The battle lines have been drawn in Portland

February 3, 2014

Meredith Reese and Sarah Levy report from Portland, Ore., as a teachers' strike looms.

LEFT WITH no choice by a stonewalling school district, teachers in Portland, Ore., are preparing for a walkout--and will hold a mass meeting to take a strike vote on February 5.

Teachers are going into their eighth month without a contract as Portland Public Schools (PPS) officials display more arrogance than ever toward the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT). Last month, PPS even released confidential information to the main daily newspaper, the Oregonian.

As this point, the school board could choose to impose its final offer on teachers--and teachers could vote to strike in order to win their key demands for smaller class sizes and an equitable retirement program.

After two "strike assessments"--a canvassing in favor or against a walkout, required under union rules--showed the union was united behind taking action, PAT will hold a mass meeting of rank-and-file members at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on February 5, to conduct a strike vote. If the teachers do strike, it would be a first for PAT, Oregon's largest teachers' union, representing over 2,800 educators.

Portland teachers demonstrate during their campaign for a just contract
Portland teachers demonstrate during their campaign for a just contract

Meanwhile PPS has been developing plans for how to keep schools open in case of a strike, such as calling substitutes from districts across the state and even across state lines in Vancouver, Wash. A KATU news report said district spokesperson Christine Miles had described a list of potential scabs that includes "retirees, recent graduates and even previous teacher job applicants who were not hired," in addition to PPS's existing roster of substitute teachers.

Hoping to scare Portland substitutes into crossing picket lines, Miles told KATU that the contract covering substitutes prevents them from striking, and if they do, they'll be deleted from the substitute database. However, the substitute contract, negotiated by the PAT, also states that in the case of a possible work stoppage, substitutes just need to notify the district that they won't cross a picket line, and they will not face repercussions.

The looming conflict poses fundamental questions to rank-and-file teachers: Are the schools Portland students deserve worth the resources and risks necessary to shut down schools with a strike? And equally important, will the community stand behind them if they do walk out?

Judging by recent activism by union members, students and parents, the answer to both questions is yes.

The PAT modeled its contract campaign on that of the Chicago Teachers Union, which defeated the city's demands for harsh concession with their nine-day strike in September 2012.

The union created a broad rank-and-file committee, with each member responsible for organizing another 10 members, plus a Steering Committee to coordinate contract mobilizations along with union officials. Two "strike assessments" held in mid- and late January got strong support for a walkout.

Meanwhile, students at a number of high schools organized walkouts in support of teachers in December--and led a protest at a January school board meeting demanding that PPS officials listen to their demands and those of teachers.

Parents and other community members have also come forward to speak up for the teachers, tying their own concerns with those put forward by PAT, and coordinating their efforts through the Portland Teacher Solidarity Campaign (PTSC). The PTSC is planning a "We Have Your Back" rally outside the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on February 5 to show their support for teachers as they go into the strike vote.

AS PAT carried out the second assessment at the end of January and prepare now for the February 5 strike vote, school board members have been doing everything they can, with the help of a sympathetic media, to paint themselves as the victims--after hundreds of hours of mediation, mostly led by the priorities of private union-busting consultants, have gotten nowhere.

PPS officials are trying to regain the initiative after the most recent rift between the two sides when the PAT put forward a detailed plan for 175 additional teaching positions in order to reduce class size. Board members claimed the proposal was divisive because it came "late in the game."

PAT President Gwen Sullivan said she was "baffled" by this response. "We've been clear from the beginning that class size reduction was a priority," Sullivan told the Oregonian. "When the district draws a line in the sand, they are the ones pushing us close to a strike."

Throughout the contract battle, teachers have been dealing with the board's refusal to negotiate directly about the issues that matters most to them, such as class size.

The previous contract had language limiting teachers' workload by maintaining the levels they had during the 1997-98 school year. This time around, the district's initial proposal tried to remove this language--while still calling class size a "permissive" issue, meaning that they were not required to discuss it under the law.

Teachers responded by linking their proposal for pay increases to the increased workloads that would result from larger class sizes. When the district balked at that price tag--and the media tried to spin the proposal as a matter of "greedy teachers" demanding an excessive wage increase--the union came up with a different approach, altering their proposal to include the hiring of 175 more teachers.

Class size has been at the center of this confrontation from the beginning--something that teachers and students have stressed. Students often find themselves in classes of over 30, including first-grade students who are learning to read. Oregon has the third-largest class sizes in the country, much of which is due to the rounds of layoffs and restructuring of the school day since the recession began in 2008.

Adding insult to injury, the PPS board also announced recently that it had "found" an additional $29.9 million for the 2013-14 school year budget--and plans to put the majority of that money in its reserves, rather than spend it on more teachers to reduce class sizes and caseloads.

As PAT President 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, without much of an umbrella.

In the past, the board's failure to provide meaningful class size reduction was troubling. But now it's astonishing. Your own budget documents show that you are sitting on a budget surplus...and are looking forward to financial stability in the coming years. It is crystal clear that you can afford to reduce class size and student loads, yet at this point, you simply refuse to do so.

