The story of a teachers’ victory in Oregon

March 11, 2014

For the last several months, teachers across the country were focusing their attention on Portland, Ore., where members of the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) were preparing for what would have been the union's first-ever strike in February. Less than 48 hours before their planned walkout set for February 20, the union reached a tentative agreement, winning many of their demands.

Meanwhile, in the city of Medford, Ore., 270 miles south of Portland on Interstate 5, teachers were traveling a nearly parallel course against a school district determined to bust their union and impose the corporate school deform agenda. Only in Medford, the district imposed its miserable contract offer--and a united teachers' union went on strike in a struggle for a fair contract and education justice for their students.

Days after the PAT reached their tentative agreement, Sarah Levy and Grant Booth from the Portland Teachers Solidarity Campaign visited Medford teachers on the picket line during what turned out to be the final day of their strike. In this special feature, Sarah Levy reports on what teachers in Medford were up against, how they organized a strike that won them a fair contract--and how they've been transformed by the struggle.

AFTER 16 days on strike, the Medford Education Association (MEA) reached a tentative agreement on a new three-year contract Medford School District 549C. On March 7, the nearly 600 members of the MEA ratified the contract by a wide margin--a welcome culmination of an almost year-long battle with school officials determined to make the teachers surrender.

The walkout was the first time in the MEA's history. It began on February 6, following an overwhelming vote to strike on January 23 in response to the district unilaterally imposing its concessions-filled contract on teachers in late December.

While all the details of the contract aren't yet available, the agreement includes wins for the union on many of the major issues for teachers. There are modest wage increases of 1.9 percent, 2.5 percent and 3 percent in the first, second and third years of the contract; protected preparation time for teachers, instead of of the district's attempt to divide teachers' prep time into small chunks; some caseload relief for secondary and special education teachers; and additional help for special education teachers in the form of two extra contract days to complete case management duties.

Medford teachers join with parents on the picket lines
Medford teachers join with parents on the picket lines (Medford Education Association)

The MEA did make concessions on a few significant fronts. One notable take-back was the phasing out of early retirement benefits for teachers--something the PAT accepted in its new contract, too. Both districts would have actually saved money from this contract provision, but they forced the elimination of the program on unions anyway.

Other concessions accepted by Medford teachers include an increase in the percentage of health insurance premiums paid by for teachers, rising from 5 percent now to 10 percent in the final year of the contract, which will continue in the next contract--which the District intends to maintain as the status quo going into future contract negotiations--and a three-year agreement demanded by the district, instead of the two-year deal the union wanted.

Today, the teachers in Medford are glad to have returned to their students, and to have won a mostly favorable deal after years of takebacks by the district. But they overwhelmingly agree that their weeks on strike were priceless for the lessons they learned on the picket line. The teachers of Medford have been transformed--as individuals and as a union.

What you can do

Medford teachers could still use your help. State collective bargaining laws mandate a pay loss for each day on strike that translated into a 3 percent cut for the majority of Medford teachers who were out for the duration of the strike.

Donations would be greatly appreciated to help teachers who stood up for their future and that of their students. Click here to donate online or send checks and cards of support to: Southern Oregon UniServ Office, Attn: Medford Education Association, 2495 S. Pacific Hwy., Medford, OR 97501-8759.

For more information about the strike and ongoing struggles, go to Medford Education Association website.

Medford Schools as a Model in "Lean Education"

"The goal of lean education isn't teaching or learning. It's creating lean workplaces where teachers are stretched to their limits."
-- from "The Industrial Classroom" in Jacobin magazine's book Class Action: An Activist Teacher's Handbook

"They've been trying to balance their budgets on the people who do the work...But if you work a machine to death, and you don't care for it, you don't oil it, you don't do the maintenance on it, all because you want to produce more, you push it and push it and push it, and the machine eventually breaks down...We're the machine. We're the ones who make this whole thing work. And when they keep stripping us of teachers, adding classes, not allowing prep time, stripping aids from classrooms, stripping other forms of support, then they've stripped the machine down to where it's going to fall apart. The end result is that kids aren't getting a quality education."
-- A Medford teacher on the picket line

In the past decade, Medford teachers have taken cuts in every contract. As a result, most teachers make less now than they did five years ago, while they also pay more for health insurance benefits, work longer hours and teach more students.

