The history of the 1996 strike of teachers in Oakland, California for smaller class sizes and higher wages, which took up the slogan: "Classrooms First!"
By Jason Justice, 1996
This text was reposted in January 2006, ten years after the fact, because another Oakland Teacher's strike seemed inevitable and the Oakland Unified School District was planning to use the same divide and conquer tactics they used in 1996. Knowing the history of the earlier strike might help teachers avoid another costly defeat
The San Francisco Bay Area is known for its diversity and political activity. Throughout Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland and surrounding communities there has been a great deal of organisation and activity both in recent years as well as years forgotten. The Black Panthers emerged in Oakland, People's Park was formed in Berkeley, and San Francisco is home to many organisations and years of political activism. While Bay Area political and labour activism may have been, or may be, relatively high, it is not necessarily the result of interested parties. It is often, instead, the self-defensive result of institutional abuse; workers and community members, in other words, have been, and are, forced to engage in political activism in defence of undesirable power relations and coercion. In late 1995 and early 1996 school teachers in the Oakland community were also forced into the realm of Bay Area labour activism due to unfair working and educational conditions.
In February 1996 political and labour activity in Oakland reached an unfortunately dramatic level of resistance. The strike that grew out of the Oakland school district was not desired. Teachers, like other oppressed workers, however, had no other option and so the strike was born. During the Oakland teachers' strike of 1996 many things happened. There was disapproval, there were fabrications and there were scabs. But there was also a tremendous sense of solidarity. Levels of support were high and strikes well supported. While the strike was never wanted, it was, perhaps surprisingly, the concerned reflection of both workers and the community, and thus, favourable to some degree.
Many other spectators were interested in the Oakland teachers' strike as well. It was read about by parents and teachers, community and authority. But the goals, the process and the outcome of the strike left many confused. Press coverage of the strike included many points of view. Within these points of view, however, statistics, ideas and outcomes were both manipulated and distorted due to various sources of misinformation. The coverage of the outcome of the strike left its audience especially unclear as to what it was that actually happened. The results, as explained in post newspaper articles, were examined only briefly, and, as with the coverage of the strike itself, the outcome has been misrepresented as well.
Attempting to understand the strike, in its conception, birth, process and outcome can only truly be understood when the totality of the activity is taken collectively into consideration. Since the time of the strike's victory, there has yet to be a comprehensive overview of the strike and its manifestations. Since, in my opinion, understanding the totality of the strike is central to judging and learning from it, I decided it was necessary that the strike be documented from its conception to its outcomes and manifested for public understanding.
While the Oakland teachers' strike accomplished no extraordinary victories or marked any seriously devastating outcomes, it is worth studying. There are valuable lessons to be learned in all strikes, in all labour victories, and in all labour defeats, and the Oakland teachers' strike is no exception. Whatever important lessons can be learned from this strike, I hope can now be studied more easily with the presented overview of the history and outcome of the Oakland teachers' strike compiled within the pages that follow.
1 - The Strike Conceived
Five years ago consumer product prices were significantly cheaper than they are today. A gallon of gas cost consumers ninety-eight cents today it costs $1.60 per gallon; a compact disk cost about $14, oday it's closer to $16; even comic books which used to cost eighty five cents now cost about $1.75 per issue. The rising costs of living and luxury are a result of growing inflation. Within these five years, however, many workers have suffered a serious problem: working wages have not risen to match the rise in consumer prices. Wages, then, have become less valuable, and many workers in fact have received no wage increases to accommodate for this conflict.
Workers of the Oakland Unified School District have faced similar problems. Teachers in this district have been subject to the same unequal pay problems that workers elsewhere have had to face. This is especially true for Oakland teachers, because unlike many other workers who receive small wage increases, the teachers of the Oakland school district, prior to the strike of 1996, had been without a raise for five straight years. The rise in costs of consumer necessities and, or, desires, then, had greatly outgrown the stagnant wages of working public school teachers in Oakland as well. This has been a big problem, and it has been the cause of many other problems also.
The fact that Oakland teachers toiled for five years without a raise is not ironic when it is taken into account that the contract gained by the teachers' strike of 1986 expired in June of 1994. When contracts expire, and they are not immediately reinstituted, as with the Oakland teachers' contract, it is not surprising when employers fail to appropriate raise increases to their workers. In other words, workers can, and should, expect to be abused as long as employers can expect it to be allowed. With the 1994 expiration of the Oakland teachers' contract, then, further financial abuse of teachers naturally followed.
Wages, however, were not the only expense that the Oakland school district chose to withhold from their workers. They also withheld necessary supplies that were needed for students as well as teachers. The district also refused to hire more teachers to accommodate for the growing number of students. These problems were the concerns of teachers, students and parents, but the district still refused to address the issues. By withholding the necessary funds to deal with these exterior concerns the Oakland school district was not only abusing teachers, but the students whom they teach as well.
Class sizes and the lack of necessary supplies caused severe hardships for teachers and students alike. Class sizes were perhaps the biggest problem outside of wages. The size of the class, in great part, determines the level of education that each student is able to gain. This problem was addressed by one substitute teacher who explained that:
Class size is a real problem. We have so many students in each classroom that each student does not receive the individual care that she or he might need. As a result we have students in the fourth and fifth grade who can barely read, and we also have mixed classes which cause an even greater strain on the students. For example, I teach a class that has 113 kindergarteners, 113 first graders and 113 second graders; all of them on totally different educational levels. This makes it very difficult to teach and it is the result of a lack of teachers and a lack of new available classrooms for the growing number of students.
The lack of supplies was perhaps the second greatest exterior hardship on students and teachers. "The district refuses to give us the supplies we need for the students," explains one concerned teacher, "when we ask for crayons they tell us they're out, when we ask for chalk they say they have none, and when I ask for paper so the students can do some class work it takes three weeks to get paper. We, as teachers, are forced to spend close to a thousand dollars a years on supplies for our own students." While most teachers agree they do not mind spending their own money on students, this becomes difficult when the teachers themselves haven't the financial means to do so.
