Socialist Alternative

Oakland Teachers Strike: A Victory Filled With Lessons

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For many years the Oakland School Board has plotted its school privatization plan behind closed doors, closing neighborhood public schools and giving the keys to privately managed Charter schools. No Oakland School Board members ran for office calling for school closures, more charters, or low pay for new teachers, but those are the policies they have implemented for years. The last School Board election seemed to complete the privatizers’ takeover of our District.

But everything changed on February 21, when 3,000 teachers put up picket lines all over Oakland.

Teachers Come Out Fighting and Oaklanders Follow

Oakland teachers had had enough. Older teachers had seen modern, well equipped schools become impoverished through a thousand small cuts. Newer teachers looked at paychecks that barely paid their rising Bay Area rents and a younger, energized union leadership in the Oakland Education Association (OEA) promised to get more pay, lower class sizes, more support staff, and to expose the District’s ultimate agenda of dismantling public education. The leadership also called for a school closure moratorium as a part of negotiations, even though the issue is not technically a part of their contract.

Oakland teachers, inspired by the teacher revolt nationally, voted in record numbers to go out themselves. During the strike, 95% of teachers did not go to work and over 85% walked the picket lines. Oaklanders enthusiastically sided with the teachers over the District, with 97% of students not entering struck schools, and thousands of students, parents, and supporters walking the picket lines and joining lunchtime rallies each day of the strike. Most classified school workers including janitors and other staff in SEIU Local 1021 did not cross the picket line.

Picket lines went up between 6 and 7am, and earlier in some places, breaking at 10:30 to head to the daily lunchtime rallies. Hundreds of cars packed with parents, teachers and students converged on City Hall several days, on other days at the Charter School campaign headquarters, and another on the district’s first targeted closure, Roots International Academy, a middle school in the heart of East Oakland.

Each day teachers became more aware of the seriousness of the stakes involved in the strike. At the high schools especially, conflicts developed with school administrations over strike tactics that were turning back deliveries and blocking scab teachers.

The union’s mobilization was huge. No strike had reached so many Oaklanders in recent history. Friends and neighbors discussed the strike, but few voices were heard that didn’t back the teachers. OEA marched through neighborhoods in West Oakland and East Oakland chanting Get up, get down, Oakland is a union town!

Tentative Agreement Reached: How It All Went Down

Each time the School Board scheduled a meeting during the strike, a call went out for mass pickets and the Board was shut down. The third time was on what was to become the final day of the strike, Friday March 1, when OEA put out the call to shut down the School Board meeting again.

All morning teachers and parents arrived in their scores to block the Board from meeting. On its agenda was $22 million in cuts, including up to 150 layoffs of SEIU classified school workers. SEIU rank and file workers joined teachers as they physically blocked all entrances. One of the seven school board members had snuck in early and left, after dark that evening in a police escort van.

Right at 2pm, the Board’s scheduled start time, OEA leaders announced they had reached a tentative agreement (TA) with the district: including an 11% pay hike over four years and a 3% back-pay bonus. There were some small gains on hiring more support staff and a very small decrease in class size. The TA also included a pledge by the School Board president to introduce a resolution to the Board for Oakland’s first ever moratorium on school closures, for five months until the beginning of the next school year. There was no mention of Roots, nor Kaiser Elementary, the first and second schools slated by the District for closure on their list of 24 schools.

In every category, the agreement won more than the District was offering before the strike, and on teachers’ pay, over double the District’s initial offer of 5%. This was a result of the powerful strike the teachers built. Workers beyond Oakland and beyond California are excited to see another victory for teachers, but the pay hike is still not enough to keep up with rent increases and inflation. This shows the urgent need for an escalation of the affordable housing movement in the Bay Area including taxing big business and the super rich to fund high quality public affordable housing for teachers and all working people.

After announcing the TA, the OEA leadership said people could stay and picket the School Board if they wanted but that it was no longer an official union picket. This felt to many teachers, parents, and SEIU’s classified members as politically expedient for OEA and not consistent with the strong and fighting message of solidarity with classified workers and against all cuts to education espoused by OEA leadership throughout the strike. In the union’s press conference announcing the TA, OEA leadership presented the TA as a clear victory and wasn’t clear enough that nothing was a done deal until the membership voted on it. Also, in general, calling off picket lines before a  deal is ratified makes continuing the strike much harder if the deal is rejected by the membership.

The unrolling of the TA in this manner created understandable anger and frustration among many OEA members. It would have been better for OEA leadership to admit openly that increases in support staff, decreases in class size, and language around school closures were not as strong as they would have liked, but laying out a concrete reasoning for why they felt this was the best that could be won from this strike. That would have created a better atmosphere for discussion and debate about the TA and would have undercut any feelings of betrayal felt by a sizable portion of members.