District-wide teacher positions have also been cut over the past decade, causing class sizes to increase in a state that already has the third largest in the nation. In Medford, typical classes--at both the primary and secondary level--have 35 to 40 students.

Throughout the recession years, when the district claimed it couldn't afford to give its teachers cost-of-living increases and keep all the staff, teachers accepted pay freezes in order to avoid layoffs under a district-signed memorandum of understanding--which stated that once the district had the money, it would pay teachers appropriately.

As a result, many teachers felt betrayed when, despite an ample surplus in its financial reserves this year, on top of another $1.3 million it was handed by the state, the district still refused to follow through on its promise to fairly compensate teachers or put money toward improving classroom conditions, such as workload relief.

Teachers and community members were further angered when details emerged surrounding expenses the district was willing to pay--such as hiring Kelly Noor, a lawyer from the Salem law firm Garrett Hemann Robertson (GHR) to help the district in bargaining with the MEA. GHR has been known to use a similar union-busting playbook as the Hungerford Law Firm, which represented the district when Eagle Point teachers went on strike two years ago, and Reynolds School District shortly after.

Under Noor's advice, the school district came to the negotiating table with an initial 118 take-backs, many of them concerning teachers' working conditions. By way of comparison, the Portland School District "only" put forward 75 concessions in its initial offer.

Thus, even as the district and media tried to portray "greedy" teachers as only caring about salary and benefits, teachers made it clear throughout the entire contract campaign that, besides staving off further salary cuts, they believed it was necessary to strike to defend their working conditions--conditions they say directly affect their ability to teach their students.

Two of the major concessions demanded by the district that the union decided to push back against were teacher preparation time and total student workload. Whereas the previous contract included protected prep time that administrators couldn't break up, this time, the district attempted to remove this protection, instead only guaranteeing teachers a lump sum of minutes for the week.

This would have allowed administrators to count even five minutes between classes toward the prep time total. So if a teacher had five minutes between classes, four times a day, five days a week, this would count as 100 minutes of "prep" time.

"And so the district is saying, 'You've got 100 minutes of prep time!' said David Brown, an English teacher at McLoughlin Middle School. "I just hope you don't have to eat, or go to the bathroom, or greet your students at the door or anything like that, because that's your prep time."

Medford teachers say that in order to do everything that's needed to do their job well, they already typically work 60 to 80 hours a week, with newer teachers typically working the most.

Many of those additional hours get packed into long late afternoon and evenings spent in the classroom, or late nights at home after their own children are in bed, or over the weekends. For most teachers, this "off-the-clock" time is necessary to meet their students' needs--preparing lessons, grading papers, giving students individual feedback and providing additional assistance, and contacting parents.

With administrators constantly trying to get them to attend additional meetings during school hours, contract-protected prep time is a necessary way to ensure that teachers can actually do their work during the school day, while they're on the clock.

Compounding the threat of the removal of protected prep was the district's attempt to add more students to teachers' total workload--something that would effectively force them to do more work, with less time to do it.

For example, one provision of the district's contract offer tried to force secondary teachers to teach an additional "advisory" class. According to the district, this wouldn't technically count as a class, and therefore school officials could refuse to acknowledge the additional load this would entail.

For teachers already working with 170 to 180 students and typical class sizes at 35 to 40, this would have put their total workload above 200. As it is, for many teachers it's nearly impossible to get to know their students on a personal level or provide them with the emotional support and interaction that helps them succeed.

"We're not just responsible for being educators, but for being mentors and counsellors and role models…you could probably make a huge list of all the things we have to be--sometimes all at once," said Josiah Mankofsky, an English teacher at McLoughlin. "And so when the District tries to squeeze more out of us, [in the form of less prep time, or increased workloads] the less we are able to be there for each of our students."

