A Balance Sheet on the Oakland Teachers Strike

Bill Balderston

Posted June 26, 2023

Oakland teachers hold signs on the picket line at Elmhurst United Middle School on Thursday, May 4, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz (original image from The Oaklandside here)

On May 22, the results of the vote by members of the Oakland Education Association (OEA) on a tentative agreement (TA) were in, following a strike of seven school days. Seventy-two percent of members voted, with a 90 percent approval of the TA. This contrasted with a nearly 40 percent “no” vote at the conclusion of an OEA strike of the same length in 2019. How do these public school educators’ strikes compare with each other? How do they compare with recent school job actions elsewhere?

One obvious difference between this strike and the 2019 one is the timing. The 2023 strike occurred in the last month of the school year. The 2019 strike took place in the early spring, February 21-March 1.

For months the District administration refused to bargain and at times even to appear at the bargaining table. The OEA filed many unfair labor practice (ULP) charges. The administration’s goal was to delay a conclusion until late in the school year, trapping the union.

Other factors beyond the control of the union contributed to the delay. Chief among them were the pandemic and the acceleration of the turnover of members beyond the already troubling 20 percent a year over the last decade.

A key consequence was the weakness (or at least unevenness) of internal and community organizing. In the earlier strike, the lead-up was much longer, and the level of community outreach was much more extensive.

After seven months of futile negotiations, the OEA leadership decided to wage a ULP strike. Such action was “legal,” since the District had not bargained seriously. The District administration sought an injunction, which was rejected by the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB).

The 2019 bargaining process had involved an impasse and fact-finding, which overcame the limits on an open-ended strike. The one-day OEA strike in 2022 around school closures was also a ULP strike.

The strike was approved with over 90 percent “yes” responses. The OEA called for the strike to begin on May 4, with less than four full weeks remaining in the school year. The action was quite successful, with only a handful of teachers crossing the line.

Administrators sat in nearly empty buildings, without the district’s 34,000 students and 3,000 credentialed employees (teachers, counselors, psychologists, nurses, early childhood educators, adult education instructors, and substitute teachers).

The strike had been sanctioned by the Alameda Labor Council, of which Keith Brown, former OEA president, is the secretary-treasurer. The other main school unions (SEIU 1021, AFSCME and Teamsters) did not strike, but many of their members did not report to work, and some came to the picket lines.

Other workers, such as UPS drivers, generally did not cross the picket lines. At one point, a group of militant OEA members set up picketing at construction sites building new office space for the administration. This led to some disputes, but also useful discussions with construction workers.

The strike raises many questions: Was there a clear strategic vision in this process? Were there alternatives to a last-minute strike? What was and was not achieved in the settlement?

Unlike 2019, there was not a strong community organizing plan. Though there were efforts to involve segments of the community, such as the Black Organizing Project, the union wasn’t able to maintain ongoing communication with many other Oakland political groupings.

The internal organizing was also uneven. Some of this was due to the pandemic and turnover. However, the OEA ranks were divided by lingering frustrations around how the 2019 strike ended and by the many differences that arose over COVID.

There had been a separate bargaining team for negotiations around COVID safety — first around staffing, distance learning, etc., and later around the return to school. Protests and wildcat actions showed militancy, but the union did not have a coherent vision forward, even as negotiations for the new contract began in the late fall of 2022, with an expanded (50+ member) bargaining team.

An oppositional current emerged in the OEA, both in the leadership and outside, many from the former Crisis Action Team (CAT). They formed a rank-and-file caucus and ran candidates for union offices.

The election occurred just as the strike was unfolding. Only one of the opposition candidates won, the former head of the CAT team. A majority of the leadership caucus and the opposition are self-identified socialists, with DSA members on both sides, including the OEA president and a co-chair of the bargaining team. Another small current, By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), added to the tension.

The opposition caucus offered an alternative strategy: organizing a series of escalating actions, declaring an impasse, and preparing for strike action early in the following school year, with better organization and greater community support. The problem was that without significant, short-term improvements, especially around compensation, many members would have fled the district, matched by many students/families.

What was achieved in the contract? On compensation, there was a modest, but significant gain, roughly 10 percent (retroactive), ranging from $2,000-$3,700. A consolidation of the steps on the pay scale generally helped the newer teachers. There was also a $5,000 bonus. This made some inroads on the overall wage loss resulting from the lack of a cost-of-living allowance in the 2019 settlement. Oakland educators are the lowest paid in Alameda County, and in the bottom half dozen in the state.

There was no significant gain in class size, some advance in the number of support personnel (counselors, nurses, etc.), and limited gains for special education, a key issue with many of the most militant members and community activists.

The most visible part of the negotiations centered around “common good demands.” The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) raised such demands more than a decade ago. They were raised in contract battles in Los Angeles, St Paul, and elsewhere.

The common good demands included the use of District properties to house unhoused students, environmental justice (front and center for student militants), transportation, more support for newcomers, and programs in the arts.

The union reiterated the demand for a task force to deal with issues at any site with 40 percent or more Black and Brown students. The Board had set up such bodies, but they had done virtually nothing.

The biggest question was the emergence of “community schools.” These are programs with wrap-around services for students and the community, and a promise of shared decision-making. They are to be funded by over $100 million in state and federal money for Oakland. Who will control these funds? What mechanisms and processes will set priorities? These are critical questions for the future.

The resolution was to deal with these common good issues through a series of memoranda of understanding (MOUs), which had been used extensively during the pandemic. The majority of the School Board had refused to bargain ANY issues that were not mandatory, according to the state education code. The fact that OEA members forced the District to retreat on this was quite significant, even if the language was technically outside the contract. The main problem is that almost every MOU has a legal escape clause.

The gains were largely due to the initiative of many newer/younger educators, who brought energy to the picket lines and helped organize rallies and marches despite the reticence of the ever-present staff from the California Teachers Association (CTA), of which OEA is part. The activists were quite creative. The bargaining team deserves credit for its persistence.

Members of East Bay DSA provided support. They raised over $30,000 for food (“Bread for Ed”) and mobilized for the picket lines. DSA has over twenty OEA members.

What is the balance sheet of this strike? One could include among the positives some important gains around compensation, aiding newer educators, and the “common good” demands, which lay the basis for further organizing, especially around the community schools and special ed programs.

Many new members felt more empowered, despite attempts by the CTA officialdom to control every move. Members saw the importance of reaching out to students, parents and the community. They were motivated to prepare for the next local elections, as members of the School Board and City Council were exposed in the course of the strike.

There were modest advances, despite the timing of the strike and insufficient preparation. For example, no preparation for strike schools for students away from their classrooms. Supportive parents initiated a few of these as the strike proceeded. Noting the weaknesses is not to minimize the efforts of members and the bargaining team.

We should not, however, call this strike a “historic struggle,” which is how some in the OEA leadership and some in DSA describe it. We must attempt to give an honest appraisal to our union colleagues, other working-class/left activists, and the wider community.

For background, see The Oakland Teachers’ Strike – a view from the picket line. See also Reflections on the Oakland teachers’ strike: How to gauge an outcome on the Tempest website.


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