Jack Gerson a retired Oakland teacher and former member of OEA bargaining team and executive board writes about the wave of teacher strikes that hit the United States earlier this year.
On February 21, 2019, the Oakland Education Association (OEA), representing 3,000 public school teachers and support workers in the city of Oakland, California, launched a strike that resonated throughout the city and attracted statewide and national attention. The OEA strike, the latest in a wave of teacher strikes that began with last spring’s “red state” strikes, is an example of the rising militancy of teachers in the U.S. as well as growing community support for teachers. At the same time, it illustrates obstacles and pitfalls. To adequately examine both aspects, it’s necessary to first provide some background and context.
For decades, public education in the U.S. has been battered by an assault orchestrated by corporate foundations and government. This war on public education has had bipartisan support. Thus, the now infamous No Child Left Behind legislation (NCLB) had the support of Republican President George W. Bush and his education secretaries (Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings), while its two most ardent Congressional advocates were Senator Ted Kennedy (Democrat – Massachusetts) and Representative George Miller (Democrat —California.)
NCLB judged schools and teachers by student scores on standardized multiple-choice tests. It mandated reorganization of “failing schools” — encouraging closing schools and laying off teachers, with emphasis on outsourcing programs to private consultants or outright conversion to charter schools (charter schools receive public money but are privately run —like academies in the UK). Teachers were blamed for the “failing schools”: although it is well known that the highest correlate of student academic performance is family affluence level, this wasn’t taken into account. Consequently, the targeted schools and teachers were overwhelmingly those that served high poverty areas, and the NCLB sanctions punished the schools and communities most in need of support.
The assault on public education continued under Barack Obama. Obama advocated charter schools (“good ones”), closing public schools (“failing ones”), and basing teacher evaluations and pay on student test scores. His education secretary, Arne Duncan, hailed layoffs and program cuts as a way to “dramatically improve educational productivity” by firing “bad teachers” and increasing the work load of “good teachers”.
Amid the cuts and downsizing, teachers’ working conditions eroded, and real pay declined.
Public school teachers in the U.S. are mainly represented by either the National Education Association (NEA) or the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The 3 million member NEA is the largest union in the U.S., and the AFT (1.7 million members) is one of the largest. For decades their approach has been legalistic and overly cautious: insisting that it was important to collaborate with management (“We need a seat at the table”), arguing against strikes and relying on Democratic Party politicians. This was a prime example of the “team concept” that had contributed to the near-destruction of private sector unions in the U.S. (For a full discussion, see my article “The Neoliberal Agenda and the Response of Teacher Unions”, published as chapter 5 of the book “The Assault on Public Education”, William H. Watkins editor, Teachers College Press ).
When a fightback did occur, it was in spite of the state and national teacher unions. In spring 2018, a wave of teacher strikes began where they were least expected: in the Republican-dominated “red states”, where state teacher unions were weakest and where teacher strikes were against the law. Strikes rolled through West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Powerful strikes, with massive public support. At the time, the prevailing wisdom was that the strikes occurred in Republican strongholds because funding for education was lower there than in blue states. But key red states have higher funding than prominent blue states. For example, per student funding for education in West Virginia is in the upper 50% of all states, while California is in the bottom 10%. Teacher salaries in California adjusted for cost of living are lower than in West Virginia.
The very weakness of the state teacher unions in the red states meant that union officials could not restrain the upsurges. The lack of collective bargaining agreements actually made it easier for strikes to spread in the red states – as opposed to the blue state of California, where contracts are negotiated on a district by district basis and expire on different dates. The red state strike leaders, working outside of official union channels, used social media to build online groupings organized across traditional lines: union members and non-members; teachers and non-teaching staff; school workers and community.
