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East Bay DSA

March 08, 2019

In Their Own Words: Oakland Teachers Reflect on the Strike and The Road Ahead

By Katie Ferrari

It has been a week of real highs and lows for Oakland teachers and students. On Monday, Feb. 25, the strike was in its third jubilant day, with teachers and students returning to picket lines after the weekend. On Friday, March 1, while teachers, students, SEIU members and community members were picketing at La Escuelita to block a school board meeting on budget cuts, the union announced they had reached a tentative agreement with the district. By Monday, March 4, school was back in session after a contract that disappointed many teachers had been ratified by 57%. That same morning, hundreds of students called in sick to protest at the 10:30 a.m. emergency school board meeting at La Escuelita, at which school board members voted 4-3 to approve $21.7 million in budget cuts.

Majority’s Katie Ferrari spoke with teachers on Sunday as they left the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland after voting, and in the days following the vote. Here are some of the teachers’ thoughts on the strike, the tentative agreement, and what comes next.

Deciding to Strike

For some teachers, like Victoria B., a first-year STIP sub at Claremont Middle School, the decision to strike was easy: “I will always support unions,” she said. “I feel like there’s been a very drastic decrease in union-represented labor in the last few decades, and so I’ll always pay my union dues and if there’s ever a union to join, I will join it.”

Allison G., who has been teaching a fourth-and-fifth grade combo class at Emerson Elementary for two years and served as her school’s picket captain, said lower caseloads were a driving factor for her. “I was hopeful that there would be more direct results for my students,” she said. “If I could make one sweeping change to the district, it would be to have a mental health counselor in every elementary school. I have 9- and 10 year-olds who come to school with severe trauma and I’m expected to break through that and get them to dig into fractions.”

Others like Daniel L., who has been teaching computer technology at Claremont Middle School for three and a half years, were undecided at first. He explained:

“I initially didn’t want to go on strike. I’m living paycheck to paycheck right now and the 12% raise the union wanted to fight for wasn’t enough to outweigh losing pay for days or weeks. Talking to the nurses at my school about their caseloads and hearing how they worried about some of the students even when they weren’t at school pushed me towards striking, and then my daughter framed it really clearly for me. Kids have a great way of putting things in a very clear perspective. My daughter said to me, ‘We can either make a good choice or bad choice.’ That made me think, what side of history did I want to be on? The good side or bad side?”

(He chose the good side.)

Bottom-Up Organizing Leads to Community Support

Any strike is an uphill battle, but Oakland had extra factors that made things challenging. The Oakland Education Association (OEA)’s leadership is a relatively small group, newly elected last year, and only began organizing for the strike last August (by contrast, the union leadership that lead the successful UTLA strike put in four years of concerted organizing before their strike).

Paradoxically, these less-than-ideal characteristics led to some of the strike’s most exciting victories.

The strike took on a beautiful, bottom-up organizing structure because it had to: teachers and students stepped up and organized their schools and communities because there simply wasn’t enough union leadership or staff to do everything. When Allison G. went to a picket captain’s meeting, she quickly realized “there was a huge system that goes into organizing the strike” and that “there were things that weren’t being communicated to my staff and our families.” She became her site’s picket captain.

The sheer amount of teacher and student-led organizing in the strike led to the adoption of the common-good demand to end school closures. This demand in turn fueled a huge level of community support for the strike.

Paula M. is a teacher on special assignment at Grass Valley. She has been in the district for 25 years and went on strike in 1996. She described a stark difference between the two strikes:

“I can tell you, it was a very different feeling. That strike was really long and grueling and we didn’t have the same kind of support that we’ve had for this strike. There was so much community support this time that we didn’t have last time. It made a huge difference to keeping our spirits lifted. We really felt the love from the community, which is fantastic.”

Victoria B. said that she felt that “people surprised themselves and were surprised by one another. The amount of community support that we got was just amazing… The love was like batteries.” Alicia F., who is in her third year of teaching third and fourth grade at Cleveland Elementary, said that many neighbors came out to hold picket signs with the teachers: “One guy said, ‘I don’t even have kids, but I’m here to support public education.’”

Daniel L. described an incredible moment of community solidarity during the strike:

“I felt the community’s strength the most when we walked from Elmhurst Community Prep to Roots International Academy. The open support we had while walking down International Blvd. was amazing: people coming out of their shops and stores, slowing their cars down and reaching out. We got that support throughout other parts of Oakland, but when we went down International, they were invested in what we were trying to do for the community and they were a part of it with us. You could see on most people’s faces how they felt over there, because that area is being affected the most. And seeing it in all those people’s faces showed that they were with us.”

“Joyful Militance” on the Picket Line

During the strike, 95% of teachers walked off the job, and 97% of students stayed home. Over 85% of teachers were on picket lines during the first week. Across the board, teachers described a mixture of exhaustion and elation while on strike. This was many teachers’ first strike and they had no idea what to expect. It can be frightening and difficult to go without pay for an unknown period of time.

Kristen V., who has taught art at Grass Valley Elementary for 13 years, echoed others when she said the daily pickets and rallies were “definitely way more tiring than teaching for a week.” Victoria B. said that her experience was “tiring and exhausting,” but that the love she felt from the community “acted as a sort of fuel.” Daniel L. brought his daughter to the picket line for a few days and said it was “a great experience to show her that even though we’re told we have to do things a certain way, you still have a voice in what’s happening around you.”

Others talked about the bonding they experienced with their fellow teachers while on the line. Pierce P., who has taught first grade at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School for two years, said it was “a really cool bonding experience of solidarity and learning who we are as people, not just as teachers.” Allison G. perhaps summed it up best: she and her fellow teachers described their experience on the line as “joyfully militant.”