The lack of supplies, the overcrowded classrooms, the five year old stagnant wages, and the absence of a contract between the Oakland school district and the teachers were becoming more and more upsetting to the teachers in the district. In order to combat these problems the teachers turned to their union for support and help. The Oakland Education Association (OEA), the union of the teachers, responded by recommending community outreach and passive requests to the district. This is exactly what the teachers did. For many months, in fact, teachers could be found in front of grocery stores and other crowded areas distributing literature about the problems within the classrooms and about teacher wages and contract. They also contacted parents and spoke with them about the problems in the district. The idea was, basically, that if the community could urge the district to respond to the teachers' concerns
then no further action would be necessary. As a result, many parents and community members did respond. The problem was that the district did not.
After several individual and collective requests by teachers, community members and the OEA to address the problems of wages and class size, the district still refused to cooperate. In response, the OEA urged teachers to walk out on strike for two days in November, 1995, on the 29th and the 30th. The teachers complied but the district again failed to respond. However, by January of 1996 the district had received a great number of requests by concerned parents and teachers expressing their desire for the union and the district to rectify the unequal problems that the teachers and students have had to face. Apparently, after these issues gained significant popularity, the district realised worker and community concerns were growing more serious, so the district was ready to negotiate.
On January 11, 1996, the district met with the OEA, several community members and teachers. Twenty minutes of negotiating took place and the district refused to cooperate anymore. Instead of responding to critical but concerned community members and workers, the district officials got up, angered, and marched out of the conference frustrated by the demands for change. "...[A]ll but one of the board members took part in an impromptu walkout," explains Oakland's Montclarion, this was their, "response to criticism from the audience." Frustrated by the district's walk out and refusal to cooperate another sporadic strike took place on January 31, 1996 at the union's request. The Oakland teachers marched out of class again and refused to work for one day. Urging further attempts at negotiation, the teachers and the OEA threatened a third and indefinite strike. As one paper reported, "Oakland teachers say strike three will begin next week if the Oakland Unified School District doesn't meet demands ranging from smaller class sizes to higher teacher salaries." Following the first and second sporadic strikes, and constant pressure from the union, the district still was not willing to meet the needs of the teachers and the community. Further action now became necessary.
2 - The Birth of the Strike
The Oakland Education Association was now threatening an open-ended strike. Final negotiations were attempted. The district was now making some effort to increase wages and reduce class sizes but the difference between the teacher's demands and the district's offers were too great. As the Oakland Tribune pointed out, "Taken together, the two sides' class size and salary proposals are as much as $20 million apart." Plagued by the district's refusal to cooperate, the union saw no other alternative but to strike. "I can't explain with words how discouraging it is to negotiate with the school board's representatives," explained union representative Ward Rountree, "Our only alternative is to wage an open-ended strike against the district. "
On February 15, 1996, the Oakland teachers went on strike indefinitely. The Oakland Education Association presented to the public their strike motto: Classrooms First!
This motto expressed the idea that students were the number one priority and all the improvements demanded would in some way benefit the classrooms. "Proposals under Classrooms First include reduction of classroom sizes providing for lower student-teacher ratios," explains Malini Cadambi, a striking substitute teacher, it also includes, "raises for all teachers at every experience level and for support staff [and] a stronger retirement plan." To fund Classrooms First the OEA demanded the district "Chop from the top," or, in other words, "the union wants bloated, do nothing administrators and bureaucrats fired." The union decided that since a substantial amount of money was needed to meet the demands of the teachers then it should be taken from the budget used to pay high-salaried and "unnecessary" administrators.
While many criticised the concept of eliminating higher paying jobs to fund depleted school needs, this approach was certainly more acceptable than what the district was proposing. Instead of "chopping from the top" the district wanted to chop from the bottom. As reported in the Wildcat!, the district wanted, "pay cuts and job elimination for lower level administrative personnel, such as secretaries, and technical staff, which includes janitors and maintenance people." Elimination of higher paying jobs, or at least cutting higher wages, is more understandable when the higher-paying district wages are examined. According to documents provide by the OEA, district administrative wages are immense. Of the 22 district directors, all of them make between $90,700 and $99,100 annually. Of the eight assistant superintendents, all of them make between $113, 800 and $119,000 annually. The numbers go up from there and the Superintendent, Carolyn Getridge (or Carolyn "GetRich" as the union called her), makes $155,000 each year alone. According to State Department of Education documents presented in the Oakland Tribune, the top administrators in the Oakland school district collectively gross $14,100,000 annually. As salaries as hefty as these became exposed, the chop from the top idea began to seem more reasonable. The strike was now in progress and union demands were being supported by teachers and community alike.
3 - A Disgruntled Response
Immediately following the birth of the strike the district expressed their outrage. Superintendent Carolyn Getridge somehow couldn't believe the strike was happening and readily blamed the union. She said that the OEA had "abandoned the talks," and she couldn't understand why, "the union would take this action."
"The disruption that has permeated this effort must stop and it must stop now," she added, disgruntled by the strike. Schools Superintendent August Scordnaienchi responded by attacking union demands as "unrealistic." He exclaimed, "I can no longer stand back and let this happen ... The teachers need to get realistic. There's a finite amount of money out there." Union members responded however by pointing out that the "finite amount of money" was in his pocket.