When red state teachers struck last spring, blue state teacher unions remained quiescent. In California, the union representing most public school teachers is the California Teachers Association (CTA), with approximately 320,000 members. CTA staff are paid far more than teachers. It’s staff-driven, bureaucratic, legalistic, and non-confrontational. All in all, a model proponent of the team concept. For years, CTA pushed back against strikes. However, the red state strikes raised expectations to the degree that CTA has had to adapt. It no longer opposes all strikes. If a local affiliate strikes, CTA leadership strains to lock down control from the top, to limit the strike’s duration, and to urge reliance on Democratic politicians to broker a deal. Thus, in January, when the Los Angeles teacher union (UTLA) launched a well-prepared strike with massive community support, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti intervened to arrange an end to the strike after six school days.
Six weeks after UTLA settled, the Oakland strike began
For the past 15-odd years, Oakland, has been a laboratory for cuts and privatization. In 2003, the state of California used the Oakland Unified School District’s $37 million deficit as a pretext to put Oakland public schools under state administration. When the state finally returned control back to the local school board, it had tripled the debt to $111 million. The debt spiraled despite cuts and school closures by the state administration: wages of all school workers were cut by 4%; public school enrollment fell by 30%; libraries were closed in most secondary schools; clerical, maintenance, janitorial and food service staff were cut; academic and vocational programs were eliminated. The state coordinated privatization: charter school enrollment quadrupled within the first few years of the state takeover and outsourcing to private contractors exploded to more than double the average for California school districts. The state administration of OUSD violated the state’s own education laws by hiring 25% more administrators than allowed under California education code, and by failing to meet the code’s requirement that at least 55% of educational expenditures go to classroom instruction.
After local control was restored, privatization continued. Corporate foundations heavily funded candidates in school board elections. Charter school enrollment has grown to nearly 30% of total enrollment, the highest in California. Private contracting has grown to more than triple the average for state school districts. Administrative overhead is double the state average. Program cuts and school closures have continued: in January, the school board announced plans to close or consolidate 24 schools, to close school libraries and eliminate several student programs. Salaries of Oakland teachers are the lowest in the county.
For years, CTA and its allies in OEA leadership strangled efforts by teacher activists to take militant action against these conditions. Last spring, influenced by the red state teacher strikes, OEA members elected a new leadership. Its officers and several board members are people of color. Two of the four officers and several executive board members are women. The new leadership rebuilt the union’s network of school site representatives, began to reach out to the community, and openly declared its intent to strike in early 2019 if the school board didn’t meet its demands.
The OEA strike began on February 21 with three main demands: no school shutdowns; reduce class size maximums (by four in high needs schools and 2 elsewhere); and increase salaries by 12% over three years. More than 95% of teachers honored the lines; more than 95% of students boycotted class. The strike had substantial support from students, parents, and the community at large. But on March 1, the powerful seven-day strike came to a sudden halt when the union’s bargaining team agreed to a tentative contract settlement falling short of expectations.
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?
OEA members ratified the agreement, but with more than 42% voting against. That’s an unusually big “no” vote. Why this division?
The OEA leadership had called no school closures a critical demand. But they settled for a 5 month “pause” in school closures, to end at the beginning of August – in time to close schools before next school year. It will be harder to fight closures in the summer, with teachers and students on vacation, than during the strike. If schools are closed, available properties will go to charter schools and to real estate speculators who will drive housing costs higher — more teachers leaving Oakland, more homelessness. Many spoke out against the “pause”.
OEA demanded a reduction of class size maximums by 4 per class in high needs schools and by 2 elsewhere. But in the tentative agreement, they settle for 2 in high needs schools and 1 elsewhere phased in over three years — better than nothing, but far less than what’s needed.
School nurses wanted their staggering workloads lowered by hiring more nurses. But the tentative agreement just provided cash bonuses, which the nurses had repeatedly said they didn’t want to settle for. Several nurses said “We were thrown under the bus” and organized for a “No” vote.
OEA demanded a reduction of maximum counselor workload to 250 students (From the current 600). They agreed to 550 next year and 500 the following year. Every little bit helps, but this will only help a little bit.
OEA 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 of 11% is 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. Real wages will fall and the exodus of teachers out of Oakland will continue (70% leave within five years).
