Oakland Strike: Balance Sheet, Lessons, and What Next?

Strike supporting restaurant Oakland

Oakland Educators Association (OEA) reached a tentative agreement to settle a 7-day strike in Oakland, California last week. Jack Gerson, retired Oakland teacher and former executive board and bargaining team member, gives his account of the dynamics of the walkout.

On Friday (March 1), the bargaining teams of the Oakland school district (OUSD) and the Oakland teacher union (OEA) reached a tentative agreement that received a mixed reception by OEA members. Yesterday (March 3), after several hours of heated debate, OEA members voted to ratify the agreement, 1141 to 832, or 58% for, 42% against. That’s an unusually big “no” vote on a contract recommended by a union leadership which had just organized a spirited strike that shut down Oakland schools for seven school day. At cluster meetings and at OEA’s Representative Council (delegate assembly) on Saturday (March 2), bitter accusations were made by teachers who thought the agreement was far less than the union could win by continuing to strike.

Why this division? Despite the union leadership hailing the agreement as "historic", it is far from that. There were several complaints:

OEA had demanded no school closures (earlier this year, OUSD announced plans to close 15 schools and consolidate nine others). The OEA leadership said this was a critical demand. But in the tentative agreement, they settle for a 5 month "pause" in school 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. It will be much harder to fight those school closures in the summer, with teachers and students on vacation, than it is right now during the strike. And if the schools are closed, we can expect the available school properties to be disposed of: some to charter schools, some to real estate speculators who will drive housing costs still higher -- more teachers leaving Oakland, more homelessness. Many teachers spoke out against the “pause”.

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 which the nurses had repeatedly told the union’s bargaining team they didn’t want to settle for. 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 4 per class in high needs schools (about half of Oakland 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, as many teachers said.

OEA had demanded a 12% pay increase over three years: 3% retroactive to the start of the 2017-8 school year, another 4% retroactive to the start of the 2018-9 school year, and another 5% for the 2019-20 school year. But they agreed to 11% over four plus years, starting January 1, 2019. And since the last 2.5% increase won’t take effect until the last day of year 4, it’s essentially an increase for the following year – so this is 11% over five years, or 2.2% per year, well below the cost of living increases. The original demands were meager enough: Oakland teachers are the lowest paid in Alameda County, an area where housing costs and overall cost of living are among the highest in the country. The proposed increases in the tentative agreement will be less than inflation, which will do nothing to help young teachers to make end meets, and so the exodus of teachers out of Oakland will continue.

OEA had made solidarity with other school worker unions a main theme. Indeed, on Friday 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 2pm, 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:

Quote:
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.

On Monday, March 4, 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 balance: It’s important to acknowledge that Keith Brown and his team were able 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 it had substantial support from students, parents, and community.

And 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, I think that the leadership was heavily 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. Under CTA’s influence, the leadership team was far less transparent during the strike than it should have been. Decisions were made by a small group consisting largely of OEA’s officers and CTA staffers, with even the union executive board members telling me that even the executive board was out of the loop. One lesson is: more transparency is needed, and 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, last Thursday (February 28), Rep Council voted overwhelmingly to picket at the port on March 5 (tomorrow). 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 Friday, 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.

The union leadership repeatedly credited OEA's militant and spirited picket lines and mass rallies with what they proclaim as an historic win. But then they turn around and say 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 stepped in late this week to mediate the dispute and broker the deal. Thurmond and other Democrats represent corporate interests and the state, both of which wanted an end to this disruptive strike. I am sure that they pressed the OEA leadership directly as well as indirectly (through their influence with community activists and with CTA, OEA's statewide parent union).

It’s important to move forward now: to do what wasn’t done during the strike – a complete end to the school closures; a full moratorium on charter school growth; restore all the cut programs and all the jobs that were cut; 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: Adequate funding for quality public education and for essential social services, not for privatization and corporate profit.

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Disclaimer by Hieronymous:

I think the threatened action at the Port of Oakland is greatly exaggerated, since the ILWU shipping clerks in Local 34 voted to honor OEA picket lines at the terminals, not Local 10 who operate the cranes & wield true power to leverage the port’s position as a chokepoint in global supply chains. And this says nothing about the port troqueros, railroad brotherhoods, maritime craft unions, & other port authority clerks in SEIU who work at the port complex administrative offices as well — truly shutting down the port would necessitate the solidarity of more than one sector of port workers. This ILWU-centric view is cooked up by a faction of retired ILWU members, many of whom had once been part of a nutty caucus of Sparticist League dockers in Local 10.

