By JEFF MACKLER
Facing a pro-charter school board intent on closing or consolidating 24 schools in the next five years, presumably to replace some with private for-profit charters, 3000 teachers represented by the Oakland Education Association (OEA) began a district-wide strike on Feb. 21. On the seventh day of the strike, March 1, a tentative agreement was reached, which teachers ratified at a March 3 meeting.
Poor-mouthing Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) officials insisted during the months of futile negotiations and fact-finding before the strike that their proposed one percent pay increase over four years was all that the district could afford.
Soon after the strike began, however, the board upped its offer to 8.5 percent over four years. OEA negotiators still said, “No!”
Teachers won an 11 percent across-the-board salary raise over four years plus an additional three percent one-time bonus upon ratification. But the 11 percent is to be staggered in annual and semi-annual increments over the course of the contract—3 percent the first year, followed by 2 percent the second, and 2.5 and 3.5 percent added to the salary schedule in the middle of and at the end of the final year.
Narrow approval in contract vote
“We forced OUSD to invest in keeping teachers in Oakland—which will give our kids experienced teachers in their classrooms. Dramatic increases were won for subs, tying sub pay to the wage scale,” said a March 1 OEA strike bulletin. Clearly, many Oakland teachers did not agree. The union’s school site representative Delegate Assembly on March 2 narrowly approved the tentative agreement by a vote of 53-50, with many delegates arguing that the modest salary gains and the lack of progress on other key issues, including class size, school closings, and consolidations did not match the massive support the union had generated from the community on these issues.
With more than 70 percent of the union’s general membership casting ballots the following day, 64 percent voted yes for the 2017-18 retroactive contract and 58 percent for the 2019-21 contract.
Always starved for school funding, Oakland, with a large Black and Latino student population, stands at or near the bottom of the Alameda County list regarding teacher salaries and overall per pupil school expenditures. Indeed, as I walked the picket lines, several teachers explained that they lived “paycheck to paycheck” in this high-rent city.
Oakland teachers won modest class-size reductions of one student in high-need schools and an additional one-student reduction across all schools, but the latter is to be implemented only at the third and final year of the contract, in 2021-2022. Their original contract proposal demanded an immediate class reduction of two students in all schools. Prior to the strike, secondary school class-size maximums were 35, and elementary school sizes were capped at 25.
The agreement included the hiring of additional counselors and school psychologists, but little or no progress was made in regard to adding more nurses and special-education teachers to the district’s roster. Worse still, because OEA negotiators acceded to a district budget cut, 150 non-teaching classified workers represented by SEIU 1021, which respected OEA picket lines, will lose their jobs to pay for the settlement—a disaster for future union solidarity.
Powerful teacher-parent mobilizations
An estimated 97 percent of the city’s 34,000 students and 95 percent of its teachers respected union picket lines, an expression of teacher-community power that bolstered the unfulfilled expectations of a breakthrough victory.
Oakland teachers are no newcomers to militant strikes to advance teacher rights and public education. Since the mid-1970s they’ve taken strike action seven times, the most numerous teacher strikes in the nation.
So massive was a teacher-community protest at the scheduled Feb. 27 OUSD school board meeting that district officials were compelled to cancel the meeting, where additional school cuts were scheduled for the chopping block. The new contract included a school board commitment to a five-month moratorium on school closures and consolidations, to which the OEA leaders stated, “The power of our strike will help us organize against future closures!” But five months hence, many dissident teachers pointed out, would arrive in mid-summer, when schools are not in session and teachers are scattered to the four winds.
Some 30 percent of Oakland schools have been privatized. As is the norm with all for-profit schools, they are relatively free from state regulation and are free to “cherry pick” students, essentially returning them to a more racially segregated status—that is, with fewer Black and Latino students.
Oakland charters are non-union and impose arbitrary salaries on teachers as compared to the specific salary schedules that are standard in public schools. These inequities, among others, gave rise to charter schoolteachers’ at 10 schools joining OEA teachers with a one-day wildcat strike action. The tentative agreement vaguely commits the school board to commit to lobbying the state legislature for a cap of charter schools, a “contract provision” considered token or useless by many.
Example of West Virginia teachers
West Virginia teachers dramatically demonstrated last year, when their strike shut down the entire state school system, that major gains could be won. In late February, they closed down the state’s school system once again to demand that pending pro-charter school legislation be shelved. After two days on the picket lines, the proposed legislation was withdrawn—a militant and inspiring lesson to teachers, parents, and working people everywhere.
It is more than noteworthy that the proposed West Virginia charter expanding legislation included a major salary increase for the state’s teachers, estimated at $2000 to $3000 per teacher. West Virginia lawmakers were taken aback when their gambit that teachers would “take the money and run,” while turning a blind eye to increased charters, was rejected.
West Virginia teachers’ statewide mass action strategy undoubtedly surpasses the OEA leadership perspective on charters and school closures expressed in the OEA contract summary slogan, “On to Sacramento,” with which they expect that lobbying Democratic Party state legislators will bring significant results.
During the Oakland contract negotiations, school district officials argued that the inclusion of contract provisions restricting school closures was “out of scope,” that is, barred by state law as a subject of bargaining. OEA negotiators acceded to this argument, although California Teachers Association attorneys have stated that anything that substantially affects teachers’ working conditions is negotiable.
Dissident teachers presented this view during the Delegate Assembly debate, arguing that teacher power, allied with massive community support, was the final determining factor as to what was negotiable. For now, OEA leaders appear reluctant to fully exercise this power, and thus they felt compelled to settle for less than what the great majority of teachers and parents had set their sights on.
As with West Virginia’s and last year’s “red-state” strikes, Oakland teachers and their leadership are mainly women, a key factor in their union’s decisive orientation toward forging critical alliances with other low-paid public employees and especially with working-class communities that rely on public schools to provide quality education as well as daily child care. In this regard, Oakland teachers went to great lengths to provide not only food and safe alternative spaces for children, whose parents respected their picket lines, but also to foster powerful ties to working-class communities that aim at binding the future success of teacher unionism to the well-being and security of all workers.