By Terri Kay
Following the inspiration of teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Los Angeles and more, Oakland teachers, organized by the Oakland Education Association (OEA), went out on strike on February 21 with four major demands: salary increase of 12 percent, reductions in class size, increase of support staff (counselors, resource specialists, psychologists, speech therapists, and nurses), and no school closures (24 schools were listed for closure, 17 of them in East Oakland, the poorest, Blackest, Brownest section of the city). Oakland teachers are the lowest paid in Alameda County despite huge area rent increases, resulting in an annual loss of one out of every five teachers.
The OEA managed to galvanize teachers, students, parents and community to support the strike demands. Over the seven days of the strike, only 3 percent of the students crossed the lines, with 95 percent of the teachers staying out as well. Teachers, parents, students and community staffed the picket lines daily. Thousands turned out to midday OEA-organized rallies and marches every day. Solidarity schools were organized in churches, libraries, recreation centers and even some parents’ homes to help parents who didn’t have anywhere to take their kids. Food distribution was set up to feed the children at the solidarity schools. Neighbors and community members brought food to the picket lines daily. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), on the heels of their successful strike, sent a team of five experienced organizers to help the strike team, arriving the day before the strike started and staying through the end.
All this was organized by a union which, until their last elections about a year ago, had mostly operated as a service union handling grievances and complaints. The new leadership team, headed by Keith Brown, had to not only pull the teachers together into an organized fighting force, but deal with the recent Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which dropped the mandated union dues and membership for public workers, necessitating constant diligence on the part of the OEA to get teachers to opt in.
The tentative agreement was ratified by the teachers on March 3. In a statement on the ratification, the OEA said, “The city of Oakland has spoken. No longer will we allow a handful of billionaires determine the educational opportunities of Oakland kids. We will continue to organize with each other and fight until we have truly realized the schools our students deserve.”
They won an 11 percent increase, plus a signing bonus of 3 percent. However, the agreement left room for improvement on the other three major demands, with class size reductions of one next year for the highest needs schools and reductions of one for the rest in 2021. Support staff got some reductions in caseloads spread out through the length of the contract. Nurses, who needed a salary increase for recruitment and retention, won’t see the salary increases until 2021, but will get $10,000 bonuses next year and in 2021.
The fourth and most significant demand for the community, a halt to the planned school closures, was only given lip service by the Oakland Unified School District, with a five-month pause on school closures and consolidations, despite OEA having exposed that OUSD spent $1,500 per student on consultants last year, three times the average for large California districts. Additionally, OEA discovered that OUSD spends 107 percent more on administrators than the state average for large districts. Charter schools cost OUSD $57 million per year. That’s $1,500 less in funding for each OUSD student. The OEA has said it will continue to organize and advocate against school closures.
Oakland educators talk about the strike
This reporter was on the picket lines and attended the rallies and press conferences every day of the strike. Additionally, three Oakland educators were interviewed to get a gain a broader perspective of the outcome of the strike from their points of view.
Ryan Sin, who teaches part-time at Encompass in kindergarten after having previously taught for five years full time said:
I felt pretty good about the participation at our school site. We share the site with Acorn school and only one teacher between the two schools crossed the lines. The two schools created fundraising websites to ease the financial burden for the participating teachers. At our school and in our neighborhood, some parents were stressed out, but no one was super upset. We had a lot of sympathy. Some parents would bring food. A lot of families had some background with strikes and labor struggles, more so than many of the teachers.
I voted yes on the [tentative agreement], with some reservations. I feel that teachers deserve a raise, especially with the cost of living in Oakland. Some people felt that we sold out the nurses, but they received the same raise plus 9 percent. The messaging was much stronger than they achieved, typical of bargaining. Some thought we should have gotten the full 12 percent. Because of the structural issues in the district, they knew they wouldn’t get everything they asked for. The district is at risk of going into receivership. OUSD made cuts, which if the state perceives that as fiscal responsibility, the state could relieve some of the pressure.
The bigger point of why I voted yes – we are operating in a very unjust operating system and no agreement was going to solve all the structural problems. The gains we made have left teachers optimistic about further struggle around the structural issues. School closures should be the last thing on the table for any district. OUSD is in a really dire financial situation. I don’t agree with the decisions, but they need to make huge cuts.
School closures was something that the contract negotiations was never going to be able to address. It’s not acceptable to close down all these schools in East Oakland which serve Black and Brown youth. Making these students travel greater distances to go to school will only make their educational experiences worse.
We need to put pressure on local and state politicians to keep the schools open. Need to be creative to show that closing schools destroys communities, particularly from the most economically deprived communities. I’m looking forward to helping the union and community in this organizing.
Although the repeal of prop 13 isn’t on the ballot until next year, if passed it will tax commercial infrastructure, instead of taxing them at the rate they were assessed when they were opened. Could generate $11 billion a year statewide for school districts and local infrastructure.
Black and Brown youth shortchanged by OUSD
Sagnicthe Salazar is the Dean of Restorative Discipline at Elmhurst Community Prep 6 and teaches eighth grade. Although not in the union, Salazar was out on the picket lines and joined the strike rallies as well. Salazar is a well-respected community organizer. Of the strike, he said:
Strike demands were difficult as the teachers had been working for a long time without a contract. They had not been activated for a long time. LA and other areas got them activated. Since the teachers became activated, there was a move toward a contract not just about teachers, but about addressing the needs of the school community. They needed to build teacher retention and deal with issues such as class size, counselors, and restorative justice.