The angered district had little trouble being supported by the corporate press who opened large reaction spaces for those wanting to voice their opposition to the strike. It was exclaimed again and again that there simply was not enough money and that union and teachers' demands were damaging. One writer explained that it was supposedly mathematically impossible to meet striker's demands, saying, "Let's assume the district can cut 20 administrators, about 24 percent, without damaging its ability to function and those 20 administrators each earn $100,000 a year. The savings would equal $2 million, not the $18 million to $20 million needed for OEA's salary and class size demands." The writer further pointed out that the union's tactics were all wrong, and that, "they may harm the causes for which they fight - Oakland schools and the children who attend them." Carolyn Getridge of course supported this notion by assuring readers that the strike "is a very damaging action by the Oakland Education Association," and assured the community that it was actually district officials who were most concerned about the students and their well being. Oakland school board president Lucella Harrison summed it up when "She accused the Oakland Education Association of misleading the public and causing an unnecessary disruption. "
Eleven days into the strike the district responded by attempting to end the strike in exchange for further negotiations. They "called for a 45-day cooling-off period for negotiators. " County Boardmember Jerome Wiggins said, "Teachers would go back to classrooms and the negotiators would go back to the bargaining table to forge a working agreement." The teachers and the union however didn't even take this idea into consideration. It was seen as a tactic to undermine the strike and delay and weaken the OEA's bargaining power. The teachers ignored this attempt and continued to strike.
Soon after the strike began another group emerged in opposition to the strike and supposedly in favour of the students. They called themselves Parents for Resolutions and claimed the strike was bad for students, "The pure fact is it's absurd to keep our children out of school any longer." They wanted an end to the strike regardless of class size or teachers' pay. "Enough is enough!" they cried, "the stand the union is taking is self serving." While Parents for Resolutions claimed to be in favour of what's best for students, their demands appeared to be in favour of the district and they gathered little support from the community. Parents for Resolutions was, however, only one of the many disgruntled - responses evoked by the district's opposition to the strike and the strikers' demands.
4 - District Tactics
The district was happy to attempt to bring the issue of race into the strike. The district is well aware that the majority population in Oakland is African-American, and as a result the greatest number of students in the Oakland school district are African-American as well. However, only 1/3 of the district's teachers are African-American. The district attempted to exploit this fact by pointing out that it was white teachers, supposedly, who wanted a raise and didn't care about Black school children's education. This claim was relatively ignored until the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) began to vocalise the issue. In a conference held between the NAACP, the Oakland school district, and the African American Allen Temple Baptist Church, the new accusation of racism in the strike was expressed by the groups: "the striking teachers' union represents the interests of white teachers who are trying to discredit the primarily black district administration and school board."
The NAACP, the district and the involved church insisted that the strike be undermined and class solidarity ignored. As one writer reported in Z Magazine, the NAACP, the district, and its supporters have, "jumped into the fray by insisting that black teachers scab and black parents send their children to school in spite of the strike." Janet Lee-Fulcher, a campus supervisor at Hawthorne Elementary School went on to express her concern over the strike's interference with African-American festivities; the strike was apparently interrupting Black History Month. "Black History month is a serious issue," she said, "African Americans have struggled so hard for the right to get an education, and now it's being disrupted because two groups of adults can't get it together."
While the wealthy district and the NAACP were busy working to polarise struggling workers with the introduction of charges racism, the union and the teachers knew well that this was not a race issue. It was clearly a class struggle. Gerald Sanders, an African-American school board candidate understood this, he noted, "There's a black working class and a black petit bourgeoisie ... And the black bourgeoisie is mainly who has been feeding at the public trough." The Oakland teachers refused to be divided by the introduction of fictitious racist notions, and whites and teachers, parents, and students of all colours locked arms and continued to hold the picket lines.
Further attempts at segregation became quite noticeable when the district began to threaten both parents and teachers. The first threats went out to parents and their children. According to the Oakland Tribune, "many Oakland parents and teachers insist officials are trying to scare kids into going to school during the strike." Parents have reported, "threatening calls from the principals," and the calls, "have spread quickly in recent days, leaving many parents anxious about their children's status." The Tribune further pointed out that the school denies any such threats, but when asking Carmen Rodriguez, a parent of two students in the Oakland school district, she responded by reporting that the school officials warned her that if she continued to keep her kids out of school and respect the strike, her kids would be, "erased from the computer [and] if you don't send your kids to school they will be dropped from the list."
The most powerful threats were directed at the workers. Striking coaches in the school district were told by the district, "certified teachers who strike cannot coach ... You are either in or out," and concluded, "That's the district's position." One coach responded angrily, "They are blatantly bullying us. It intimidates some coaches who are teachers. Some of us are not going to take it." The threats were worse for others though. Strikers who were non-unionised faced the greatest district threats. One writer explains one such incident:
The school district has attempted to force certain employees to cross the picket lines by threatening their jobs. Christina Halsey, a school psychologist at Oakland Technical High School is one such example. Employed by the district and not a member of the teachers' union, this psychologist has shown support for the teachers by walking out with them. She has been given an ultimatum to cross the line and return to work or lose her job. Similar threats were being used to force other workers, students and parents to cross picket lines and undermine strike solidarity. The district was attempting to turn strike supporters into scabs.
The worst tactics, many argue, were the use of real and willing-to-work scabs. Scabs were not only employed, but they were high paid, perhaps under-qualified, and their numbers were exaggerated to help destroy public hope and turn the community against teachers' apparently losing battle. While substitute teachers were normally paid $90 per day for their work, the district was now paying scabs twice that much at $180 per day. The money they "didn't have" to buy student supplies and give teachers raises was suddenly available to pay scab workers. High pay was used to lure in more scabs and break the strike. As one teacher put it, "Wow, they're paying $180 a day! I'd come in for that much money!"
Some scabs attempted to express their concern. As one scab explained, "The teachers on the line, they don't think I care. That's not true, this was not an easy decision for me." She further expressed her concerns over the children in school, "I support the cause, but the school is not closed. There are children who want to learn and it is my job to teach them." She concluded by saying, "It's a personal decision for each individual teacher. I respect theirs, I wish they would respect mine." It was difficult, however, for striking teachers who were risking their jobs, their families and a lifetime of work to have respect for anyone who was helping to destroy their efforts because "they really needed the money."