This mistake at the end of the strike on the part of the leadership does not undermine the leadership’s incredible mobilization of teachers and supporters in the lead up and throughout the strike. It is important in any struggle to have an open and honest review of strategy and major decisions once things are over in order to draw out the most important lessons to be used in future battles.

The Debate over the Tentative Agreement

Only elected six months earlier, the new OEA leadership has encouraged membership to get active, and the way the strike was carried out, driven by an active rank-and-file, is a clear testament to this. The OEA leadership are all working teachers except for the President and First Vice President who are on leave from teaching, and who earn a teacher’s salary. OEA’s high level of internal democracy is exemplary and stands in stark contrast to so many unions today that are run in a highly top-down fashion. A consequence of the healthier culture in OEA is that members did not automatically accept the Tentative Agreement just because the leadership said it was right.

Learning from the LA strike, where after a TA was reached the strike was declared over by the leadership and a ratification vote was rushed without adequate time for discussion, the OEA Site Rep Council voted before the strike to implement a 24 hour waiting period after a TA was reached before the membership vote. Unfortunately, the OEA leadership’s presenting of the TA as a decisive victory for the strike did have the effect of partially undercutting this important democratic measure, but robust discussion and debate occurred anyway. Meetups of teachers at various schools and clusters of schools based on region were set up by rank-and-file teachers, and statements were circulated via email and social media.

Socialist Alternative circulated a statement online and handed out 500 copies to teachers eager to read it with the headline, “Ratification Vote: A Question of Strategy, Not Principle.” While arguing strongly against the way in which the leadership had brought the TA forward, our statement also argued:

This vote is a form of a strike vote. If the TA is rejected it means heading back to the picket lines. It is one thing to strike with a 97% strike authorization vote, and totally different to strike with a 55% vote against a TA ratification. Also, heading back to the picket lines means a strike, or a war, where the Generals do not want to continue, which would complicate things.

In order for a “no” vote to be the best outcome today, there would need to be a clear strategy from below that could lead a continued strike in winning a better TA. This would need to include concrete plans for the Alameda County-wide general strike resolution that was passed by the rep council late last week. It could include concrete plans for systematic outreach to charter teachers explaining the need for them to hit charters across the city with sickouts in solidarity with our strike. It would also need to include a strategy for unity to address the concerns of teachers who vote “yes.” Without this sort of concrete strategy for a prolonged strike, a rejection of the TA would put the union in a less-than-favorable position.

There was, and still is, debate on whether teachers had energy and morale to continue the strike. It seems that the OEA leadership anticipated a short, powerful strike, driven by daily rallies sandwiched by morning and afternoon pickets, a sprint-styled strike similar to the LA strike. However, before the strike began, Socialist Alternative cautioned against one to one analogies between what it took to win in LA and what it would take in Oakland: “LAUSD is 10 times bigger than OUSD and less charterized. Teachers in Oakland may be just as angry as LA teachers, but our foe is better organized and more embedded.”

Socialist Alternative feels that the decision of the leadership to accept the TA when they did, call off pickets, and promote the TA as essentially a done deal was a mistake. This created enormous confusion and anger and undermined the incredible unity and sense of purpose that the strike had developed. Some have argued, such as Eric Blanc, Jacobin magazine’s main reporter on the teachers strike wave and a DSA member, that the strike had peaked and had already began to decline. Inevitably, some fatigue was beginning to show from the high level of activity that was being asked of strikers.

However, on what was to be the second to last day of the strike, morale was high as teachers and supporters pushed past security guards at the downtown state office building and occupied the ground floor, sending chants up to the boardroom where negotiations were taking place. That day too, over 100 teachers from across the Bay Area conducted a sickout in solidarity with the Oakland strike, and there was room to expand on this further. That night, the OEA Site Rep Council voted to pass a resolution calling for an Alameda County-wide general strike, and OEA leadership was in discussion with the ILWU (longshoremen union) about shutting down the Port of Oakland.

On the Friday when the TA was announced, there was a powerful mood of determination as strikers kept the school board out of their meeting space for hours. Eventually, teachers physically blockaded an entrance when school board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge and her bodyguard attempted, violently and unsuccessfully, to get into the building. Even in the hours before the TA was announced, social media posts from teachers were along the lines of “Day 7: stronger than ever!”

The one indisputable fact is that 42% of teachers voted to reject the TA and keep striking. This is an incredibly high vote, taken by the rank and file against their own leadership in the middle of a strike, and even more significant given the manner in which the TA was presented initially by the leadership as a done deal. On the day of the ratification vote, Socialist Alternative talked with many teachers who were voting “yes,” but reluctantly, in the absence of a trusted and organized rank and file group persuasively organizing around a concrete winning strategy to continue the strike. The 42% of “no” voters, plus the reluctant “yes” voters is a clear sign that there was indeed a mood to keep on fighting.

