View of the Oakland Teachers' Strike

Jack Gerson

ON FRIDAY MARCH 1, a powerful seven-day strike by the Oakland teachers’ union (OEA) came to a sudden halt when the union’s bargaining team agreed to a tentative contract settlement falling far short of the expectations of many Oakland teachers, their student and community supporters.

At cluster meetings the next morning, disappointed teachers made bitter accusations. Heated debate carried into the afternoon, when a divided Representative Council (delegate assembly) voted narrowly (53 to 50) to recommend ratification. On Sunday, OEA members ratified the contract, but with an unusually big “no” vote: 1141 to 832 (58% yes, 42% no).

Why this division on an agreement hailed by the union leadership as “historic” and “a total victory”?

Many teachers (and supporters) were stunned by the way the strike ended. They felt that it was shut down from the top down, with zero notice. The leadership’s constant message had been, “We’re winning.” Why was the strike shut down? And for such a meager settlement?

OEA had demanded no school closures. Earlier this year, OUSD announced plans to close 15 schools and consolidate nine others. The OEA leadership said “no closures” was a critical demand. But in the tentative agreement, they settled for a five-month “pause” in closures. That’s not worth much: the pause will end at the beginning of August, in time for OUSD to close schools before next school year starts.

Many teachers spoke out against the “pause.” It will be much harder to fight those school closures in the summer, with teachers and students on vacation, than it’s been during the strike. And if the schools are closed, we can expect the available school properties to be disposed by some moving to charter schools, some to real estate speculators who will drive housing costs still higher — resulting in more teachers leaving Oakland, more homelessness.

School nurses said that their overwhelming need was for OUSD to lower their workload and hire more nurses. But the tentative agreement provided no change in nurses’ workload — just cash bonuses, for which the nurses had repeatedly told the union’s bargaining team they didn’t want to settle. Several nurses told the Saturday meetings that “We were thrown under the bus.”

OEA had demanded a reduction of maximum counselor workload to 250 students, from the current 600. But they agreed to 550 next year and 500 the following year. Every little bit helps, but this will only help a little bit.

OEA had demanded a reduction of class size maximums, by four per class in high needs schools (about half of Oakland schools) and by two elsewhere. But in the tentative agreement, they settle for reductions of two in high needs schools and one elsewhere, phased in over three years — better than nothing, but far less than what’s needed, as many teachers said.

OEA had demanded a 12% pay increase over three years, starting retroactively on July 1, 2017, to bring the lowest-paid teachers in Alameda County a bit closer to the county median.

The agreement covers four years, but the final increase won’t take effect until the school year following the contract’s expiration, so the total increase is 11%, spread over five years. And because of the timing of each raise, the total income (including a one-time 3% bonus) during the contract’s four years is equivalent to a 1.5% pay increase per year.

The Bay Area’s cost of living rises about 3.5% annually. So, the real wages of Oakland teachers will fall over the life of this contract. Young teachers will be still less able to make ends meet, and the exodus of teachers out of Oakland will continue (70% leave within five years).

OEA had made solidarity with other school worker unions a main theme. Indeed, on March 1 OEA called for a picket with community members and SEIU Local 1021 (representing OUSD classified workers) to block the school board from meeting and adopting a budget which would cut over 140 jobs, mainly of SEIU members. But at about 2 pm, OEA President Keith Brown told the pickets “We have a TA! We Won!” and urged them to disperse. The optics of this are very bad and were not lost on SEIU members. One wrote on Facebook:

“As a SEIU member who has been picketing in the rain or shine for the past seven strike days, I feel betrayed. I feel used… I thought our collective goal Friday was to shut down the Board Meeting.”

Fortunately, several hundred OEA members ignored the leadership’s request and stayed to picket with SEIU and community until after 6pm, when the school board meeting was cancelled. It’s critical to not let the school board play divide and conquer, pretending that they have to cut SEIU workers and student support programs to pay for the OEA contract.

The attempt to disperse the pickets on Friday played into the school board’s hands. That needs to be corrected. It’s important that OEA leadership makes clear that it unambiguously stands with all OUSD workers and stands fully in solidarity and support with them.