Although the district denies it, many strikers reported that scabs were being hired without proper qualifications. As one striker noted in Z Magazine, "To make up for the teacher and substitute shortages the district has hired unqualified scab substitutes and waived many hiring requirements." It was claimed by many strikers, though not authenticated, that scabs were being hired without FBI background checks and other requirements. If this were the case then children sent to school during the strike were being taught by strangers, some of whom could have had criminal records but were never researched. However, secrecy of the hiring procedures during the strike leaves this issue unclear, so it can only be speculated.
To add insult to injury, the district also fabricated scab rates. According to the district, by March 15, forty-one percent of teachers and 16,453 of 51,705 students had returned to class. Yet these statistics were blatantly exaggerated. The schools remained empty and the picket lines full. By this date, the actual number of teachers who had crossed the picket lines made up only 15 percent of the teachers while students held the line at about 80-90 percent. While union scab numbers and district scab rates differed greatly, the community and the teachers were not going to be broken by faulty scab rates or high paying jobs. As one parent told a reporter for the Oakland Tribune, "It doesn't matter the length of the strike, if we see what the workers want is fair we won't cross the line, no matter the inconvenience."
5 - Teacher Tactics
Backlashed by racism, threats, scabs, lies and other district-made tactics, the Oakland teachers' strike continued with surprising support. The Classrooms First concept was still widely cherished and the strike had gained significant support from community, students and parents despite regressive district attempts to undermine the strike. This support came from the unbending will of the teachers to win this strike. The teachers used the greatest tactic of all, one which the district could not comprehend: solidarity with fellow workers. "We have no choice but to support this or everybody's efforts to this point will be for nothing," explained one striking teacher, "I'll eat beans for the rest of the year if l have to. "
With such high hopes and unity teachers looked to other ways to combat the district's use of scabs and deal with the education of students. "Many teachers and students have chosen not to let the district's disdain for the students and contempt for the teachers interfere with learning," reports one striking substitute, "The teachers came up with a much more positive way to provide education during the strike. Alternative strike schools have been set up, meeting a few hours a day at neutral sites." The Alternative Learning Center was formed and strike schools were established by teachers so that students could go to strike schools and learn from their teachers instead of attending their regular schools and crossing the picket lines. Teachers usually worked for free at the strike schools.
Strike schools took place in parks, churches and homes. It proved to be a good alternative for parents who wanted to support the strike. Parents who worked all day, and couldn't leave their kids at home, could drop them off at strike schools and rest assured that their regular teachers would be there to care for them and teach them.
The fact that teachers set up strike schools solely for the purpose of educating students showed to the community that it was the striking teachers who truly cared about the well being of the students. Suddenly, the district's excuse that the strike was bad for students was totally undermined by strike schools. Strike schools enabled students and parents to fight for smaller class sizes while maintaining an education as well.
Teachers also began to feel a real sense of' self empowerment. Strike schools helped teachers realise that they can do things on their own, without authority. The strike, and the solidarity of the strike, also proved to teachers that work place abuse and inequality don't have to be passively accepted. "We are becoming more and more radicalised," explained Susan DeNault, a striking high school history teacher, "This strike has been empowering. When I return to school, I won't take the abuse that I put up with before." Another striker, a coach at Oakland Technical High School, Jim Brown, realised the importance of the struggle, "It's worth fighting for," he explains, "We are history makers. History will [show] we are right."
Teacher tactics proved themselves far more productive than oppositional district attempts. Teachers began to realise the importance of unity and self sufficiency. Instead of fabricated information, instead of attempting to bring up fictitious issues of racism, instead of threatening the district, teachers provided a positive alternative to crossing the picket lines. This was a strong tactic of the teachers and resulted from a strong sense of solidarity. Teachers were becoming more self-confident and learning to create positive alternatives to employer demands. The strike continued and support grew with each day.
6 - Solidarity Forever
The ongoing support of teachers by the community, students and parents increased following strike schools. Suddenly, many organisations got involved, students set up their own demonstrations and parents voiced their solidarity with the teachers' fight loudly. The number of strikers who attended demonstrations swelled and community support came from all over. Songs were sung and people chanted. At times thousands of supporting strikers could be heard at the Oakland Federal building singing the IWW Ralph Chaplin song Solidarity Forever.
Community organisations showed their support as well. Daily, Free Radio Berkeley covered news about the teachers' strike. Interviews were conducted and teachers and supporters could voice themselves for fifteen to thirty miles around on the airwaves. Alternative unions also got involved. The Industrial Workers of the World covered the teachers' strike in their newspaper the Wildcat, and IWW union members joined the marchers everyday in support. One OEA union representative was, and is, in fact, also herself a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. Toward the end of the strike Food Not Bombs had even offered to help out by providing free food and coffee everyday at the picket lines to help financially struggling strikers.
Other people from the community also joined in solidarity with the teachers. Reverend Betita Coty, for instance, spoke out on behalf of the strike. She even set up a tent in front of the administrative offices and went on a hunger strike, demanding the district comply with the teachers' concerns or she would simply starve herself. When others tried to move Coty, worried about her health, she responded by saying, "I am not budging. I am not moving. I am not going anywhere. Whatever is going to come is going to come and I am going to pay the price. This is my will." When two children saw her they asked, "Why are you starving yourself?" Cory replied, "I am doing this for my son, for the children of Oakland because you need to be in school."