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Hieronymous
Mar 8 2019 04:11

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  • It’s important to move forward now: to do what wasn’t done during the strike – a complete end to the school closures

    Jack Gerson

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Hieronymous
Mar 10 2019 04:05

Here are some of my comments, moved over here from Scott Jay's post about the strike:

15 years ago I worked part-time at an Oakland school, Webster Academy, which subsequently was divided up as part of the "small schools" initiative and the part where I taught is now called East Oakland Pride Elementary. I also have several friends who are teachers in OUSD, mostly at high schools. So I've watched this -- albeit from across the Bay -- closely, and have heard reports from the trenches regularly.

Here are some of my takeaways:

    • The last major strike was in 1996, which lasted 26 days and also ended with mixed results, but of course the union declared victory; the strike itself was divisive with some racial tension
    • The one prior to that, in 1986, lasted over a month, resulted in more gains, but left a major rift between the mostly white teachers and predominately black students and their families. Fortunately, that didn't happen in the most recent strike as there was pretty impressive unity between teachers, students, their parents and the broader community. The "Solidarity Schools" in churches, community centers, and people's houses were amazing and the only problem was that all of them filled up pretty quickly
    • In my opinion, the main reason why the strike couldn't go beyond a week was because there was neither strike pay nor a strike fund. Sure, there was the Bread for Ed crowdfunding for support, run by DSA and ISO, but that's not the same as a predictable and regular amount of financial support. As of February 2019, the average rent for an apartment in Oakland was $2,947 (a 9.9% increase from last year). Teachers who live in Oakland often pay well over half their wages in rent, so a prolonged strike meant many would face the threat of eviction.
    • 82% of OEA dues money goes to CTA in California and/or to NEA nationally. Only 18% goes to OEA itself, hence they don't even have local control over their own finances.
    • California is a blue state and the Bay Area is the bluest region in the U.S. Which means the whole political establishment is run by Democrats, and cities like San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland are controlled by liberal Democrats. So the effects of the Janus Decision are negligible compared to right-to-work states -- like the whole South. But it means CTA, the state federation over OEA, is basically a wing of the Democratic Party. Which means that austerity comes packaged as false claims of "fiscal mismanagement," like in 2003
    • In August of 2003 Randy Ward began his 3-year reign as State Administrator of OUSD. It was pushed through by then-OEA President Sheila Quintana, who staged a contract approval vote by mail ballot with almost no notice when many teachers were away on summer vacation.
    Since the state takeover in 2003, OUSD has been a laboratory for privatization -- and, in particular, the privatization project of Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad. At the time, all three OUSD state administrators (Randy Ward and his successors, Kimberley Statham and Vincent Matthews) were graduates of Broad's Urban Superintendents' Academy, as was Robert Bobb, the former Oakland city manager who became the Broad-bankrolled czar of schools in Detroit, where he shut down dozens of schools and tried to break the teachers' union.
    • The struggles in blue Los Angeles and blue Oakland were as much about pay as they were about the millions drained away from the districts to charters, which causes the vicious cycle of declining enrollment, then school closures. Who benefits? Mostly the non-profits -- and the few for-profits -- who manage the charters. But also the contractors who do all the work, once done by school district employees, that is outsourced. Behind the Broad, Gates and Walton foundations, are the real estate interests who want to swoop in and buy closed schools to build their fancy developments, driving forward the gentrification of many of these working class neighborhoods
    • Even Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, commented on the funny money of the OUSD budget: "When the OUSD says it doesn’t have the budget, what it means is that they cannot or do not want to take the money from other uses." There's lost of money hidden in things like the millions in the "books & supplies" part of the discretionary budget, where it's made unavailable to the general budget. Books & supplies went from $14 million in 2018 to $49 million in 2019. So the $10 million budget shortfall is simply bullshit. It's based on lies and Enron-style "creative" accounting.
    • As I mentioned above, the racial divisions in the the 1986 and 1996 strikes didn't exist this time. Part of it is because charters themselves are failing, but are especially becoming unpopular in the black community. The first charter was opened in 1994 in "Deep East" Oakland, the most hollowed out and deindustrialized part of the city. After World War II, East Oakland was around 90% white, then it was around the same amount African American, but now it's pretty mixed, but becoming more and more Latinx. Back in the 1990s the NAACP were big endorsers of charters, but they've switched their position and are now opposed to them -- and they supported the strike.
    • Who's behind OEA and UTLA (Los Angeles teachers)? I've been to some of the events, like the "Lessons of the Red States Teachers Strikes" last June 9 at Oakland Tech High School which was attended by about 300. Besides the whole wingnutty Bay Area alphabet soup Left at the event (every weirdo Trotskyite cult was out front hawking their newspaper or handing out their boilerplate "denounce the 'sellout' union leadership" fliers), in my own personal opinion the people who are calling the shots in Los Angeles, like UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl and Secretary Arlene Inouye (who was at the panel at Oakland Tech), and Oakland's Keith Brown, are Labor Notes. They were also behind much of the 2012 Chicago teachers strike. And remember, as Scott Jay alluded to, 50 schools in Chicago were closed right after the strike, so despite its successes it completely failed its alleged goal to keep those schools open. I know some teachers in Los Angeles and they loath the present caucus in power at UTLA, but hated its previous incarnation PEAC just as much. If there's a limitation to these strikes in California, blame it on the "boring-from-within" the union bureaucracy approach of Labor Notes

