Oakland, California, teachers’ strike helps define new era for education justice
Monday, February 25, 2019
2018 was a year of unprecedented labor actions that rocked the education world. Smaller class sizes; better benefits and schedules; more professional development and classroom resources; improved wraparound support for students and families; sanctuary schools; enhanced community school/social justice programs; and, of course, higher salaries were all included in newly won contracts.
Also unprecedented was the nation’s first charter school educators strike in Chicago, significant because chartering has been blamed for so many public school budget woes.
Last year, it was red states (see #RedforEd) that created the striking climate. West Virginia, then Oklahoma and Arizona, teachers and staff impressed observers with their firm resolve to break through the strike taboo — always presented as selfish and damaging to students by union-busters — to reveal how essential labor withdrawal is as a tool for education reform.
Now, one year after the West Virginia teachers strike, we see Oakland, California’s teachers’ union, the Oakland Education Association (OEA), on the picket line with very serious and locale-specific demands. Bay Area housing costs are too high to retain quality educators in local public schools.
The billionaire-backed campaign to charter Oakland looms, as it does in so many other U.S. cities, in the background here. Nurses, firefighters, wildcatting local charter teachers, and countless others have been supporting striking public-school teachers in a symbol of solidarity in a city with an impressive labor history.
To put it in perspective: the average new Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) teacher makes $46,500 annually, the average salary is $63,149, and salary tops off at around $85,000. Compare this to new teachers in New Haven, Connecticut, making $71,000 in annual starting salary and you can see the massive discrepancy. Even surrounding Bay Area locales, like Pleasanton and Fremont, cap teacher salaries at six figures.
What’s so egregious about Oakland teachers’ salaries is that the local housing market is so heavily gentrified that the teachers serving 36,000 students in 86 schools cannot afford to live near their workplaces. Oakland used to be the option for many who could not afford San Francisco and Berkeley. Now, the tech economy has bolstered rent to unprecedented levels: the median price for a one-bedroom apartment there is $2,280.
To popularize the local struggles for higher pay and rent controlled affordable housing, we have the wildly successful film "Sorry to Bother You," directed by Oakland hip-hop mainstay Boots Riley of The Coup. If you were fortunate enough to see this hilarious, insightful, and artful treatment of Oakland’s working-class dramaturgy, you saw a high-spirited indictment of life’s difficulties under an absurd system that makes survival near impossible.
You also saw the workers fight back, albeit awkwardly, with the lead character, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), thinking way outside the box for his own and his community’s survival.
Riley’s film even predicted some OUSD strike dynamics: especially the "scabs" that have been brought in to keep classroom teaching going while teachers are out on picket lines. Before the strike commenced, replacement teachers were controversially sought by the nonprofit Teach for America.
The picket lines have also spawned a protest against charter schools in Oakland, as the public connects the dots between burgeoning charter schools and the draining of public school coffers.
What kind of contract will rectify such abysmal work and living conditions? A pay raise of 12 percent in the next three years; smaller class sizes; no more schools closures; and more counselors, nurses, and support staff.
These were some of the exact same demands made by striking Los Angeles teachers, and they ended the strike on Jan. 22 by ratifying a new contract with 81 percent support.
West Virginia teachers were also back on picket lines last week for two days to successfully oppose now-killed SB 451, which sought to introduce rapid-fire school chartering in a state where public schools are “unchartered” territory.
This labor action tapped into new energy, demonstrating that teachers will not roll over once they get a new contract — especially when they see backlash education bills like SB 451 coming down the pipeline.
Amidst all the focus on classroom teachers, it’s important to include other education support staff: teachers’ aides, counselors, nurses, janitors, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, speech and occupational therapists, and even supportive administrators. The new United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) contract did not include special education teachers. In the case of the OEA, it’s rumored that some teachers’ aides, who are not represented by the OEA, are crossing the picket lines. But this has yet to be corroborated.
In Denver, Colorado, 5,000 educators ended a strike over a week ago, netting a 11.7 percent pay raise that includes school staff such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers. The merit-pay system will also be overhauled.
New contracts can be a hot compromising mess. As Riley’s Oakland-based movie reminds us, labor politics produces a “beautiful clutter” (Riley’s phrase) that holds much promise, but remains imperfect. A new contract will not make all OUSD educators and support staff — like teachers’ aides — unilaterally happy.
But it will be a huge improvement in a national climate of educational austerity.
In Oakland, the strike picked back up Feb. 25, until a Northern variation of Southern California’s recent contract victory is won.
The alternative? Maybe Riley will unleash his "equisapiens" — the imaginative and deeply intimidating work horses that populate the end of his film — on Oakland streets once again.
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