One of the largest sectors of support could be found among high school students. Alongside teachers and parents on the picket lines they remained loyal to the cause. High school student strikers were both in favour of the teachers' strike and concerned about lowering class sizes as well. Lauren Taylor, an 18 year old student at Skyline High School, said, "All the students I know are very supportive." But high school students were also concerned about graduating. She continued, "Even if it means skipping spring break and extra days, I'll do whatever it takes to graduate."
More militant support came from the Student Power Union who was dedicated to making the strike stronger, more fierce and more advantageous for the people it concerned. The Student Power Union worked to draw students out of schools and into the streets to demonstrate with the teachers. They saw many of the OEA's tactics as too passive and exclaimed, "we must demand that the union rebuild militant mass actions -- marches, rallies, mass picket lines, and a mass demonstration at the school board meeting[s] ." While the OEA's leadership didn't like the Power Union's more militant attitude many teachers appreciated it. The Student Power Union even established their own separate demonstrations and pickets aside from union marches. As far as the Power Union was concerned the teachers' strike, "looked like the beginnings of a new mass civil rights movement-a movement that could win all the teacher's demands rapidly and which could at the same time establish the basis for continued gains for Oakland's black, Latino, Asian and working class."
While less militant than some of the student organisations, the students' parents were also incredibly supportive. In November of 1995 parents formed Parents for Classrooms First in support of the teachers and the lowering of class sizes. Displeased by the district's refusal to quickly cooperate one parent from the organisation exclaimed, "Wake up and listen to us. We're your employers. You cannot continue to run schools from on high." Parents for Classrooms First brought enormous support to the picket lines. This organisation also encouraged students to stay home or help out on the picket lines. As one reporter described Parents for Classrooms First, they have encouraged, "parents - even those who have never been terribly politically active in the schools or in politics - [to] boldly step into the light of publicity, holding press conferences and meeting with politicians. They're running alternative strike schools, charging into school board and City Council meetings. " Many parents chose to join Parents for Classrooms First. They realised how important it was. Al Weinrub, a member of Parents for Classrooms First, expressed his view on the organisation, "We're an organisation that supports our children. We're not an anti-government, anti-anything group. We have been characterised as merely in support of teachers, we do support their issues."
With the help of Parents for Classrooms First, the student organisations and strike support, the community solidarity and aid of multiple organisations and alternative media, these various forms of solidarity were putting pressure on the district to come to some sort of fair agreement with the OEA. The district felt the pressure and so they negotiated.
7 - Negotiations
Negotiations took place almost every day following the initiation of the strike. Most of them went poorly, however, and the union was forced to reject the district's various and unsettling offers. Some offers, in fact, were no better than the previous arrangements, and the union and the teachers were upset by these "deals." On February 5, for instance, the district offered nothing that would increase wages or help students. They said they wanted to "eliminate a $500 annual stipend each teacher receives for supplies." The union responded by saying, "We want to see something other than a regressive proposal. We can't negotiate on anything less than the previous proposal." Many more poor excuses for deals were offered by the district but all of them too unsatisfactory for union negotiators.
On February 22 the district again met with the OEA to negotiate. After the union refused to allow the teachers to be ripped off by the new deal the district officials proposed, the district decided they'd had enough negotiating and refused to talk with the union. When the district officials attempted to leave the meeting they were slowed by angry teachers. "Go back in! Go back in!" the teachers yelled insisting they stay and work out a fair deal. Teachers then attempted to block the doors and force the district to stay inside and negotiate. As the Oakland Tribune reported, "Teachers first used chairs to blockade doors of the negotiating room," then, when the district officials tried to drive away, "teachers trying to block [the] path fell onto the hood ...[then] were thrown to the pavement." Forced to engage in direct action teachers were demanding the strike be settled. "There has to be change, there will be change," exclaimed striking school teacher Kathy Maloney. The striking teachers were growing very impatient and very tired of the district's failure to comply fairly, As one teacher cried, "We are angrier now more than ever. This is totally unacceptable."
In the midst of multiple and unsuccessful negotiations Congressman Ron Dellums entered the scene. It wasn't being handled by the union or the district so it was obviously time to bring in politicians. Dellums stated, "This is not about one side or the another winning, it's about the children. They're the ones suffering." And in the same breath he nearly repeated himself by adding, that "unequivocally, the focus must be on the children and the quality of their education." While getting a lot of attention during the strike Dellums did basically nothing.
Conveniently, with the elections near, he was able to jump into the scene, give his objective point of view, and leave without doing a thing. Everybody agrees with him because he said nothing against the strike or for it, he simply stated what everybody already agrees upon. Interestingly, the press pointed Dellums out as a man who was doing a lot to help end the strike. Other politicians and mediators attempted to intervene, gain popularity, and supposedly help settle the strike as well, but when the case is examined it is understood that the effect politicians and mediators had upon the negotiations was nil.
On March 16 the district again negotiated with the OEA, this time without the "help" of any congressmen. This time the district made no promises, but instead assured the union that the district and the teachers would work things out down the road, with certain goals in mind. The union responded by stating that, "We want a settlement that is real, not full of goals." Without even hearing out the union's full response the district negotiators fled the meeting again.
Teachers did not take to the district's unfair dealing lightly. According to Oakland police, "Later that evening, angry teachers drove past school board head Lucella Harrison's residence on Lakeshore Avenue in a caravan, honking their horns. The protest degenerated into a fight, with rocks and bottles thrown back at the teachers." Unless a fair agreement was reached the striking teachers were not going to give up. "We've been out too long now for a diluted agreement," said one teacher, "I hope to see a reflection of a serious reform in this district. I don't know if I could stand for another disappointment."
8 - The Victory
On March 19 the district and the Oakland Education Association finally came to what seemed like a fair agreement. The contract proposed was distributed to the teachers and they would vote on it that night. Teachers gathered at the union office and had their first chance to read the thick yellow packet of proposals. Teachers read through the agreement anxiously; perhaps a little too excited to even think straight.