Those cuts need not happen: much of the money is already there, and more can be found by cutting down on OUSD’s outrageous shoveling of revenue to private contracts and to redundant and overpaid top administrators.

What Went Right, and Didn’t

On balance: The new OEA leadership, elected last spring, laid a solid foundation for the strike by reorganizing the union at the site level, strengthening its site connections and reaching younger teachers and teachers of color more effectively than has been done for decades. This groundwork enabled Keith Brown and his team to lead a spirited strike supported and carried out by over 90% of OEA members.

In contrast, OEA’s punishing 27-day strike in 1996 was beset by divisions within the union and within the community, as some charged that it deprived Black students of essential schooling. None of that this time — the union was unified throughout the strike, and had substantial support from students, parents and community.

It’s not helpful to characterize the contract as “a sellout,”nor to say that the bargaining team or the officers are “sellouts.” I believe them when they say that they’re convinced that this was the best deal that could be had at this time. I believe them, but I don’t agree with them.

Why not?

First, the leadership was influenced by their state parent, the California Teacher Association (CTA). CTA is overly legalistic and cautious, and it is closely tied to the state Democratic Party. For years, CTA had cautioned against “strike-happy” militants.

Over the past several months, CTA has adapted to the heightened energy and expectations of teachers triggered by the red states teacher strikes: its adaptation is to favor limited strikes — short in duration, limited demands, and looking to Democratic politician “friends” to deliver modest gains. CTA wants to make sure things don’t get out of hand by establishing means of influencing and, where possible, controlling strike strategy from the top down.

Under CTA’s influence, the OEA strike was carried out with far less transparency and control from below than it should have been. Decisions were made by a small “strategy group” of CTA staffers and OEA officers, rather than an elected strike committee — even the OEA executive board was largely cut out of the loop.

The OEA communications committee was reorganized on the eve of the strike — the reorganized committee had no OEA members and was run by CTA. Although OEA’s Representative Council had voted overwhelmingly for members to receive daily updates, during the strike such updates were not made.

Consequently, many if not most members were taken by surprise when, after days of strong picket lines and reports from leadership that “We’re winning,” the strike leadership, with little advance notice to the membership, yielded to pressure from state superintendent of public instruction Tony Thurmond and agreed to the disappointing tentative agreement (more later on Thurmond’s role).

One lesson is: more transparency is needed; also especially needed is an elected strike committee to work directly with the officers, the executive board and, as often as possible, Rep Council and picket captains.

Second and related, I think that there was a reluctance to aggressively confront corporate targets physically with militant actions. To overcome the intransigence of the corporate-funded and controlled school board, it’s necessary to convince corporate Oakland that the union is prepared to see that there’s no business as usual.

Hesitancy to do that was evident in the reluctance of the OEA leadership to vigorously pursue a proposal to rally and picket at the Port of Oakland, which could and should have occurred several days ago and would have had the support of dockworkers (ILWU Local 34 had already voted its support).

Instead, CTA staff and OEA officers expressed fears that the union would be legally liable if it picketed at the port (it wouldn’t: the park and roads at the port are public property, picketing there is legal and that right has been exercised numerous times, including more than once by OEA).

Finally, on what would be the next to last day of the strike, Thursday February 28, Rep Council voted overwhelmingly to picket at the port on March 5. It’s no accident that OUSD improved its offer and rushed to settle when they did: one big reason was to preempt the port action.

Had OEA not settled on March 1, and especially if it followed the Port action with militant rallies and sit-ins aimed at the big real estate and financial interests in downtown Oakland, I think that the corporate masters would have told state and city politicians to cough up some money, and told their school board puppets to settle up.

Settlement and Aftermath

The union leadership repeatedly credited OEA’s militant and spirited picket lines and mass rallies with what they proclaimed as an “historic win” and total victory. But then, shortly before announcing the tentative agreement, they turned around and said that the meager tentative agreement is “the best that can be won at this time” because, they claim, support was beginning to ebb.

I saw little evidence of that. Thousands of teachers turned out to picket, march and rally on rainy days all week. I think that there’s another reason: the union leadership is for the most part close to liberal Democrats like state superintendent of schools Tony Thurmond, who was invited in by the OEA leadership to mediate the dispute and broker the deal.