Frustrations with the Tentative Agreement

In the middle of Friday afternoon’s picket to block the school board from meeting at La Escuelita, OEA president Keith Brown announced that the bargaining team and the district had reached a tentative agreement. Union leadership’s decision to call the TA a “historic victory” upset a number of teachers: they felt like the union had already decided teachers should accept the agreement, even though they had not yet read it.

It is important to note that the OEA’s choice to grant union members a twenty-four hour discussion and voting period — eventually extended to just under 48 hours — was the “most democratic ratification process that this strike wave has yet seen.” Nonetheless, there is a lesson for union leadership here: up until Friday afternoon, the strike had been well-planned and coordinated by the union leadership to facilitate unity and power. The union did not have a plan on Friday afternoon when the TA was announced; as a result, the strike started to weaken and teachers became frustrated.

Teachers were disappointed with many aspects of the TA, which, after Sunday’s vote, becomes the contract through 2021.

On the issue of school closures and charter schools, Board President Aimee Eng agreed to introduce resolutions for a five-month moratorium on school closures and a moratorium on charter schools. The board has yet to vote on these resolutions, and, as many on the school board are beholden to wealthy pro-charter donors and to GO Public Schools, it is likely that they will vote against both. Daniel was unhappy about “leaving the table with a contract that doesn’t set in stone protecting East Oakland communities.” If the board does approve a five-month moratorium, it would expire in the summer. Jacob R., who has been teaching history at Oakland High for 8 years, points out that the district could use the teachers’ “lack of organization in the summer” to push through school closures.

Jacob R. also worried that SEIU, whose members had struck in solidarity with the teachers, “felt sold out by the contract.” Victoria B. described how little the TA did for school nurses:

“The 22 nurses that currently service 37,000 students are now more liable. It becomes their responsibility to make sure that those 37,000 students are in fact serviced––and that takes the pressure off of the district and puts it on nurses. The nurses that I know are not happy about it, and they sat front row at the ratification meeting to voice their disappointment and make sure that they were seen.”

The contract reduces class sizes by 1 student in high-needs schools next year. All classes will see a reduction in class size by 1 in 2021. Allison G. said this was insufficient: “My current students will be in high school. They’ll be in high school––and I teach at an elementary school––before my school sees a class size reduction.”

While the strike did push the district to increase their pre-strike offer of teacher raises from 7% to 11%, with a 3% bonus at the time of ratification, Jacob R. pointed out that the raise “is less than the cost of inflation.” Allison G. explained that teachers wouldn’t “get 6% of this 11% until 2021. By that point, most of the teachers fighting this fight will be gone because the 5% that we’re going to get over the next two years is not going to make a difference.” Pierce P. expressed concern for future teachers: “How is this going to help…support new [teachers] that might have my [students] in the coming years?”

In the end, Allison G. said, “There is nobody I talked to who voted ‘yes’ because they are stoked on this. It was a matter of, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to win anything else, and I have to get these kids back into the classroom.’”

Jacob R. said that teachers were concerned a prolonged strike would “divide the union. Right now we have community support and a pretty united union. We have momentum from that…By continuing to drag this out, we might not get anything extra out of it.” He also pointed out that the community had ignored school board elections for several years: “I don’t think you can come in for a few months and solve years of neglect…There’s been a lot of people working very hard, but the more mass organization is very recent. And I just don’t think you can win everything you want that quickly.”

Moving Forward: “We’ve Been Given This Tremendous Gift of Organizing”

Even amidst their upset over the contract, teachers were able to acknowledge positive outcomes from the strike and lay out a vision for the future. The strike built a newfound sense of unity and power that teachers are excited to continue wielding within the district and beyond. Paula, Kristen, Alicia, and Allison all talked about the need for all school districts to come together and march on Sacramento for increased funding for education. (California has the world’s 5th largest economy, but thanks to decades of disinvestment from public education, it ranks 46th in per-pupil spending in the country.)

Paula M. said that the strike had showed her that “when we come together, we have power.” She continued, “It was a chance for our site staff to become unified. There’s a lot of solidarity which was really beautiful and we’re talking about how to keep that going post-strike.” Allison G. said that “people are ready to keep moving: my staff was texting all day today about the actions at the school board…That has never happened before.” She also talked about the relationships the strike had built between schools in her cluster:

“When the district is running the show rather than the union, there is great divide between the hill schools and the flat schools. It was this experience that allowed us to bridge a lot of those gaps….We have been given an opportunity to create relationships between schools that have tremendous resources and schools that do not, and we need to figure out how to continue this partnership because Oakland is an incredibly segregated school district by class and race. We’ve been given this gift of this organizing.”

Perhaps most significantly for future organizing efforts, for many teachers, the strike also changed their perspective on the root cause of education problems in Oakland: Alicia F. said it had created “a huge push for me to keep fighting for public education because we can’t let the privatizers come and take over our city.” Charter schools have drained $57 million from Oakland’s traditional public schools and four of Oakland’s school board members have been bought and paid for by privatizing interests. Jacob R. pointed out that “if the school board is going to change, we have it make it toxic to accept money from the billionaires — you know, the Gateses, the Walton family, the Broads, whoever else is funding these candidates.”

This new perspective, that teachers, families, and working people in Oakland have to unite against the billionaires and their agenda to privatize society, is the basis of the kind of mass solidarity and militancy that changes the world. Having created organizing structures and a new consciousness across the city, the strike could ultimately be the opening victory in a new war of people against profit.