A glance at the newly proposed contract told teachers many things. The contract addressed class sizes which were to be reduced under a program called the "Student Improvement Program." This program called for class sizes to be lowered by about three to five students each. Substitute teachers were also victorious. Substitutes were to be granted close to an eight dollar. per day raise plus a raise for long term assignments. Teachers happily read over the contract and found that full time teachers were being guaranteed bonus pay plus a 3.14% pay increase effective July 1, 1996. The dental plan was set at $1,500. Retirement plans, which were an important concern early in the strike, were also included in the proposals. It all seemed fair.
The night of March 19 teachers gathered to vote on the contract. It was passed by a landslide victory of 1,043 votes to 330. The Oakland teachers' strike was over and the teachers had won. A great victory was achieved on behalf of the teachers and many were pleased. The 24 school-day strike was the longest teachers' strike in the history of Oakland and the teachers held out and were victorious. According to Ben Visnick, the OEA president, "the union largely succeeded in securing its three major demands to raise teacher salaries, lower class size, and reduce the central administrative budget." Skyline High School assistant principal Gilbert Cho also expressed his joy, "students and teachers are very excited to be back. I feel good about it."
Chapter 9 - The Betrayal
While there was never a doubt as to whether or not the teachers won the strike, some doubt existed as to whether or not others who participated won as well. In light of happiness and joyfulness about the new contract many teachers forgot to read closely about all the issues at hand. Ready to go back to work, financially drained, and probably willing to accept any type of gain, many teachers failed, in fact, to examine some crucial downsides to the contract; downsides that were hidden within some of the unclear parts of the contract and others that were excluded completely from the deal. These downsides, however, were noticed immediately by those who would be affected. Counsellors and psychologists, as well as ardent smaller class size supporters and high school students all felt betrayed.
A part of the contract that was overlooked by many teachers included the fact that counsellors who previously had an overwhelming 300 to one student-counsellor ratio were now going to have to endure a 500 to one new ratio with the new contract. Also overlooked was the fact that some counsellors, under the new contract, were going to be forced out of their offices and into classrooms where they had no desire to be. These overlooked issues were disturbing to counsellors who had not only struck side by side with teachers but had also been promised again and again by the union that they would not be forgotten. As one teacher who voted "no" on the contract stated, "counsellors got totally ripped off. They were with us 100% and then they were betrayed." Psychologists felt the same way about the contract. They were given no protection against the district and are now even facing lay-offs because the new contract fails to address issues which could protect them. "We feel horribly betrayed," said psychologist Valerie Lopez, "The union has betrayed us." This same psychologist, in fact, got up at the union hall on the night of the ratification of the new contract and expressed her concerns. She began crying and tried to explain that the contract wasn't fair to many of the workers.
The strike's motto "Classrooms First" was not fulfilled to the extent that many people desired either. There was not a great enough reduction in class sizes planned to make many parents and some teachers happy. One parent, Judi Burle, said, "I am disappointed. We wanted much stronger language for the class size." Others concerned about class size pointed out in the San Francisco Chronicle that "the contract does not guarantee smaller class sizes," it only, "includes an innovative plan to use federal and state money for desegregation to cut class size in the primary grades `to the best efforts of the parties' in the schools eligible for such funds." In other words there is no assurance that the classes will be reduced to the sizes outlined in the contract and there is no guarantee it will be implemented in all schools.
Perhaps some of the greatest losers when it comes to class sizes are the high school students. While high school students fought hard for smaller class sizes they were a division completely left out. If you read the contract closely you'll see kindergarten through fifth grade was covered with plans of possible future class size reductions, but middle school and high school students are totally excluded, there's not one word about them in the contract. The concerns about class sizes within high schools has now been denied consideration indefinitely. This is unfortunate considering the great support the students of high school brought out on behalf of the strike.
10 - Reflecting on the Outcome of the Strike
An objective analysis of the Oakland teachers' strike can tell us many things. It first of all tells us that strikes still work. This an important factor to be taken into consideration. While not all of the demands were met, the teachers are back at work, they still have their jobs and they also now have raises. In a time when strikes are at an all time low since World War II, and strikes are being undermined by new business tactics, it is important to note those instances where workers achieve victory through striking. Their accomplishments should be studied and their flaws taken into consideration. Any victory for working people these days is an important one.
The fact that the teachers, if no one else, were victorious in this strike was a result achieved through solidarity. Teachers held the line, scab rates were low, and community support was relatively high. Solidarity is the strongest power a strike can have, without it the strike will crumble. The fact that solidarity was so high, even after an onslaught of anti-strike propaganda and sheer fabrications by the district, shows that there is real hope for the future of local workers. People of the Oakland and Bay Area communities have proven to their spectators that working class values have not gone away, and when a union presents a reasonable and all-encompassing concept such as "Classrooms First," people respond logically in support. So, if nothing else, the community has learned a valuable lesson: when an all-encompassing appeal is presented, that addresses the concerns of workers as well as the community, a wide range of support can follow. Such support can breed solidarity, and as a result the necessary ingredients for a successful labour victory can be achieved.
Since the strike was victorious, at least to some degree, the community has also learned that employer justifications for low wages and insufficient worker aid should be questioned. At the beginning of the Oakland teachers' strike it was said again and again that the demands the union was making were financially impossible. There just wasn't enough money. The district insisted that it was providing all that it could for their workers and students. However, weeks later, when the strike was won, suddenly the district has the money to pay for wage increases, retirement plans, possible class size reductions, and dental plans. One must wonder where the money evolved from, or was it there all along? There is an important lesson here that tells the community that employers cannot always be trusted, and, in fact, should be challenged. If workers are being paid unfairly, the Oakland teachers' strike showed something can be done about it.
