Between rhetoric and reality: Evaluating the Oakland teachers’ strike

Between rhetoric and reality: Evaluating the Oakland teachers’ strike

The budget cuts immediately following the Oakland teachers' strike raise important questions about the union's strategy.

For eleven days in March, Oakland teachers walked off the job in a strike that galvanized not just the city but many neighboring schools as well. In the end, while teachers won a small raise and minimal gains around class sizes, the conclusion of the strike raised more questions than it answered. Not only are significant issues left open–the impending closure of dozens of schools, for example–it specifically raises questions about what it means to “strike for the schools that students deserve.”

The likes of Fox News might blather endlessly about greedy teachers (and other public sector workers) bankrupting cities with their high pay and bloated pensions, in spite of the fact that the average home price in Oakland is now in the $700,000 dollar range. (Yes, this is Oakland, not San Francisco, where typical homes easily cost twice that.) This is completely out of reach for Oakland teachers, meaning that the future of a stable workforce in the schools is in question. Fighting for a raise, and smaller class sizes, not to mention other school resources like nurses and counsellors, is a battle that will improve the schools not just for teachers but for students as well.

Parents are among the most inconvenienced by a teachers strike, and having them on the teachers’ side not just as moral support, but as a political allies against the school board and as supporters of the picket line, is crucial. Unfortunately, the Oakland teachers strike did not win the schools students deserve, though that may be too high a bar to set. Instead, the resolution of the strike all but insured that budget cuts and school closures will continue, and the first for those two already have.

The problem is not that teachers do not care about their students. Far from it. Nonetheless, the resolution of the strike paints a stark picture of the challenges in fighting for better schools.

Eleven days in March

In the weeks preceding the strike, teachers at several Oakland schools held one day actions, seemingly without official union sanction, shutting down individual schools as teachers and students walked out.

When the official strike began on Thursday, February 21, Oakland teachers walked off the job, picketed, marched, rallied outside of the school board, and successfully galvanized community support. By mid-week, teachers from several other school districts were not only taking a day off to walk the picket line in Oakland, but organizing sickouts in solidarity as well. At one point this included at least 100 teachers from outside Oakland. In other words, the strike was spreading, even if only in a limited way, while the week progressed.

Friday, March 1, was literally the most bruising day of the strike. A group of teachers and students and other community members gathered at the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) school board meeting, attempting to stop the board from passing budget cuts–in the middle of the strike as contract negotiations continued! One school board member arrived with a very large security guard and they attempted to muscle their way through the picket. As people attempted to stop them from forcing their way through, the school board member reached out and choked an Oakland school teacher in an incident caught entirely on video.

While all of this was occurring, the Oakland Education Association (OEA) was negotiating and even agreed to a temporary agreement, at which point “OEA President Keith Brown told the pickets ‘We have a TA! We Won!’ and urged them to disperse.” In spite of Brown’s urging, many people remained (leading to the confrontations described above) and the school board meeting was cancelled. On Sunday, the union voted to approve the contract with 64% of teachers voting in approval.

The very next day, in spite of a massive and spirited mobilization by students in particular, OUSD voted in favor of $22 million in cuts which, one media account boasted, “did away with restorative justice programs [and] social services targeted to helping students in foster care.”

OUSD won

It is sometimes difficult to say whether a strike was a victory or a defeat, and this may be the case with this contract as teachers were able to win some improvements. But it is hard not to conclude that OUSD won.

Initially, OEA was asking for a 12 percent raise over three years, smaller class sizes and more nurses and counsellors. Under the new contract, teachers will receive an 11% increase over 4 years, which will average to 2.75% per year. This will likely not even keep up with inflation in a city where teachers already cannot afford to live. There were also very small improvements in class sizes and little to nothing for nurses and counsellors.

But the real problem with the TA is around school closures. OUSD promised a “moratorium” on school closures for five months. What will happen after five months? They will probably go ahead and start closing schools. And when is five months from now? The middle of summer, when schools are closed and teachers and students are dispersed on vacations. Of course, it was highly unlikely that schools were going to be closed in April or May, with one or two months left in the school year.

This is not a victory, it is essentially codifying the status quo in favor of OUSD. The school district said “this is what we are going to do” and the OEA leadership no response. It is true that the fight will and should continue, but it is hard to be optimistic at this point. The time to stop school closures is now (or rather, last week) not five months from now when the strike is over.

Workers never have more power than when they are on strike. Never. Every other weapon they have is a distant second to the strike, whether that is marching, elections, or even direct actions. Furthermore, teachers hardly ever have less power than during the summer months.

Pretty much every union contract in the US has a no strike clause. We can assume this one will too. This is why employers sign union contracts–to provide some assurance to the workforce that their jobs and salaries are secure in return for labor peace, for a period of time. Unions rarely strike in legal violation of the clause, unless they can find a narrow unfair labor practice violation and strike for a day or two. But that is still minimal compared to an open-ended strike. The sickouts that happened in recent weeks were extraordinary, but they will have substantially less impact if not leading up to an open ended strike. All this means that just about anything that does not get nailed down in a contract during a strike is going to go the boss’s way.

This is bread-and-butter unionism. The school closure issue is not “unresolved” by the TA, rather it is strategically resolved largely in favor of OUSD. Unless, of course, you believe that teachers and students will have a more effective strategy and more militant tactics in five months than they had during the strike. Nobody has yet suggested that they do because a more effective strategy than a strike does not exist. Instead, we will likely see marches, packed school board meetings, and possibly related direct actions, and while the latter would be great, there is no reason to believe that any of these, in the middle of the summer, will be better organized or more powerful than the strike was.