The strike was helpful around getting teachers activated, but created a lot of divisions within the community.
Students are still very angry and are blaming teachers. Kids were out of school without a safe and structured place and a lot of teachers felt the pressure of that to end the strike, but it ended up looking like they didn’t care about students. High school students in particular are feeling betrayed. Many parents who were activated are very angry. A faction of teachers disagreed and thought they looked at the strike too locally, and not taking the fight to the state. OUSD is nearing state receivership because of the deficit that we’re in. This was a temporary unsustainable win, without a change in the state funding structure.
On the school closures – a five-month moratorium is kind of a joke. The district has done a disservice in experimenting with closing down and merging schools. The school board has stolen money from students [by] creating administrative positions at the central office level that are not really serving kids. A lot of our students have been pulled into charter schools. Entire communities are losing schools without any engagement happening. Our school is being merged without any of our voices, it’s a mandate, just like at the beginning of the small school movement putting two schools on one campus.
The reason we’re in this position is because of historically racist funding due to Prop 13 and Prop 98, which negatively affect Black and Brown students especially in the flatlands, and we won’t be able to win sustainable gains until funds get shifted.
‘Fight for the heart of East Oakland’
Chris Jackson, teacher at Castlemont high school that serves flatland East Oakland families and a former social worker who helped formerly incarcerated people to find jobs, was on the City College Board of Trustees to Save City College. He currently works with ACCE against foreclosures. He also had a lot to say about the strike:
Castlemont High School students include those who are homeless, fighting heat shut offs, struggling with PTSD, and many with learning disabilities.
Strike support was amazing. Ninety-seven percent didn’t attend school at Castlemont. Immediately when we came back, our students were back. The students didn’t go to school to support the teachers. The message that the teachers were fighting for the students galvanized the community.
I think we gained a moral high ground in this battle. It will affect our fights around school closures, privatization and other contract fights. Students have been in this fight for a long time, since privatization set in. When I went to school, you had your private and parochial schools – they didn’t encroach on each other. Now they’ve closed over a dozen schools. Teachers aren’t paid enough to stay here. Students aren’t looking at this as a short-term struggle, they’ve been fighting this since kindergarten.
The school budget is grossly unequal. We are receiving only 25 cents per dollar in the classrooms. Students are sick and tired of this and want us to continue to fight. The fight will be around school closures. Seventeen of 24 scheduled to close are in East Oakland. This is a fight for the heart and soul [here]. The budget deficit was created by hiring too many six-figure administrators and consultants who have no direct impact on student achievement. They need to chop from the top, not cut from the roots. School closures do not save money, and may end up costing the district more money.
Forces in OUSD want to pitch this as a state fight. We need to reform ourselves internally. We can’t have a budget with 25 percent going to the classrooms. Going to Sacramento means we need extra money. We need to reallocate money. Reset our values to classroom, students, and teachers. We need this conversation within the school district. When we finally get to Sacramento, we can have the conversation about being the 46th in the nation on per pupil spending. We need to talk about ways to solve teacher shortage issues. A large portion of problems are locally-based and we need to resolve that. A conversation with teachers, students, families and community at large.
We typically have many strong candidates for OUSD, but Go Public Schools and the California Charter Schools Association put hundreds of thousands of dollars into local elections. Over the past four years, they have put $500,000 into local election cycles. Their candidates are funded by corporate interests with a privatization/school closure agenda. They are managing OUSD like an investment portfolio, rather than a school district. This will continue until we have resources to beat back the corporate interests. The strike really shined a light on these corporate interests.
My daughter went to Emerson Elementary. In kindergarten, there was no after-school program, as they couldn’t afford it at $250,000. That’s about the salary of OUSD’s press administrator. This shows their values and the budgetary impact. Closing Roots only saved $377,000. Cutting two administrators, could have saved a middle school, which served over 400 students. Do you prioritize two high-price administrators [and] a press administrator, or schools and afterschool programs? We need to change that.
OEA for the longest time was a service union, handling general complaints and grievances, not organizing. Keith, Ish, Becca, and the rest of the leadership team had to do a lot of internal organizing, especially with Janus [v. AFSCME]. When teachers transferred schools, they had to make sure they were still in the union.
The other battle was to say, “Hey, we’re OEA, this is what we’re trying to do: educate people about funding inequalities, and build support.” I anticipated that we hadn’t internally built the power to get everything the first time around. We need to build a Political Action Committee. Need to broaden the bargaining team. I respect Keith and the team for managing that transition while carrying on the strike.
When our contract is up again in four years, I expect all the capacity building will have been happening. We need to put funds in the PAC to fund candidates. Labor put in almost $300,000 in LA to back a school board candidate. We need to do this to build the fight.
Continuing the struggle
It will take more than just this one strike to bring Oakland schools up to the quality which the students deserve after the years of destruction caused by the passage of Prop 13 in 1978 and the continued onslaught of the charter school billionaire privatizers. However, the strength and unity shown by the teachers, students, parents and community during this strike showed that people are determined to make this happen.