OEA made solidarity with other school worker unions a main theme. OEA organized a picket with community members and SEIU Local 1021 (representing OUSD classified workers) on March 1 to block the school board from meeting and adopting a budget which would cut over 140 jobs, mainly SEIU members. But at about 2pm, OEA President Keith Brown announced “We have a TA! We Won!” and urged pickets to disperse. The optics of this are very bad and were not lost on SEIU members, whose perception was that their jobs were being sacrificed as part of the settlement. Fortunately, several hundred OEA members ignored the leadership’s request and stayed to picket until 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. 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.
The OEA leadership insists that the settlement is “a historic and total victory”. At the same time, they argue that it’s the best deal possible at this time. The leadership claims that support for the strike was beginning to ebb. I saw little evidence of that. Quite the opposite. Thousands of pickets turned out every day of the strike, and rallied and marched in the rain all week, including the mass picket that shut down the board meeting on the last day of the strike.
So why was the strike shut down?
First, the union leadership is close to local Democratic Party politicians and has illusions in their intentions. Thus, they invited state superintendent of schools Tony Thurmond (recently elected with heavy support from CTA and OEA) and state assemblyman Rob Bonta (another favorite of union leadership) to mediate the dispute. These Democrats represent corporate interests and the state, and above all wanted to put an end to this disruptive strike. Bonta and Thurmond pressed for a quick settlement or risk losing public (meaning their) support. (When the strike ended, OEA President Brown repeatedly thanked Thurmond and Bonta for delivering this “historic” settlement).
Second, the leadership was influenced by their parent, the California Teacher Association (CTA). Under CTA’s influence, 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 voted for members to receive daily updates, such updates were not made. Consequently, members were taken by surprise when, after days of reports that “We’re winning”, the leadership agreed to the disappointing tentative agreement. More transparency is needed, especially an elected strike committee.
Third, there was a reluctance to confront corporate targets 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 leadership to vigorously pursue a proposal to rally and picket at the Port of Oakland, which would have had the support of dockworkers (ILWU Local 34 had already voted 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 by OEA). Finally, on February 28, Rep Council voted 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 reason was to preempt the port action. Had OEA not settled on Friday 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, the corporate masters might have told their school board puppets to settle up.
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. Over the protest of virtually all of those present, the school board voted to make $22 million in cuts to school libraries and student programs, and to lay off 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 to declare a moratorium on charter school growth. Governor Gavin Newsom agreed to this but tagged on a study to assess the impact of charter schools. Newsom asked Thurmond to name the study panel. The question was: 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). A glance at the panel’s makeup answers that question: Of the eleven panelists, seven are charter school executives or have strong ties to the charter school industry.
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, with perhaps the laxest regulation in the country. But meaningful regulation? Not from Thurmond’s panel. Tony Thurmond is just the latest Democratic Party politician to show where he stands.
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 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 honest: 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.
It’s important to not just cheer and announce triumphally “Total Victory! Historic Victory!” This was not that. Teachers and teacher unions elsewhere need to learn from this: the need for more transparency; the need to confront corporate power; and, especially, the need to put no faith in Democratic Party politicians.
Going forward, it’s important to rebuild the fighting spirit so manifest during the strike. Teacher militants should look for specific opportunities to take job actions such as sick-outs (there have been several in Oakland, both before and since the strike). These can potentially spread to citywide job actions, with calls for statewide actions and for support from the community and from other unions.
More than organizing for a strike is needed. It’s necessary to aggressively fight for what’s needed, breaking fully with CTA’s top down and passive approach. Teachers dismayed by the recent settlement should try to pull together a grouping – a rank and file caucus – to carry the struggle forward.
- No reliance on Democratic Party politicians
- No to the team concept of labor / management cooperation
- For full transparency and control from the ground up – not just before a strike, but during and after as well
- Solidarity with all school workers and their unions. Demand that those laid off have their positions restored, and call for adequate pay for classified staff (the lowest paid)
- Build an alliance to actively confront corporate power—the banks, the real estate developers, the technology barons, the Port—to demand that the wealth that’s so ostentatiously in evidence at the top be redistributed to meet the crying needs of the vast majority for public education, essential public services, and adequate, affordable housing.