Ready to strike for the schools we deserve

Sarah Levy reports from Portland, Ore., as teachers take a step closer to a strike.

Portland teachers rally for the schools they and their students deservePortland teachers rally for the schools they and their students deserve

PORTLAND TEACHERS voted overwhelmingly for a strike on Wednesday night, February 5, setting the stage for a walkout--the union's first ever--on Thursday, February 20, after a waiting period required by Oregon law.

After months of dragged-out negotiations during which the Portland Public Schools (PPS) board has continued to demand dozens of take-backs in a new contract, members of the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) sent a message loud and clear--that they are willing to stand up for their own working conditions and their students' learning conditions.

The vote to call the strike was almost unanimous. Almost the entire union membership turned out, according to teachers at the vote.

In an earlier interview, Madison High School teacher Adam Sanchez said:

I don't think many teachers out there want to strike. We want to be teaching our kids. But what we want even less than that is a contract that's going to make it so we can't provide a good education for out kids. And so if it takes going on strike to win the schools Portland students deserve, or at least to win somewhat of a better education for our students than what they're getting now, we're willing to do it.

The strike vote follows eight months without a contract for the teachers and an impasse at the negotiating table. The school district made it clear that its strategy was to let bargaining drag on, without conceding anything substantial, to try to wear down the union.

But since the start of the year, PAT members have made it clear--in two "strike assessment" canvassings required by union rules and then the strike vote on Wednesday--that they think a strike is worth it, if that's what it will take to win a fair contract for both them and their students.

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THE VOTE came on the heels of an electrifying day of coordinated student actions across the city in support of their teachers' fight for a contract--and to show the school board that students, too, are fed up with the way they have been treated.

Organized through the Portland Student Union (PdxSU), high schoolers at six schools held walkouts or rallies, which brought out hundreds of students. At Cleveland High School, about 600 students--almost half the student body--marched through the streets of Southeast Portland, marching past two local elementary schools and defying police attempts to block them from going down main streets.

As Cleveland junior and PdxSU member Zoe LaDue said:

The district claims to have the best interest of the students in mind but they don't. Time after time, they've made it clear that all they care about is money...The district can no longer push us around. Carole Smith and the Portland Public School Board don't speak for students, and they don't speak for teachers. They aren't the ones in the classrooms everyday. We are done with cutting teachers. We are done with cutting classes. We are done with racially motivated school closures, and we are done with classes that have up to 40 students.

This walkout isn't only about showing solidarity with our teachers, but showing the district what we're capable of... If this many people can come together on such short notice, think of what we could do in terms of a strike. Day by day, we show the district how much power we have and how much power we are able to harness. At the end of the day, we shouldn't be fearing the next cuts to our school. The district should be fearing us!

With some schools holding their first action where there wasn't a PdxSU presence before, Wednesday was also further evidence of how quickly Portland's student movement is picking up steam and bringing around newly active participants.

Hours later, teachers arriving at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall downtown for the strike vote meeting were greeted by a sea of community support organized by the Portland Teacher Solidarity Campaign.

Despite sub-freezing temperatures on one of the coldest nights this winter, several hundred supporters dressed in blue flooded both sides of Broadway Street downtown to show teachers that the community has their backs. Teachers from nearby Reynolds and Gresham-Barlow school districts, who fought their own contract battles in the spring of 2012, came out to show solidarity. Supporters passed out coffee, while Portland's Overpass Light Brigade held up their giant electric letters along the street to spell out "SUPPORT TEACHERS."

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FROM THE beginning of its contract campaign, the PAT has used a social justice union model to energize rank-and-file teachers and reach out to the community for support.

The union framed its demands for negotiations in a preamble titled "The Schools Portland Students Deserve," after a similar document created by the Chicago Teachers Union to prepare for their victorious strike over a year ago.

The board has refused to bargain over the issues in the preamble, claiming they are "permissive"--meaning PPS isn't required to discuss them under the law. But by focusing on the broader goals of education justice, the union has made it clear that the contract campaign is about more than just teachers' working conditions, but their students and the community.

One central issue for teachers, students and parents alike--and one that the district predictably refuses to discuss directly--is class size and teacher workload. Oregon has the third-largest class sizes in the nation, according to a website jointly published by the Oregon Education Association and Oregon PTA. It's not unusual to see kindergarten and first grade class sizes of over 30 students.

Since the district won't bargain over class size caps directly, the PAT's latest proposal calls for the hiring of an additional 175 teachers--the minimum number necessary to begin to make class sizes manageable, according to the union.

Teachers and community members were further angered in recent weeks when it came to light that the district had an unexpected $29.9 million in revenue that could go toward hiring more teachers and reducing class sizes--yet instead of putting any of this money into the classroom, the board voted to put it in its "reserves." As PAT President Gwen Sullivan told board members at their January 2 meeting, "That's a lot to stash in a rainy day fund at a time when it's clearly raining--very hard--on the schools."