Besides secondary teachers, the issue of caseload equity is of critical importance to special education educators--who already have what union members call a "five-year lifespan" due to the rate of burnout that results from all the additional paperwork required of them. This has only gotten worse over the last decade, as more students have been forced onto a smaller number of teachers, and those who remain are left with even less "clock time" to do their job.

Against this backdrop, what the union achieved in the current contract should be seen as a significant achievement.

The union forced the district to maintain the contract language that protects teacher prep time--the district will only have the flexibility to adjust this during certain times of the year, such as student orientations or final exams.

The district also promised to provide additional support for teachers when class sizes exceed 35 at the elementary level or 40 at the secondary level.

The union knows that class sizes of 34 or 39 is unsatisfactory--in fact, the MEA is already gearing up for future initiatives at the state level for reductions in class size. But the fact that the union was able to prevent the district from forcing further rollbacks on teachers--and even begin to make up some of the lost ground after decades of cuts--should be seen as an important win.

On top of this, the contract's modest raises for teachers--who should see a slight increase in income even after inflation is taken into account, after a decade of real wages declining--is a victory, coming off the district's previous refusal to budget on either issue.

But the importance of the strike for Medford teachers goes beyond just throwing a wrench in the district's drive to ram through the corporate reform agenda. As teachers continue to fight for the working and learning conditions that they and their students deserve, they will carry with them the experiences and lessons learned from their two weeks on the picket line. As they attempt to maintain the momentum from this contract campaign, they will move forward with new strength and as a union transformed.

In It to Win It

"Be strong, and show that strength early on."
-- Cat Brasseur, communications chair on the MEA organizing team, in response to the question: "What advice would you offer other unions based on what you learned throughout the process of what you went through in Medford?"

In Portland, after months of pushing the union toward a strike, school officials hestitated to impose a contract on teachers, as they could have, by law, after declaring an impasse in negotiations. Instead, the district shifted its strategy toward drawing out the bargaining process as long as possible. The hope was that the teachers would lose their strong public support if they held a strike vote without having a contract imposed on them.

In Medford, on the other hand, the school district, under the guidance of Noor, kept up its strategy of trying to force a strike. It declared an impasse at the first possible opportunity, and as soon as the legally required 30-day cooling-off period was up, the district imposed its contract on Medford teachers.

MEA members were forced to either continue working under conditions they hadn't agreed to, or go on strike. Teachers chose a strike--they voted authorization for a walkout by an overwhelming margin in late January.

Knowing that the success of a strike would pivot on not only on their own unity, but on building up support throughout a small city, the MEA set out to organize solidarity from the community. In the week before Christmas, the union held informational pickets and rallies, where they stood along busy streets and overpasses, holding signs, chanting, singing and dancing to raise awareness about their fight.

Once the strike was underway in early February, teachers continued to build community awareness with roving pickets--what some teachers referred to as "flash-mob cruises"--in which they painted their cars and then drove in caravans through the district, blasting music and generally taking their message to the streets.

The union also held community rallies leading up to and throughout the strike. Each one was larger than the one before. Strikers made sure that flyers and newsletters were translated into Spanish, so that Latino families, community members and seasonal workers could learn about the walkout and what they could do to help out. As one union organizer said, the more the MEA showed their respect for Latinos by putting out their message in both English and Spanish, the more quickly support grew.

At a February 19 "Stop Hiding and Get This Done" rally outside school district headquarters, a married couple, both leaders in Medford's Latino community, spoke to the crowd. They took turns, alternating between Spanish and English.

After each phrase the husband spoke in Spanish, there would be an eruption from the several hundred seasonal workers and Latino community members waving their signs and chanting their support. Then as his spouse translated into English, a second wave of applause would erupt from hundreds of people who hadn't understood the Spanish. All together, it was a bilingual rolling wave of cheers throughout the rally.

"A bilingual approach like that not only showed respect to Spanish speakers," said Oregon Education Association Bruce Scherer, "but it made it so that teachers and the district could see and hear just how broad and strong MEA's community support was."

