Oakland teachers deserve more

June 2, 2015

Dan Russell reports on the discussion among Oakland teachers about the shortcomings of a tentative contract as a June 3 vote on the proposal approaches.

OAKLAND TEACHERS will vote this week on a tentative contract that many members are calling insufficient in the face of an improved fiscal climate in California and increased funding for the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). A Vote No campaign has been launched by some Oakland Education Association (OEA) members to reject the proposal on June 3.

The main differences are over wages, caps on special education caseloads and the weakening of seniority. While the attack on teachers around the country has meant that they are expected to sacrifice their own pay and rights--supposedly for the sake of their students--the reality is that teachers deserve and desperately need better compensation if they are going to stay in their district or field.

Oakland teachers are already among the lowest-paid in a region with a skyrocketing cost of living. Rents in Oakland continue to rise faster than those in neighboring San Francisco--the most expensive city in the nation--as tech money spills across the Bay and displacement devastates working-class communities.

Oakland teachers rally for a fair contract
Oakland teachers rally for a fair contract

Though the district had quoted double-digit raises as high as 13.5 percent during bargaining, the guaranteed 8 percent figure included in the contract masks a 1.65 percent increase in working hours. Raises for the second and third years of the contract would be entirely contingent on state finances. While budgets look promising now, the uncertainty--especially for 2016-17--is contributing to the opposition to this agreement.

Additionally, the bargaining team worked closely with the Special Education Caucus to solidify improved working conditions, specifically "hard caps" on caseloads. In the tentative agreement, some special education teachers (depending on the type of classroom that they teach) would have "soft caps," which amount to unenforceable guidelines.

Many feel that this is a step in the right direction, and that getting limits for special education caseloads into the contract is precedent-setting. But the unenforceability of the caps threatens to render these limits essentially meaningless.

Given the outpouring of organizing that the Special Education Caucus led this past school year, soft caps are a disappointment. And like in all classrooms, special education teachers need dependable limits--a demand that benefits both vulnerable students and overworked teachers.

Additionally, late in the bargaining process, OUSD opened an article that governs transfer and consolidation rights. There is a lot of contention and confusion over the new proposed language. The central concern is that it weakens seniority rights of teachers who are transferred due to a school closing, or to a department or a program that is shrinking, among other circumstances.

As one critic of the contract, Deirdre Snyder, a Spanish teacher at Oakland Technical High School, pointed out, "We need a teacher stability contract, not a teacher turnover contract."

WHILE THERE is an increase of money into education in the state of California and an upsurge of rank-and-file activity in the union, there is no reason to put the brakes on when the OEA could fight for more.

In a recent vote by members, 94 percent of participants endorsed a strike, giving the union significant bargaining power that should not be wasted when there is much left to win. A "no" vote backed by the threat of a well-organized strike at the beginning of the school year could not only produce further gains at the table for Oakland educators, but would also give the OEA the opportunity to show its collective strength and build confidence among its membership and the community.

OEA Executive Board Member Jessie Muldoon captured this spirit in a recent statement to the release. "We have built real momentum this year," Muldoon said, "and have the opportunity to push the district further than what they are offering right now."

Many OEA activists feel that their organizing is having an impact, and that the OEA has an opportunity to win some real gains in this round of negotiations. OEA members should vote down this agreement and keep up the pressure.

Everyone concerned with the future of public education and the welfare of both students and teachers needs to stand with the OEA and demand fair pay and working conditions for teachers. This will mean better learning conditions for students, but could also empower teachers as an organized force to fight back against neoliberal budgets, corporate education reform and union-busting.

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