Thurmond had been elected only a few months earlier with massive support from CTA and teacher union locals (including OEA), who hailed him as a friend of teachers and public education in contrast to his opponent Marshall Tuck, the charter school executive heavily backed by corporate billionaires. But Thurmond and other Democrats represent corporate interests and the state, both of which wanted an end to this disruptive strike.

After Thurmond was invited in, he pressed the OEA bargaining team and leadership to settle quickly or risk losing “public” (meaning his) support.

On Monday, March 4 — the morning after the OEA contract was ratified — hundreds of students and several teachers called in sick to protest at an emergency school board meeting called during school hours to try to minimize student and school worker presence.

Despite impassioned speeches from scores of students and several teachers and other school workers, and over the protest of virtually all of those present, the school board voted to make $22 million in cuts: to school libraries; to restorative justice programs; to the Asian Pacific Islander support program; to the foster youth program; and to lay off well over 100 classified school workers.

On Friday, March 8 — five days after the OEA contract was ratified — state superintendent of public instruction Tony Thurmond facilitated the first meeting of a “Charter Task Force.”

As part of the settlement of January’s Los Angeles teacher strike, the Los Angeles school board adopted a motion calling on the state of California to declare a moratorium on charter school growth. California Governor Gavin Newsom agreed to this but tagged on the need for a study to assess the impact of charter schools. Newsom asked Thurmond to name the study panel.

All along, the question has been: who would Newsom and Thurmond name to the panel? Would this be a fair study, or would it be rigged in favor of the charter schools and the charters’ billionaire backers (who are also major donors to the California Democratic Party).

One glance at the panel’s makeup answers that question: Of the eleven panelists, seven are either charter school industry executives or have strong ties to the charter school industry (four charter school executives; plus two leading supporters of Marshall Tuck’s failed bid for state superintendent of public education (Tuck’s campaign received $30 million from corporate billionaire foundations); plus the superintendent of schools of the charter-friendly El Dorado County office of education.

Tony Thurmond says “Trust me. California will have charter school reform.” Well, no doubt there will be some minor regulatory reforms — there’s plenty of room for that in California, which is the lawless Wild West when it comes to charter schools, with perhaps the laxest regulation in the country.

But will there be meaningful regulation? Not from the panel appointed by Thurmond. It’s past time to determine: who are the friends of public education and school worker unions, and who are our opponents? Tony Thurmond is just the latest Democratic Party politician to show where he stands.

Conclusion

There’s a growing movement to fight back against the decades-old corporate assault on public education. The OEA strike was part of that fight; the organizing and spirit shown during the strike were both outgrowths of that movement and in turn can help move it forward. The settlement was not a defeat: it was more than the school board had long held out for, and the school board would not have even given the modest settlement to which it agreed had it not been for that fight.

But we need to be clear, and we need to be honest: This was an opportunity lost. The fight could have continued, and it should have continued. Had that fight continued, more would have been won, and just as importantly, the ill feeling and incipient divisions among union members would have been avoided.

And it’s important to not just cheer and announce triumphantly “We won! Total Victory! Historic Victory!” This was not a total victory. And teachers and teacher unions everywhere need to hear and assimilate the lessons: the need for more transparency; the need to physically confront corporate power; and especially, the need to not put our trust and reliance in Democratic Party politicians.

It’s important to move forward now. To rebuild the fighting spirit and unity so manifest during the strike, it’s critical to do what wasn’t done during the strike — a complete end to the school closures; a full moratorium on charter school growth; restoration of all the cut programs and all the jobs that were cut.

Teacher militants should look for specific opportunities to take job actions such as sick-outs. There have already been several in Oakland, both before and since the strike. These can and should spread to citywide job actions, with calls for statewide actions and for support from the community and from all of labor.

Take the spirit that dominated the strike and rekindle it into a militant movement that confronts corporate Oakland — at the Port, in the City Center, at all the seats of corporate power. Confront them, and demand that the priorities be set straight. Immediate targets: rehire the 150 laid-off classified school workers; an immediate moratorium on charter schools; no school closures.

And beyond this: Restore and expand all jobs and programs cut by OUSD since the state takeover of 2003. Restore adequate funding for quality public education and for essential social services, not for privatization and corporate profit.

May-June 2019, ATC 200