The teachers could also rely on solidarity from other unions in Medford--in response to the school district's attempt to injure one union, the labor movement of the whole city responded as if it was also under attack.

Among the unions who turned out support at rallies and other events were the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers--both Local 659 in Medford, and Local 1245, whose members traveled north from Sacramento, Calif., to help out for a week--the Oregon Nurses Association, the American Postal Workers Union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, Service Employees International Union, and the United Food and Commercial Workers.

When teachers were out on the picket line in the cold and the rain, firefighters brought propane heaters that they set up on the sidewalk. When the school board when into hiding, refusing to answer phone calls or set up appointments to meet with parents or members of the community, migrant workers with the Northwest Seasonal Workers Association stood outside and pounded on the windows and doors of the school district offices, chanting, "You will listen to us!"

Aside from the district's avoidance strategy, another factor that angered parents and led some initially hostile to the strike to sympathize with teachers was how they and their children were treated in the district-sanctioned scab schools.

The district went all-out, opening up its pocketbook to fly in scabs from as far away as New York--paying them $340 a day, plus food, travel and lodging stipends, just to keep half the schools open during the strike. But school officials' generosity didn't trickle down to the students who actually showed up to class. Reports emerged of classes with 56 or more kids crammed into a single room--and scabs playing around on their phones as unmonitored students were free to leave as they pleased.

Unfortunately, however, negligence was only part of the problem. There were additional reports of scabs calling students by offensive racial slurs, as well as spanking students and shoving them around. Meanwhile, other parents were told by the district that they would not be allowed inside to check on their children, even in the case of special needs students.

"Parents and students were, by instinct, ready to support MEA," said the OEA's Bruce Scherer. "But as incidents like that accrued at such a high rate, the district itself became one of the best organizers against the district."

Thus, as the strike went on, instead of parents turning against teachers as the district had intended, increasing numbers of parents and students were dropping by strike headquarters to ask what they could do to help out. Students at the two main high schools in the district walked out in support of their teachers on the last Thursday of the strike--the action was organized in large part by the varsity boys' basketball team.

In addition to the display of local solidarity, teachers said the outpouring of support from around Oregon, as well as nationally and even internationally, was "overwhelming." Messages of solidarity came in from as far away as China and Germany, along with statements from teachers and unions across the U.S. Plus, there were almost-daily messages of encouragement going back and forth between Portland and Medford, as teachers and their supporters in both cities compared notes of what they were facing, and shared advice and inspiration over Facebook.

Scherer said that all of these factors together--from the outpouring of support for teachers to the school district digging itself into a public relations hole--helped to strengthen the union and boost teachers' confidence and morale, both on the picket line and at the bargaining table leading up to the settlement.

"The district's strategy was built on MEA members having low morale," he said. "But as the strike went on, the MEA got stronger and the district's strategy of demoralization disintegrated."

A Union Transformed

"People understand now what unity means in a union. They get that it's not a hidden agenda. We are the union."
-- South Medford High School teacher Jaci Bridge

On the last day of the strike, Jaci Bridge, an algebra teacher at South Medford High School with 13 years of experience teaching, summed up the importance of the preceding weeks. Even if she could rewind time, Bridge said, she "wouldn't take back this whole process"--because of how it transformed individual teachers and the union as a whole.

Bridge said she witnessed some fellow teachers go from being skeptical of the union in the weeks leading up to the strike to having pride in the MEA and their part in it by the end of the strike. "People understand now what unity means in a union," she said. "They get that it's not a hidden agenda. We are the union. WE are the union."

Cat Brasseur echoed this lesson, explaining what she and her colleagues came to understand through the course of the strike:

It's our union. It's not the organization "out there" that's going to tell us what to do. We are the union. We are the strength, and together, we decide the change and the progress we want to create in our world. We all know now that we're stronger together than we ever could have been individually. That's what it's done for me and for many of us. And that, I think, is the most valuable thing.

On the last day on the picket line, several teachers said the strike provided a "team-building experience" that they wouldn't have gotten if the district hadn't combined schools during the strike. This effectively gave teachers a chance to bond with entire staffs from other schools--not to mention teachers from their own buildings who they might not have known going into the walkout.