This point is worth repeating, endlessly, because when people talk about “living to fight another day” at the end of a strike, they rarely bother to take any of this consideration. They merely hope that things will turn out better later, with no analysis of why they are unlikely to do so. If they did, perhaps they would be better able to urge the strike to be extended longer.

A strike for schools students deserve?

With the cuts occurring the day after the strike, OUSD was able to play the media like a fiddle. These cuts, which affect students and workers in other unions, were only necessary to assure teacher’s raises, claimed OUSD. Perhaps the OEA leadership was not quite so cynical as they may look–perhaps they merely felt that there was nothing they could do about these cuts, rather than explicitly demobilizing their members to assure that the cuts would happen. Perhaps. Either way, this is a terrible look and the wrong strategy. After all, OEA even argued that OUSD was “broke on purpose,” a slogan borrowed from the Chicago Teachers Union.

At the very least, it appears that the OEA leadership never took the budget cuts seriously. That OUSD was planning these cuts in the middle of the strike was an enormous provocation to the idea that this was a “strike for the schools students deserve.” OEA should have never agreed to a contract under such circumstances.

If this was not outrageous enough, the physical attack by a school board member of a teacher was unconscionable, and yet it was met with no response by the union, not even a press release–the favored tactic of union bureaucrats. These factors were reason enough to abandon the TA, continue the strike and attempt to escalate, or at least punish OUSD, but OEA was already committed to winding things down. After they did so, OUSD was able to make the cuts they wanted, in the face of a spirited opposition, but without having to worry about a strike. OEA got played, but as the meme goes, they played themselves. OEA did so poorly in this aspect of the strike that the president was forced to apologize to student activists who had mobilized against the budget cuts.

The slogan of “striking for schools that students deserve,” without the strategy to back it up, is then little more than a clever way to build community support. No doubt, teachers want what is best for their students, and they strike and make sacrifices in order to fight for them, and no doubt their salaries and working conditions are directly tied to creating a quality educational environment. But resolving the strike with so little to show for the students sends a terrible message.

It should be noted that this slogan gained popularity out of the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012, and the slogan has spread from there. But Chicago saw significant school cuts after their strike as well. It is hard not to be cynical about such a slogan, if it falls so short of its promise.

Progressive union leaders vs. the rank-and-file

There is also a tendency among unions to bring strikes to a close before the rank-and-file have had their say. The media then go on a campaign to declare victory, or at least declare an end, sowing confusion among teachers and community supporters. One extreme example was a headline in Boing Boing announcing that “Oakland teachers’ union declares total victory after seven-day strike” before teachers even voted on the contract. Announcing that the strike was over and “won” before anybody else had a say and demobilizing the strike, as the OEA President reportedly did, is but one way this has occurred. In Chicago in 2012, a delegated meeting voted to end the strike before the full union membership had a chance to vote.

The most absurd situation came in the recent Los Angeles teachers’ strike, where the union president held a joint press conference with the Mayor of Los Angeles and the Superintendent of the school district, announcing an “historic” victory before teachers were even informed that there was an agreement. Teachers were then expected to vote on the 40 page contract on that same day. This assured that there was as little time to deliberate as possible, weakening the ability of an opposition to form against the agreement. Such an undemocratic maneuver by the union might be reason to enough to vote “no.”

The truth is, even the most progressive union leaders are hostile to workers’ democracy. The idea that the membership might resoundingly reject an agreement and send them back to bargaining is met with hostility. Once the leadership has decided the strike is over, they go about ending it. Rank-and-file organization and decision-making is not the purpose of the union, from their view, it is merely an unfortunate necessity (or sometimes an obstacle) toward getting better contract language.

If there is going to be a deeper revival of radicalism in labor struggles, shifting this perspective among the rank-and-file, and insisting on an open and transparent process for resolving the strike before it has begun would go a long way toward improving this situation.

All in all, this is a bit of a dreary assessment. The point is not to denigrate the courage of the teachers or their supporters, or to begrudge them their raise. Rather the point is to highlight the necessity and importance of striking. Taking the limited gains of the contract and saying “we will live to fight another day” begs the question: what will be the strategy and tactics of that day? How much more can be won without a strike?

To ask the question is to answer it. There certainly will be struggles to come, but perhaps next time they will be better prepared to win as much as they can if we can appreciate how that did not happen this time. Saying that we will continue to fight to resolve the hardest problems, just as we are putting away our most powerful weapon, is not a strategy for winning.

Posted By

Scott Jay
Mar 7 2019 06:04


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Mar 8 2019 04:22

While you covered some of the basics, Scott Jay, I'd have to say your critique is uneven.

And with some factual inaccuracies. When the strike settled last Friday, March 1, the teachers and educational support staff had been out of work 7 days, not 11. Except for that last day, the strike was 6 days in February.

Jack Gerson, retired math teacher from OEA, wrote the best account I've read so far, mostly because he follows OUSD finances with a fine-tooth comb. His article is now on libcom at the link below:

My comments from this thread have been moved there.

Scott Jay
Mar 7 2019 14:37

Sorry, but the strike wasn't settled until the workers voted to approve the contract on Sunday, March 3. Agree, that is a very good article you linked to.