year, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT). It wasn’t her plan when she began teaching 33 years ago.

“Teaching was my life’s calling-I loved every single minute of it,” she said. “I thought I’d never leave the classroom-I’d just tip over and die there.”

But one day, longtime MFT President Louise Sundin recruited Nordgren for a committee. One thing led to another until, after 25 years of volunteer service to the union, “it was either retire or do the hardest job I’ve ever had.”

‘Activist nature’
Though about 77 percent of teachers are women, their unions have often been led by men. But a year ago, Education Week reported that-for the first time in recent history-all of the American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT) top elected leaders were women. At the National Education Association (NEA), women held two of the three top posts.

In the state where the AFT and NEA first merged-forming Education Minnesota-there’s no shortage of women heading up locals. Local presidents play lead roles in negotiating contracts that set salaries, benefits and working conditions, among other duties.

“People drawn to union leadership are those with an activist nature,” according to Sandy Skaar. “That’s how I got where I am.”

That is, president of the teacher’s union of the Anoka-Hennepin school district-Minnesota’s largest, with over 40,000 students.

As a Macalester student, Skaar protested the Vietnam War, in which two young men from her small southern Minnesota hometown were killed. She began teaching in Anoka-Hennepin in 1978, and the union went on strike in 1981-bringing Skaar’s activist tendencies to the fore.

“I was a young teacher, I didn’t have much money, and I thought: I need to understand what’s going on, and make an impact,” she recalled.

By the time Skaar became president seven years ago, she’d done just about every job in the local.

Strength and empathy
Since the Anoka-Hennepin president’s job went full time, five men and two women have held it. “Very often in union politics, like politics in general, [leadership is] male-dominated,” Skaar said. “To succeed in politics you have to be a strong person-and I am.”

But she brings more than that to her job. “There are things about women leaders that my members appreciate,” she said. “They find I’m empathetic to their issues and take the time to understand them. You end up being almost like a counselor.”

Nordgren suspects women may be more likely to merge the line between “work” and “life.” For example, she often sees female teachers buying needed supplies-even clothing-for students.

Despite her mother’s long-ago advice, Nordgren never married: Teaching, she said, “became my entire life.”

Frustration into action
A turning point for Mary Cathryn Ricker, St. Paul teacher union president, was the year she spent teaching in South Korea-a world away from her first teaching gig in St. Cloud.

“It was my first experience teaching where I had no union,” she said, “and it reshaped my thinking about their importance-I felt it viscerally.”

Ricker was frustrated by willy-nilly changes to working conditions and schedules. If she’d become pregnant, she likely would have been fired. “It was a throwback to what unions here were working on a generation ago,” she said.

Later, in St. Paul, frustration was one factor that propelled Ricker to action: She was frustrated not with management, but with union leaders.

“Our district superintendent was defending us against vouchers, but our union president wasn’t,” she said. “I had two options: I could stop caring, or do something about it.” Elected president in 2005, she’s serving the last of three two-year terms.

Ricker notes proudly that the St. Paul women’s teacher local organized in 1918. (The men organized later; the groups merged in 1957.)

Despite this history, the local’s leaders have mainly been men. Ricker attributes this to “embedded sexism in our culture, which sees men as more natural leaders.

“Women tend to work in collectives very comfortably-which makes union work a comfortable place to be active,” she said. “But some of that comfort with the collective can work against women [to the extent that] leaders are seen as those who stand out from the collective.”

Does it matter?
It matters that there are women heading teacher unions, Ricker believes. “We need to bring as many perspectives to the table as we can,” she said. “And in a profession dominated by women, we need to know how women’s lives intersect with the profession so contracts can reflect that.”

When she ran for president, Nordgren intentionally assembled a slate that was balanced in many respects-men, women, teachers of color, elementary and high school teachers, etc.-but added that if someone is suited to leadership and “has fire in the belly, it doesn’t matter to me if they’re male or female.”

Likewise, Skaar-saying she “appreci-ate[s] anyone who can make things happen, whether male or female”-has helped promote her union’s woman vice president, whom she describes as an “activist” like herself.

Despite numerous challenges-the three leaders cited retaining teacher jobs despite inadequate funding, a narrowing of curriculum combined with an increasing reliance on schools to solve social problems, and what Ricker called “an overemphasis on the science of teaching to the detriment of the art of teaching”-they all see a bright future for women in teacher union leadership.

“I see the younger women being a little more willing to speak up than maybe I was at that age,” Nordgren said. “They’re more willing to take on the world’s challenges.”