Had OEA leadership not accepted the weak TA on Friday, and instead put forward a clear plan for strategic escalation heading into the next week, we believe the teachers could have built on the experience gained from seven days of solid picket lines and three shutdowns of school board meetings. With the community behind them to continue the strike, they may well have been able to force the District to make a stronger offer which more resembled the union’s demand of a 12% raise over 3 years (instead of 11% over 4), a larger decrease in support staff to student ratios, particularly for nurses, and potentially stronger language on school closures.

What’s Next for the Fight for Public Education in Oakland

The Democratic Party establishment, backed by the billionaire class, has had an agenda of privatization and turning public schools into charter schools. Up until recently, this has been done behind closed doors, but the OEA has shed light on their plan and brought it fully out in the open for all of Oakland to now see and understand.

The moratorium on school closures won by the strike was a step in the right direction, but more work is needed. The OEA should help parents to immediately begin organizing the infrastructure for a movement that can challenge school closures when the five month moratorium is up and the District puts closures back on the agenda. The moratorium resolution won by this strike shows that the District can be moved on the topic of school closures, and winning this fight long term is possible.

Attacks on public education are happening all across the state. If the whole labor movement unites behind all teachers union locals, both AFT and NEA, up and down California for a one-day strike or sick-out to undo the state’s endorsement of the charterization of public schools, this would be a tremendous first step in building the statewide movement that is necessary to stop the education privatization agenda of the billionaire class.

It used to be around twenty years ago that charter schools served 3% of students in Oakland. Now they serve 30%. Many OEA members, particularly young teachers, are eager to engage charter teachers and win them to OEA. While some teachers fear that unionizing charter teachers would serve to normalize the existence of charters, we feel that unionizing charters could be a first step toward bringing charters back under direct district control, which must be our ultimate goal.

Not only would unionizing charters into the OEA help create the biggest, strongest OEA opposition to both the District and the charter bosses and billionaires, but it would make charterizing much less attractive to the top charter visionaries like Bill Gates and the Walton family, all pro-market and viciously anti-union. During the strike, Socialist Alternative proposed to many teachers the idea that instead of an afternoon picket one day, going to flyer charter school teachers as school let out around the idea of a charter solidarity sickout with the OEA strike.

School Board elections are coming up in 2020. Based on the momentum from this strike and the mass support it garnered, the OEA should run a slate of independent candidates for the School Board who are committed to dismantling the district’s plans and willing to undo the top-down priorities and approach of the Board.

Oakland teachers forced the District to find the money they said they didn’t have. The city’s political establishment was seriously worried about the escalation and deep popularity of the strike. The Democratic Party in the city and nationally essentially stood aside from this fight, voicing platitudes not dissimilar to the empty “support our teachers” messages that even School Board members made. An attempt by presidential candidate Kamala Harris to use teacher picket lines to boost her Presidential bid was rebuffed by the teachers union. However, Bernie Sanders’ tweet in favor of all the demands of the OEA was prominently shared by the union in its daily strike bulletin.

When Socialist Alternative launched a petition to get Bernie to come to Oakland to help teachers win by speaking at a rally and mobilizing his supporters to pickets and rallies, hundreds signed, with teachers literally standing in line to sign.

The Power of the Working Class

For the seven days teachers were on strike, Oakland was turned upside down. Teachers and their supporters physically blockaded School Board meetings to prevent cuts to public education and teachers blocked school gates with parked cars to keep the strike strong. These effective actions defied federal anti-labor laws and went unchallenged by police because of the teachers’ near unanimous support among the wider Oakland working class. Oakland teachers, in the lead up to the strike, used the sick-out tactic to get around laws that ban secondary and lightning strikes.

If unions locally and nationally began to use the example set by Oakland teachers we could begin to stop attacks on our living standards and win victories in our workplaces, as we rebuild a fighting labor movement. Both the LA and Oakland strikes, which had a sharp political character and mobilized working class communities in a common struggle to fund public education and end privatizations, also point towards how we build a mass movement centered on the social power of the working class to win Medicare for All, affordable housing for all, free college and an end to mass incarceration.

The District’s plan to quietly privatize the entire Oakland school system has hit its biggest speed bump since they began their effort. There are now 3,000 teachers in Oakland who have come out of this moment more confident in their power as workers and more aware of the forces at play in the struggle to defend public education. Hundreds have now become dedicated activists in the union’s army of resistance against the billionaire-backed District. They have been transformed by the experience of the strike, arguing for the strike’s demands, confronting scabs, and organizing themselves and their coworkers into a fighting force. Oakland teachers have made their mark on history, and it won’t be the last time.

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