Stephen Hackett, a special education educator, said that as a school psychologist, he's familiar with the concept that "when you go through crisis with somebody, it often forms bonds that can last a lifetime." As he put it:

I consider this to be a crisis for most of us. You know, we're putting our butts on the line and standing up for what we believe... When you're standing outside with someone for seven to eight hours a day for two straight weeks in the rain, in the cold...Our comradery has never been higher. There's no question we've formed tighter bonds because of it.

Many teachers said that the Medford School District's blatant anti-union tactics--ranging from Superintendent Phil Long's overt lies in the media to the district's employment of a union-busting lawyer--opened their eyes to how their own struggle and the MEA fit into a larger picture. "Do I think there's some sort of a conspiracy going on to break unions?" Bridge asked rhetorically. "I wouldn't have thought so a month ago, but I really do now."

For many teachers, the fact that Noor, the union-busting lawyer, was just hired in by the school district in Eugene paints an even more acute picture of the wave of anti-teacher attacks rolling across the state of Oregon. "This is a strategy that the Oregon School Boards Association has committed to in order to break their teachers unions--so that what is a meager 1.2 percent raise for us ends up being millions of dollars for them," said Bridge.

It's no wonder that many teachers in Medford are turning their attention to nearby Eugene as a likely next battleground in the struggle to defend public education and teachers' unions. Plus, as they began to shift their energies post-strike, Medford teachers were also gearing up to oppose "right-to-work" legislation being proposed for the state.

But if the prospect of Eugene teachers entering the battle illustrated the magnitude of the anti-union attack, in Medford, this knowledge served to bolster teachers' resolve. Even as the strike dragged on into a second week, members of the MEA understood that what happened in their city would have an effect beyond just their local union.

"We're all very aware of how much what happens here will impact the rest of our state," said Brasseur just hours before the settlement was reached. "For me, as well as for many other teachers, this has gone from being about me protecting my take-home pay to being about us [standing up for] something on the larger scale."

After all, Medford teachers took strength from their colleagues in Portland who were getting ready for their own battle. Chris Geankoplis, a seventh grade middle school teacher at Hedrick Middle School, described the impact of the Portland teachers' nearly unanimous vote to strike, which came the night before Medford teachers walked out.

"We knew then that we had to stay strong," Geankoplis said. "Because if we folded, Portland would probably have to go on strike, and 48,000 kids there would have to go through what our kids had to go through."

Lessons for the Future?

"What I've learned is that when people gather together for a cause, nothing is impossible."
-- Cat Brasseur

As long as public education remains a still-to-be-tapped source of wealth in the eyes of corporations and neoliberal reformers, the attacks on public schools--and in particular teachers' unions as their main bastion of defense--will continue nationwide.

But in Oregon, the ruling class determination to target teachers and their unions as the largest remaining sector of unionized workers couldn't be clearer.

From Eagle Point, Reynolds, Gresham-Barlow and Parkrose two years ago; to Portland, Medford and now Eugene today; to Portland State University, where professors will be voting to strike in the coming week, it's looking more and more like open season on public education in Oregon state.

In this context, the story of how the Medford teachers fought and won should be seen as a textbook example of the transformational power of the strike. Across the country, teachers and other working people can look to this city for inspiration about what's possible: If we organize and struggle together, we can top the corporate education reformers' ramped-up anti-union offensive--and emerge with our side standing stronger.

As Dan Bridge, a veteran IBEW member and active in support of the Medford teachers, said while the strike was underway:

Somebody wasn't very smart. They started their pick-on-unions fight against teachers--of all people. The smartest of the group, and the most beloved in the community...This has only made the union stronger. Somebody picked a fight that they're not going to win.

The experience in Medford should remind us all that going on strike isn't just a good way to win your demands. It's essential in strengthening and preparing workers, unions and even entire communities for the bigger struggles of the future.

Grant Booth contributed to this article.

Further Reading

From the archives