Besides class size, other major issues still on the table include teacher workload and prep time, health insurance contributions, transfer rights, evaluation methods and retirement benefits. The district is demanding some 50 take-backs from teachers, down from 75 originally--and this comes on top of so many cuts over the last decade that Portland teachers have gone from some of the highest-paid in the metro area to some of the lowest.

At a January 27 board meeting, Madison High School language arts teacher Michelle Kenney spoke to why teachers are taking finally a stand now:

In the past decade, I watched as programs and teachers were cut, schools were closed, class sizes ballooned, seat times shrank, and students' education suffered under the money-saving 6 of 8 high school schedule...

When times were tough in 2003, and teachers were asked to give up 10 days of pay to keep a full year of school, we said yes. When we were asked to give up a cost-of-living increase in 2011 to save jobs, we said yes. When we were asked to delay a step increase for six months to stave off layoffs in 2012, we said yes. When in the same year we had to give up $400,000 of an arbitration agreement to once again keep our own schools open, we said yes...

After years of saying yes to cuts,. because we weren't in it for the money, it's time to say no!

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THE STRIKE vote came amid a backdrop of continuing lies and misinformation from the district as it attempts to manipulate public sentiment and create an atmosphere of fear it hopes to use in its favor.

On Tuesday, one day before the strike vote, PAT filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) complaint with the Oregon Employment Relations Board (ERB) charging the district with "unlawful behavior" for "threatening and bullying Portland substitute teachers who exercise their legal right to decline to work during a strike."

A district spokesperson had claimed that subs could lose their jobs if they refused to go to work during a strike. In fact, the substitutes' contract allows them to refuse to cross picket lines as long as they notify the district of this. But PPS's claim has led to fear and confusion among some subs. "Not only is that morally wrong, it's against the law," said Sullivan.

Most subs see the teachers' struggle as their own and understand the implications of scabbing, since many often rely on individual teachers to call them for job assignments. "It would be like cutting my own throat," said Kent Spring, a Portland substitute. "The district is crazy to think they will find enough scabs to run the district. They need to wake up and settle a decent contract now."

According to Ray Amling, chair of the Portland substitute teachers committee within the PAT, "Out of the 780 substitutes we've talked to, the response has been nearly unanimous that they will honor a picket line if the teachers are forced to go on strike."

Aware that it might have a problem finding local subs to fill the over 2,800 teacher positions in case of a walkout, the district has put out offers to "retirees, recent graduates and even previous teacher job applicants who were not hired," according to a KATU news report. The district is offering to pay $170.76 a day and says it will guarantee five days of pay--a total of $853.80--even if the strike doesn't last as long as that.

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PORTLAND SUBS and teachers are acutely aware that this fight is about much more than just their union or their city.

Teachers in Medford, a city in the southwestern corner of the state, are facing similar conditions and will go on strike starting February 6 unless a last-minute agreement is reached. Ironically, district officials in Medford and Portland, by both offering lavish deals to long-distance scabs, have provided another way for union supporters to communicate heartening displays of solidarity--substitutes from Portland solicited to go to Medford are responding with messages of "No thanks! P.S. NO UNION BUSTING!" and visa versa.

Portland students are beginning to organize strike support in case it's needed. With their own actions, as well as a document setting out their own demands titled "The Schools Portland Students Demand," students have already impacted negotiations and showed they are a fighting force.

Parents, meanwhile, are also making plans in the event of a strike, compiling information and advice about what to do in case of a walkout, including the resources available for meals and child care.

However, many parents say they would bring their children to the picket line with them to show support for the teachers. "It's a lesson in democracy," Betsy Salter, parent of an eighth-grade daughter at Mount Tabor Middle School, told KATU.

Getting involved in support of teachers has brought some parents together in ways that didn't exist before. One group has talked about circulating surveys to fellow parents on the picket line to get a sense of the needs and concerns at different schools--perhaps the beginnings of a "The Schools Portland Parents Demand."

The possibility of a teachers' strike comes at a tense time for labor in the city, with many locals facing potential walkouts of their own or struggles to win contracts.

Just blocks away from the theater where the teachers' strike vote took place sits Portland State University (PSU), where a union for associated professors is facing a potential strike. Last week, PSU students organized a forum to discuss what a professor walkout would mean for them and what their own involvement might look like in a potential strike. A previous "Strikes on the Horizon" panel at PSU organized by Portland Rising brought out over 100 students and community members.

With local high schoolers beginning to build connections with university students and the PAT forging ties with the faculty union at PSU, the possibilities of a powerful movement for education justice in this city are obvious.

A successful teachers strike that forces the arrogant board to back down from its demands for take-backs would have wide-ranging implications for Portland's labor movement and for the struggle for education justice nationally.

Portland teachers have shown they are ready, and students and the community must be prepared to take a stand alongside them. We need to do whatever it takes to make sure they win a fair contract.

Jamie Partridge contributed to this article.