EDIT (addition late today):

    • OEA, rank-and-file teachers, and radicals in Oakland are engaged in an uphill battle to refute the illusory zero-sum game ideology of school district finances, repeated verbatim by all bourgeois media. The story goes like this: the 11% raise necessitates cuts elsewhere. So a teacher raise = cut $22 million/closing 24 schools. This logic is bullshit and must be refuted. The Broad Foundation-trained school board has perfected this creative accounting, reminiscent of Enron and Arthur Anderson. This ideology and its lies must be exposed.
Hieronymous
Mar 8 2019 05:04

The strength of the red wave is that teachers in West Virginia struck twice in a year. And these teachers have continuously been walking out (from WTOP):

At least 4 Kentucky school districts close amid protests

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — At least four Kentucky school districts were forced to close Thursday as hundreds of teachers called in sick to protest proposed legislation at the state Capitol.

It was the third time in the past week districts were forced to cancel classes because of too many teacher absences. And it was the second closure in a row for Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s largest district and one of the biggest in the country with nearly 100,000 students.

Thursday’s action comes one year after teacher uprisings in at least five states, part of a movement advocating for better pay, more education funding and protections for traditional pension benefits. This year, teachers have gone on strike in Los Angeles and Oakland, California. And in West Virginia, an upcoming special legislative session on education has teachers worried.

In Kentucky, teachers don’t strike but they coordinate to all use their sick days on the same day, forcing districts to close because they don’t have enough substitutes to cover classes.

Statewide teacher groups, including the Kentucky Education Association and KY 120 United, had urged teachers to go to work Thursday. Some districts, including the state’s second largest system in Fayette County, sent delegations of teachers to Frankfort to keep the schools open.

But the call for a “sick out” in some districts spread quickly on social media, forcing administrators to close schools.

“Teachers are severely concerned that if they don’t stand up and come out of their classrooms for a moment, even today, to have their voice heard, then we’re not going to be able to effectively do our jobs,” said John Calhoun, a 32-year-old teacher at Hebron Middle School in Bullitt County. “Teachers feel last year was reactive. Last year legation was passed and then we stood up. We want to be on the forefront.”

Teachers have many concerns, but the biggest one appeared to be House bill 205, which would grant tax credits to people who donate to scholarship funds for special needs children and those in foster care or low- to middle-income homes to attend private schools. An analysis by the Legislative Research Commission found it would cost the state $209 million in tax revenue by 2025 — money teachers say should be spent on public education.

Many GOP lawmakers were dismayed about the closures because they have conceded they don’t have the votes to pass the scholarship tax credit bill, which some lawmakers believe would require at least 60 votes out of the 100 seats in the House. GOP Rep. Jerry Miller said Wednesday the Republican Caucus could not get 60 percent of its members to support the bill.

“The fear is out of control. It’s discouraging,” Miller said.

However, Republican leaders have indicated they could attach the scholarship tax credits bill to another tax bill that has already passed the House and the Senate. GOP leaders in both chambers are negotiating a compromise on that bill, which could include reviving the tax credit proposal.

Last year, the state legislature approved public spending of $4,000 a student, the highest dollar amount ever spent on public education in Kentucky. But a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that, adjusting for inflation, Kentucky is paying 13 percent less per student since 2009.

Among the five states that had widespread teacher protests last year, Kentucky was the only state to have a decrease in inflation-adjusted spending, according to the report.

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said “in some ways” that is a valid argument. But the noted lawmakers put an extra $2 billion into the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System, the first time in a decade that lawmakers had paid the full amount required to keep the system solvent.

“That’s part of funding education,” Stivers said.

Calhoun, the middle school teacher in Bullitt County, said that type of thinking “creates a further schism” between educators and lawmakers.

“Sending the message that it’s either going to be your pensions or your classroom is the wrong message to send,” he said.

Comrade Motopu
Mar 8 2019 06:24

So glad I read this Jack Gerson article you posted. I started my evening with an Eric Blanc article on the strike from Jacobin, which is decent in it's supportiveness for the strikers, but which seems to leave off most of the important critiques of the OEA leadership. Why am I not surprised to get such a perspective from Jacobin? Thanks also for your posts below the article Hieronymous.