The fact that these victories were achieved through solidarity becomes ironic though when it is revealed that the victory of the teachers came at the expense of many of the supporters. The new contract and all of its benefits were possible only because so many people supported the cause until the end. Counsellors, psychologists, students, and supporters of smaller class sizes picketed side by side with teachers everyday. Instead of scabbing they fought for their rights and the rights of their teachers and fellow workers. Since it was solidarity which won the strike it would have been logical if all those supportive of the strike were included in the victorious outcome. Unfortunately, as explained, this wasn't the reality.
The failure of the contract to include all of the workers and students it concerned cannot necessarily be blamed on the teachers. While it was teachers who voted "yes" on behalf of the contract it was not teachers who presented the new contract exclusive of some of the supporters. Teachers were excited, many of them didn't read the contract thoroughly, and issues were overlooked because they were buried in contract chicanery. Therefore, it is not surprising that the teachers overlooked any details that were not completely obvious. Union leaders, however, knew exactly what the contract said and did not say. They were well aware of its problems and unfairness but uncritically presented it anyway. This reflects the level of concern high paid union leaders have for their workers, as well as the union's ability to effectively negotiate with employers. It may have been, however, the result of union leaders, aware of upcoming union elections, attempting to please the greatest body of workers quickly in order to receive support from the greatest number of voters in the near future. Whatever the reasons for the outcome of the contract, however, the real question which must be asked is Why did the OEA take so long to deal with the fact that the teachers' were working without a contract for a year and a half? Why wasn't this issue addressed in 1994 when the contract expired?
While there's room to criticise both the union and the union members, no one can take full blame for the problems of the contract. However, everyone can certainly take full credit for the victories achieved. Even the losers are responsible for the victors. When outcomes like this emerge, where many workers are pleased but many others are devastated, it reminds us that it is important to read things carefully. It is important to closely look at what is being said, and who does and does not benefit. When a contract is signed the workers are signing an agreement which will affect them for years to come. Careful reading ensures quality benefits for all sectors fought for.
While it is safe, I think, to be relatively pleased with at least a large body victory for the Oakland teachers we must remain critical of its ironies. Upon final analysis, in weighing the good and the bad, it should be taken into account that the very motto of the strike was that classrooms should be first. While teachers in the classrooms were actually first, the issues of class size were the one inclusive part of the contract which was without guarantees. Higher grade levels, as explained, were excluded, and lower grades were not ensured the needed reductions. So while a victory was won (and this indeed significant and good), ironically its main objective was pushed aside. I think, perhaps, it was put best by a Free Radio Berkeley DJ when he stated, "Classrooms First - It's a simple idea but too difficult to implement. It's a shame. It's probably gonna take a damn revolution to make it happen."
Taken from iww.org
1. Cadambi, Malini, Free Radio Berkeley phone interview, "Freak Show," Mar. 7, 1996.
2. Ibid., February 22, 1996.
3. Ryan, Lucinda, "Negotiations renew amid uncertainty," Montclarion. January 12, 1996.
4. Segal, Matt, "Teachers threaten long-term strike," Montclarion, February, 9. 1996.
5. Bazeley, Michael, "Money matters most in dispute," The Oakland Tribune, February 16, 1996.
6. Rountree, Ward, as quoted by Michael Bazeley, "Oakland schools to stay open district vows," Oakland Tribune, February 15, 1996.
7. Cadambi, Malini, "Oakland Teachers Strike To Win," Z Magazine, April, 1996, p.19
8. Ibid., p. 20.
9. As reported by Malini Cadambi, "Oakland Teachers Strike To Win," Wildcat!, Bay Area paper of the Industrial Workers of The World, March, 1996.
10. Made available through the official literature of the Oakland Education Association. Presented by Alternative Learning Centers Strike Schools. This document was released March 2, 1996.
11. As reported by Angela Hill, "Frustration spreading as school strike lingers, Oakland Tribune, March 8, 1996. These figures were taken from the State Department of Education.
12. Getridge, Carolyn, as quoted by Michael Bazeley, "Oakland schools to stay open, district vows," Oakland Tribune, February 15, 1996.
13. Scornaiechi, August, as quoted by Michael Bazeley, "Teachers ,unrealistic,' chief says," Oakland Tribune, March 5, 1996.
14. Epstein, Ken, "Teachers' union on the wrong track," Montclarion, February 23, 1996.
15. Getridge, Carolyn, "Education our top priority," Montclarion, February 23, 1996.
16. District 3, Lucella Harrison Endorsements, "Saving Oakland's Schools," San Francisco Bay Guardian, March 20, 1996.
17. Scherr, Judith, and Adam King, "City officials try to mediate talks," Montclarion, March 1, 1996.
18. Ibid., Wiggins, Joe, as quoted.
19. Williams, Henry, a representative for Parents for Resolutions, as quoted by Angel Hill, "Teachers back on picket line as talks drag," Oakland Tribune, March 11, 1996.
20. Slater, Dashka, "Nervous Oakland Teachers are Back on the Line Again," East Bay Express, February 23, 1996, No. 28.
21. Cadambi, Malini, "Oakland Teachers Strike To Win," Z Magazine, April, 1996, p.19.
22. Lee-Fulcher, Janet, as quoted by Michael Bazeley, "Teachers walk, then they'll talk," Oakland Tribune, February 16, 1996.
23. Sanders, Gerald, as quoted by Dashka Slater, "Nervous Oakland Teachers are Back on the Line Again," East Bay Express, February 23, 1996, No. 28.
24. Bazeley, Michael, "Attendance anarchy amid school strike," Oakland Tribune, February 28, 1996.
26. As reported by Peter Mentor, "Strike also effects players and coaches," Montclarion, March 15, 1996.
28. Cadambi, Malini, as written in an unpublished article for Z Magazine, March, 1996.
29. Gordon, Deborah, "Striking Oakland Teachers Are Angry at Colleagues That Cross the Line," East Bay Express, December 8, No. 19, 1995.
