News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.
Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.
February 13, 2019
By Katie Ferrari
Teachers in LA Unified just won a crushing victory on behalf of their city’s working families, using their 6-day labor strike to force the billionaire-controlled school district to lower class sizes, hire school nurses, stop criminalizing black and brown children, and pay teachers more. Oakland teachers and students are heading into their own confrontation with a billionaire-backed school board, so LA sent one of their most powerful strike leaders to Oakland this weekend to rally teachers and talk strategy.
On Saturday, the Oakland Education Association (OEA) and the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) hosted a panel discussion with Arlene Inouye, the secretary of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) and the chief negotiator for the union during the recent strike. UTLA is the second-largest teachers union in the country and represents a district with 500,000 students and 34,000 teachers, educators, and health and human services professionals. Inouye was joined by OEA president Keith Brown and veteran OUSD teacher Tim Marshall. Hannah Klein, an OUSD teacher and DSA member, moderated the panel. OEA has a recording of the discussion on their Facebook page, and we’ve distilled the key takeaways below.
Strike opponents will quickly frame strikes as “greedy” or “selfish” teachers versus schools and students. UTLA was ready with a truer, more powerful narrative: teachers were striking for “Schools LA Students Deserve.” The union explained that they were taking on the billionaires that were privatizing Los Angeles public schools. Americans are used to being told our political divide is between Republicans and Democrats. But in LA, there are barely any Republicans and the Democrats are hopelessly compromised by their links to corporations and the ultrawealthy. So instead of taking sides on “red vs. blue,” UTLA asked the public whether they were on the side of the teachers, students, and parents––or the billionaires. Framing the fight this way helped UTLA win public opinion: students, parents, and pets joined the picket lines in pouring rain, and by day six of the strike, 1,600 firefighters marched in solidarity with their sister and brother teachers.
The UTLA teacher strike lasted six days, but it was years in the making. Four and a half years ago, the union elected new leadership that began to shift it from being a service union that focused on handling individual issues and grievances on behalf of members, to being an organizing union that would bring thousands of rank-and-file members into action around militant demands.
The new leadership won a small initial salary increase from the district. Then they made a bold move: they asked their members to increase their dues by 33%. Union leaders put this big ask in context: the additional revenues would help the union prepare to fight the billionaire privatizers. 82% of UTLA’s members voted to raise their dues. With the extra money, UTLA got organized. They invested in systems and structures that would fuel their fight. They worked to identify leaders at the school sites and establish a chapter chair at nearly every single school in the 1000-school district. UTLA started building strong databases to keep track of union members and schools. The union hired seven full-time officers to cover about 1000 members each, parent-community organizers, and a four-person research department. The research department identified that charters were costing the LA school system over $500 million a year and perfected the messaging the union would use to engage the wider community.
Last August, OEA began making a similar shift from a service to an organizing union. OEA leaders studied Jane McAlevey’s organizing guide, No Shortcuts. At the beginning of the school year, OEA assessed gaps in the union by collecting signatures on a strike petition. Only 30% of union members signed. OEA started building power at schools by changing the bylaws to bring the strike vote directly to school sites with paper ballots. Last week, the union got a 95% “Yes” vote on a strike.
A strike affects students, parents, and the larger community. UTLA understood this and worked to involve the district’s 500,000 students and parents in preparing for the strike and building the bargaining package. This effort strengthened the strike in two ways. First, those affected by the strike felt invested. Second, students and parents added valuable perspective with their own needs and demands: it was students who introduced the demand that racially-charged “random” school searches be phased out.
UTLA also made sure to include the district’s 3000 substitutes. The union’s Substitute Committee reached out to subs and assured them of the support they would receive. Districts often call on subs to be scabs during a strike, and when subs cross the picket line to run schools, it weakens the power of the strike. UTLA chose to counter this strategy not by shaming subs who scabbed, but by building unity. The union assembled a list of subs who pledged to take part in the strike and prioritized them for future jobs. In the end, 90% of UTLA’s substitute teachers supported the strike.
Oakland’s students are already feeling invested and getting involved: last Friday, over 5,000 students called in sick and 350 students marched from Oakland Tech to the district office. Students attended Saturday’s OEA panel discussion and three student organizers, Ahmed, Lauren, and Theo, came to the front to talk about their work and why they support teachers. They estimate Friday’s sickout cost the district $100,000.
Oakland’s faith communities are showing up too: Pastor Anthony Jenkins and Taylor United Methodist will be opening their church to West Oakland students during the strike, and have encouraged other faith communities to do the same.
OEA President Keith Brown made one thing very clear: more money from Sacramento is not the magic bullet for OUSD’s problems. Brown has taught in the district for twenty years and has seen OUSD’s school board mismanage funds for just as long. Right now, OUSD’s school board is trying to shift the focus of the fight to Sacramento, saying that the district needs more funding overall. While this is true, Oakland has no assurance that additional funding will actually make it to schools and teachers, since OUSD’s school board has a history of prioritizing charters and consultants. Oakland teachers, students, and parents need to continue building power to hold the school board accountable to families instead of billionaires.
Inouye smiled as she talked about the incredible joy she witnessed during the strike: teachers, students, and parents were literally dancing in the streets. Thanks in large part to UTLA’s diligent organizing, people felt empowered and cared for for the first time in a long while. In its truest form, the strike is a unifying force for working people. The strike shows us our collective power and builds mutual respect as we fight together. From the brass bands in the streets during France’s Yellow Jacket movement to the students dancing in school hallways on day one of the Denver teacher strike, strikes and mass protests are making a comeback and bringing joy with them this time.