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

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East Bay DSA

February 28, 2019

“The strike is powerful”: San Francisco teachers organize to join Oakland picket lines

By Katie Ferrari

Today, teachers across the Bay Area are staging a solidarity sick-out and joining Oakland teachers on the picket line. Majority’s Katie Ferrari interviewed two San Francisco teachers participating in the action. They discuss labor’s power to take on racial-justice demands, how the Red Scare stunted the labor movement, and why they and their coworkers are putting it all on the line today for Oakland teachers and students.

Vanessa Hutchinson-Szekely is in her 18th year of teaching: she worked in Los Angeles for seven years, and has been teaching in San Francisco since 2008.

Ariela Rothstein is in her second year of teaching in San Francisco, and taught in New York City for seven years before coming to the Bay.

Oakland against the world

California is the world’s fifth-largest economy, but thanks to decades of disinvestment from public education, it ranks 46th in per-pupil spending in the country. This disparity is especially glaring in the Bay Area: “I’m on my commute, crossing the bridge, seeing the Salesforce tower, Pandora, all these major corporations, and then hearing, ‘Twenty-four schools in Oakland are closing because the school district can’t afford to keep its doors open,’” Rothstein says.

Both educators noted that Bay Area salaries, relative to the cost of living, are much lower compared to LA and NYC, with Oakland teachers among the lowest paid in the Bay Area.

Hutchinson-Szekely put it bluntly: “At this point in my career, I’m almost 20 years down the salary scale, and I consider my salary to be okay, but the cost of living here is so crazy that I’m still struggling.”

“Teachers are not volunteers,” she continued, “They should not have to do this after they go do another job. Teachers need to be able to live and work in the city in which they teach. Teacher pay needs to respond to that. If teachers leave because they can’t afford to stay here, it’s a disservice to the students, because it’s really the people who’ve been doing this for a long time who have figured out how to hone the beautiful craft of teaching.”

Bay Area teachers face a unique organizing challenge: the region is carved into many small districts. “The number of districts in such a small area is really disorienting,” says Rothstein.

In LA and New York City, massive numbers of students and teachers are linked in a single geographic district: LAUSD has a staggering 1,147 schools and a 30,000-member teachers’ union; NYC has 1,700 schools and a 200,000 member union. This means a huge number of teachers and families can unite in a strike.

But in the Bay, districts look more like Oakland: 87 schools, including charters, and around 3,000 in the union. Every surrounding city, from Richmond to Fremont to SF to San Jose, has its own union bargaining separate contracts on separate schedules, fracturing the power of the unions to win huge demands that can raise the Bay’s working class as whole.

Across the bridge and into the flatlands

The good news is that the Oakland teacher strike has inspired multi-district organizing, building union strength and militancy across districts. The statewide teacher organizing group CA Educators Rising has united teachers and students from the San Francisco, Berkeley, San Lorenzo, and Albany districts for today’s sick out. Teachers and students from these districts will join Oakland picket lines and speak at the 11 a.m. rally at Oscar Grant Plaza.

“Organizing for the multi-district walkout has been a fascinating experience,” Rothstein says. “To see people take the small risk of a single sick day, and how big of an impact that can have when multiple districts start to get involved, even just one or two people saying, ‘Yes I will do it,’ it can have a snowball effect.

“Unions can show up for other unions when they’re fighting. Doing work to support LA did a lot for us here in San Francisco, and now supporting Oakland is doing the same thing.”

Moving from the classroom into the community

It is critical that unions continue to expand their focus to social justice issues that impact their students and communities outside of the classroom. When unions take on these broader issues, in a process called “bargaining for the common good,” it helps workers to see their own power to change conditions in society, and engages both members and the community more deeply in a single struggle.

“The union is another mechanism for advocacy, both for yourself as a worker and also for students,” Rothstein explains.

OEA has expanded its focus beyond “bread and butter” teacher issues like pay and benefits, and is demanding more nurses, more special education support, and an end to school closures – all of which would have a huge impact on the working-class communities of color served by OUSD

“The fight to stop school closures is an anti-racist fight, it is a fight to save public education for everybody,” Rothstein says. “Something that’s cool to see here in California is how both LA and Oakland leadership has taken on some of the most challenging struggles around privatization, charter schools, Black Lives Matter, school closures, and taken strong stances to support students and families.”

“Closing schools is traumatic, and it’s important that people are speaking up to this,” Hutchinson-Szekely adds. “Let’s look at what’s going on with the purse strings, who’s controlling what, and what needs to be done so that we can rectify a situation where billionaires are backing a drive towards charter schools.”

Return of the strike

Oakland teachers are on day six of their strike and the emotional boost of today’s solidarity actions cannot be underestimated.

“Strikes are physically, emotionally, and mentally draining,” Hutchinson-Szekely acknowledges. “I think it’s very important that Oakland is striking, that LA and Denver struck, because it’s raising the severity of the demand and highlighting that we need to think about how we fund education and how we prioritize it. We need to think about how we’re caring for the people in our communities.”

For too long, Rothstein says, “the strike was not really a tool that unions were using. That’s changed over the past year thanks to West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma and now California.”

In New York and elsewhere, McCarthyism and the Red Scare of the 1950s had a significant impact on unions. “Thousands of teachers lost their jobs because they were deemed communists or communist protectors in the ‘50s,” Rothstein says.

“When the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) started in NYC in the early ‘60s,” she continued, “it was with a body of educators, none of whom were openly communist or would protect their friends who were communists. So when you think about it, the people who started the UFT were more conservative people.” This shaped the union’s identity, who it decided to fight for, and how it decided to fight.

“That can’t be understated,” Rothstein continues. “Now we’re seeing a return of recognizing that the strike is powerful and we can fight for students too using this tool. It’s heartening to me to see that as the strike wave progresses, it’s becoming more and more bold and taking on different issues that are impacting our students and communities of color, immigrant communities, some of the most at-risk under this administration.”

The heart of the fight

Education is ultimately a human right, not the business billionaire privatizers are trying to turn it into. “It does not matter whether your parent is a lawyer or works at the convenience store down the street,” Hutchinson-Szekely says, “You should have access to an education that teaches you how to think critically and how to advocate for yourself and your community. That should be done at our public schools, and it cannot be done unless there is an appropriate level of funding.”

“If charter schools recruit students,” she continues, “Who is advocating for the children whose parents aren’t putting them in charter schools or private schools? We need to care about all the children, particularly the ones with the most needs. And that speaks to the values of a society.”