30. Moore, Willa (scab), as quoted by Angel Hill, "Picket line divides teachers from friends," Oakland Tribune, March 15, 1996.
31. Cadambi, Malini, "Oakland Teachers Strike to Win," Z Magazine, April, 1996.
32. As reported by Mike Fitelson, "New proposal leaves hope for accord," Montclarion, March 15, 1996.
33. As reported by Michael Bazeley, "Teachers walk, then they'll talk," Oakland Tribune, February 16, 1996.
34. As reported by Elaine Goodman, "Parents call for city intervention in the strike," Montclarion, March 1, 1996.
35. Lee, Rosa, as quoted by Sarah Weld, "Parents facing tough choices," Oakland Tribune, February 15, 1996.
36. Bazeley, Michael, -talks fail - teachers strike," Oakland Tribune, February 15, 1996.
37. Cadambi, Malini, "Oakland Teachers Strike To Win," Z Magazine, April, 1996, p.20.
38. DeNault, Susan, as stated in an unpublished interview by Malini Cadambi, March, 1996.
39. Brown, Jim, as stated in an unpublished interview by Malini Cadambi, March, 1996.
40. Coty, Betita, as quoted by Mike Fitelson, "Praying for strike's end," Montclarion, March 1, 1996.
42. Taylor, Lauren, as quoted by Angela Hill, "Anguish over teachers' strike reaches boiling point," Oakland Tribune, March 4, 1996.
43. Student Power Union, Strike To Win Bulletin #6, March 5, 1996.
45. Strokes, Peter, of Parents for Classrooms First, as quoted by Angela I Hill, "Anguish over teachers' strike reaches boiling point," Oakland Tribune, March 4, 1996.
46. Hill, Angela, "Oakland parents go to head of class," Oakland Tribune, March 6, 1996.
47. Ibid., Al Weinrub, as quoted.
48. Bazeley, Michael, "Talks stall, teachers could strike again," Oakland Tribune, February 6, 1996.
50. Bazeley, Michael, "Teachers combative at school talks," Oakland Tribune, February 23, 1996.
51. Maloney, Kathy, as quoted by Michael Bazeley and Cecily Burt, "City offers to mediate in dispute," Oakland Tribune, February 29, 1996.
52. Ibid., Frenchie Alford as quoted.
53. Dellums, Ron, as quoted by Michael Bazeley and Peggy Stinnett, "Dellums: "It's time to come together" in teachers' strike," Oakland Tribune, February 27, 1996.
54. Rountree, Ward, as quoted by Michael Bazeley, "Negotiations slip into reverse," Oakland Tribune, March 17, 1996.
56. As quoted by Angela Hill, "Strike may be history," Oakland Tribune, March 19, 1996.
57. Information taken from the official contract between the Oakland Education Association and the Oakland Unified School District, established March 19-20, 1996.
58. Visnick, Ben, as quoted by Mike Fitelson, "Students are back in class for the first time in a month," Montclarion, March 22, 1996.
59 Ibid., Gilbert Cho, as quoted.
60. Cadambi, Malini, Free Radio Berkeley interview, "Freak Show," April 18, 1996.
61. Lopes, Valerie, as quoted by Michael Bazeley, "Finally, It's back to school," Oakland Tribune, March 20, 1996.
62. This took place on the night of March 19 at the vote for the proposed contract. There is no written documentation of this event, but all attending voters and present teachers can, and do, verify her reaction. Although Valerie Lopes tried to explain what was wrong with the contract she was out-numbered by the victors and made little impact as can be verified by the landslide contract victory.
63. As reported by Olszewski, Lori, "Oakland Strike Ends - Teachers OK Contract," San Francisco Chronicle, March 20, 1996.
65. Information taken from the official contract between the Oakland Education Association and the Oakland Unified School District, March 20, 1996.
66. See The New York Times, February, 1996, "Strikes Decrease To A 50-Year Low," written by Steven Greenhouse. This information is accompanied by charts showing the decline in strikes up until present day in the United States.
67. As stated on Free Radio Berkeley, "Slave Revolt Radio," May 10, 1996.
Song - Solidarity With Teachers
By Jason Justice and Malini Cadambi
(Sung to the tune of John Brown's Body a.k.a. Solidarity Forever)
For sixty months the workers had to toil without a raise
A year and a half the teachers had no contract throughout the days
With the crowded classrooms students struggled to make the A's
So the teachers joined as one (CHORUS):
Solidarity with Teachers!
Solidarity with Teachers!
Solidarity with Teachers!
For the strike has just begun
The schools were underfunded and the teachers got no supplies
The district hoarded money and fed us a bunch of lies
The union finally responded to the working people's cries
So the teachers joined as one
The district tried to divide us by our race and class and job
The media supported the district in the working class they robbed
But the teachers wouldn't buy it cause they feared not loss of jobs
So the teachers joined as one
Scabs were hired to take their jobs at twice the normal pay
They sucked up all the money at 180 dollars a day
The teachers and the students resolved to find another way
So the teachers joined as one
Teachers started strike schools in the churches and in homes
The power of scabs and district were crumbling at the bones
With the students, parents and community the teachers were never left alone
So the teachers joined as one
The union of the strikers forced the district to respond
Benefits and raises made the district not to fond
Victory went to the teachers because they put the pressure on
As the teachers joined as one
Solidarity with Teachers!
Solidarity with Teachers!
Solidarity with Teachers!
For the strike has now been won
The contract has been settled and the ink is barely dry
But what about the counselors who were striking side by side?
Forsaken by their union they can kiss their jobs good-bye
Next time give the Wobblies a try
Solidarity with all the workers!
Solidarity with all the workers!
Solidarity with all the workers!
Because the strike's for everyone.