News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

March 04, 2019

The historic Oakland teachers’ strike and the way forward

By Leon Davidson

Oakland educators have voted to accept a new contract, bringing their seven-day strike to a close. During those seven days, Oakland educators — supported by students, parents, and workers from around the East Bay — demonstrated the power of solidarity and working-class self-organization. Politics in Oakland has been deeply marked by this strike, which propelled mass, multi-racial, working-class politics to the center of everyday life.

Thousands of Oakland teachers and their supporters were transformed by this strike.

For most working people, life is filled with the constant grind of the exploitation and oppression that comes with living under capitalism. But during the course of an exuberant mass strike like the one we just participated in, ordinary people do extraordinary things. We wrest control of our lives back from the bosses, join together across racial, gender, and economic difference to build powerful unions and movements, and — thanks to incredible bravery, creativity, and initiative — score wins against billionaires and their political cronies.

The continuing teachers’ strike wave shows no signs of slowing down, and education workers across other Northern California districts from Sacramento to San Ramon are poised to kick off their own labor actions. The Oakland teachers’ strike demonstrated yet again that workers, uniting in struggle, are the backbone of popular movements for economic, social, and racial justice.

Anatomy of a Strike

First, a few numbers. Over the course of the strike, 95 percent of teachers walked off the job, and 97 percent of students stayed home. With more than 85 percent of teachers on the picket lines during the first week, the strike maintained the joy and solidarity that only come when working people stand together to demand a better world.

On the picket lines, there were joyous dances, chants, and songs, from the Macarena to the wobble to the never-ending insistence that Oakland is, indeed, a union town.

Throughout the pickets and rallies there were serious political conversations about the dereliction of the school board and the state legislature. There were demonstrations of solidarity from workers in other unions. And there were powerful moments when teachers put their bodies on the line to shut things down. Teachers and parents occupied the state building during negotiations, shut down multiple school board meetings, and did so in style.

Mid-day rallies witnessed thousands of educators, parents, and students showing up with East Bay workers from all industries. During the rallies, we celebrated our power as a multi-racial working-class movement and demonstrated our willingness to fight the billionaires and privatizers, whether they appear as charter school lobbyists or the school board members who take their cash

And the strike inspired wildcat actions across the Bay Area, from non-union charter school educators in Oakland to public school teachers in San Francisco.

But it wasn’t just the picket lines and rallies. Hundreds of people put in countless hours behind the scenes on important solidarity projects to support the strike. As previous strikes in Chicago and Los Angeles demonstrated, a teachers’ strike cannot succeed without deeply rooted and robust support from parents and the broader community.

East Bay DSA collaborated with dozens of local faith, labor, and grassroots organizations to put on Bread for Ed, a fundraiser which brought in more than $170,000 and scores of volunteers to feed students and teachers during the strike. In a town where more than 70 percent of students receive free or reduced-price school lunches, the ability of students to get food without crossing the picket line was crucial to maintaining teacher-parent-student solidarity.

Another central plank in the strike’s infrastructure were “solidarity schools.” These were hosted by religious institutions, parents, rec centers, and community centers and offered a safe space where working parents who didn’t want to cross picket lines could take their kids to be taken care of, have fun, and be fed during the day. This was crucial for maintaining solidarity across a racially and linguistically diverse city, where working-class students of color make up a supermajority of the district.

We in East Bay DSA are proud of the work we did to support this massive and historic strike. In addition to spearheading Bread for Ed, we helped put on a number of public events in the lead-up to the strike to bolster support for the teachers. We published dozens of articles in our strike-focused publication Majority about the root causes of the crisis in Oakland and the experiences of teachers, students, and parents during the strike. And perhaps most visibly, we turned out more than 200 DSA members to support teachers on the picket lines over the course of the seven strike days.

When the working people of Oakland stand together in solidarity, we can demand and win concessions from the billionaire class, as well as their lackeys on the school board and in government. That is the number one lesson of this strike.

What Did Oakland Teachers Win?

Through this powerful political movement, Oakland teachers won a variety of concessions from a stubborn school board, one that is bought-and-paid-for by charter school interests. Over the four years of the contract, teachers won an 11 percent raise with a 3 percent bonus, smaller class sizes and more support staff, and a brief moratorium on school closures and charter school expansion

We should celebrate these gains for what they represent. It is also important to be sober about their limitations. Many teachers were disappointed with the terms of the contract and voted against ratification. Even those who voted to approve the contract know that, in and of itself, this contract will not deliver the schools that Oakland students deserve.

The mixed nature of the vote is the result of the overall strength of the strike, and it reflects a real contradiction. “Yes” voters recognized the incredible power that workers had brought to bear on the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) administration, wringing important concessions from a district that was hell-bent on not giving anything. “No” votes reflected the realization that this contract has important limitations, that teachers’ expectations have been permanently raised, and that much more struggle will be needed to win a more complete victory.

Educators on both sides of the contract vote are united around a broader vision: a fully funded, fully unionized, and democratically controlled public education system. We need to continually raise the expectations of our fellow workers, and of students and parents, fighting and winning victories where we can, to reach our goals of funding public education in Oakland, throughout California, and beyond.

How Do We Get More?

It’s important to think structurally about why the contract did not, in one fell swoop, deliver the schools that Oakland students deserve. The factors fall into three categories: the experience of the union itself, the school board and district, and the broader political situation at the state level and beyond.

First, unlike the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) strike, things came together relatively late in the game. In LA, the union’s reform slate won leadership four years ago and continually escalated and organized towards a strike since then. In the Oakland Education Association (OEA), new reform leadership won power less than a year ago in an attempt to invigorate in what had been a low-participation union. Organizing takes time, trust, and infrastructure, and the less time organizers have, the more difficult it is for them to build the rest.

Structural limitations on local school districts themselves also play an important role. While workers can force OUSD to chop from the top, we need a massive re-investment in our education system as a society. Forcing through massive taxes on the rich to fund education will require a statewide, and even national, movement.

We also need to continue pressuring the Oakland school board and ultimately we will need to elect new board members who represent the interests of the working-class majority. Thankfully, this strike has brought the corruption, mismanagement, and privatization mindset of OUSD and the school board to the fore of political consciousness in Oakland.

On those fronts, our work has just begun.

In order to win even bigger next time, East Bay community members can (1) start building towards the next strike starting now, generating the kind of organizing opportunities LA teachers had; (2) immediately mobilize the networks of parents, teachers and students built up by this strike toward fighting school closures and budget cuts in coming months and years; and (3) continue to build rank-and-file infrastructure within the union to advance democracy and robust organizing.

Oakland has just experienced one of the most intense and widely supported rounds of worker militancy that we’ve seen in decades. The political legacy of this strike will emerge over the next weeks, months, and years. While the newly ratified contract appears right now as the most immediate legacy, the political power, raised expectations, and rank-and-file initiative sparked and channeled by this strike will be the strike’s most significant repercussions.

The bonds forged between teachers and among parents, students, socialists, and the broader labor movement are not going away, and those strong relationships will form the basis of a new, heightened round of organizing and struggle.

The movement that has emerged from this strike should celebrate our wins, analyze our disappointments, take a deep breath, and then get ready to keep fighting. We’ve got a world to win.