THE SCHOOL board, meanwhile, has shown signs of shifting its strategy over time. During December, it pushed an aggressive timeline--including declaring a bargaining impasse as soon as the law allowed--in the fashion of school boards across the country aiming to go after the teacher unions. By the end of last year, negotiations were at a standstill.

Many expected the board to impose its final contract offer, which wasn't much different than its initial offer--reducing the number of takebacks from more than 75 to around 50, on a range of issues including transfer rights, health insurance contributions, evaluation methods and retirement benefits.

The board turned away from negotiating with the bargaining team and began speaking to the press, leaking nonbinding contract "supposals" that had come out late in a 21-hour bargaining session in early January. Apparently, the board hoped to gain lost ground with the public through a misinformation campaign in which they made public their willingness to withdraw a few of their initial takebacks.

But teachers aren't just trying to hold the line. They're fighting to win back decades of lost benefits for themselves and lost resources for students.

At the January 13 school board meeting, instead of imposing their contract, most of the board walked out after students, parents and teachers packed into the meeting hall. Many teachers credit the all-out efforts of high school students in the Portland Student Union for stopping the board from imposing a contract on PAT at that meeting.

Since then, the PPS strategy seems to be to draw out the bargaining process as long as possible, in an effort to recast themselves as patient negotiators, while teachers lose steam and community support. This is exactly the tactic used by the board in the Reynolds School District, east of Portland--it tried to wait out teachers until the summer of 2012. But Reynolds teachers took the initiative and were able to win a contract as a result.

Like their colleagues in the Reynolds district, Portland teachers are tired of the lengthy bargaining process--and especially of the misinformation campaign in the media. In January, they changed their Facebook pictures to say, "I don't want to strike, but I will," and PAT shifted its main message from "Stay at the table" and "Don't impose" to "Settle a fair contract now."

As Madison high school teacher Adam Sanchez told the school board at its January 27 meeting:

No teacher wants to go on strike. We want to be teaching our kids. But make no mistake--what we want even less is the continuing erosion of our working conditions and our students' learning conditions. And if it takes going on strike to get you to see that, we're ready to walk.

Also willing to strike are teachers in Medford, Ore., in the southwest corner of the state, who have been working under an imposed final offer from their board since returning from winter break. The Medford teachers are set to walk out starting on February 6, after an overwhelming vote to strike held on January 23.

Many of the issues are similar in the two districts, including school boards that have the funds, yet aren't willing to fairly compensate teachers. Among the questions being fought out are preparation time, class size, caseloads and retirement, along with other concessionary demands that teachers are becoming all too familiar with in the era of corporate education reform.

PORTLAND TEACHERS are coming to recognize that the board has no intention of settling for anything less than a concessionary contract. Even after the results of the strike assessments and plans for a strike vote were made public, a Friday mediation session lasted long into the night, but produced no results.

Backed by the Portland Business Alliance and the mainstream media, PPS is counting on the PAT, which has never gone on strike, failing to mobilize its members and losing sympathy in the community.

But community support for the teachers has been overwhelming so far--and the board will have a hard time winning it away under the circumstances.

For one thing, with its announcement of an additional $30 million in the budget--much of it savings from Gov. John Kitzhaber's gutting of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS)--the board can hardly count on cries of financial crisis to gain a hearing for shared sacrifice, as they have in recent years.

Plus, in 2012, the district won an eight-year bond levy for nearly $500 million to improve and rebuild local schools. At a January 21 board meeting, some of the proposals to spend that money were unveiled, and spectators were stunned to see plans for high-tech classrooms for art and collaborative teaching being gloated over by the same people who aren't as concerned with the welfare of students and teachers who would actually fill those classrooms.

The contradiction between the board's efforts at winning revenue for construction and its drive to lower the living standards of the teachers is glaring. Most notably, the district has hired consultant and union-buster Yvonne Deckard at $15,000 per month--an extravagant fee that's right in line with overspending on non-instructional staff in the district as a whole.

In addition, there is a strong sentiment in favor of the initial bargaining proposal put forward by PAT, titled "The Schools Portland Students Deserve"--which follows the model of the Chicago Teachers Union by laying out a bold vision for education that takes up the priorities of working class people and the entire community.

In stark contrast to the federal "Race to the Top" program and other corporate and test-focused reforms aimed at lowering the quality of education for most people, the PAT is calling for more individualized student attention and more creative control for teachers in the classroom.

THESE DEMANDS have galvanized not only educators, but also students and parents who have watched public schools disintegrate over the past three decades.

Parents, for example, participated in a January 21 press conference called by the Portland Teacher Solidarity Campaign. Grant High School parent Kathryn Earl spoke to the media about her son's experience in school--as an African-American boy, he had been consistently labeled as a troublemaker over the years, an experience that resonated with other parents in attendance. Her son was facing expulsion for bringing a box-cutter to school--without regard for the fact that he had been attacked by bullies the week before, feared for his life, and felt there was nowhere to turn for support.

Earl was joined by Sheila Warren, director and founder of the Portland Parent Union, who raised the demand for restorative justice in the schools, rather than "pushing out" students of color and those whose home life create serious challenges to their success in school. Warren pointed out that teachers' demands for smaller class sizes and tolerable workloads, as well as fully-funded "wraparound" services, including qualified counselors in every school, relate to the possibilities for students to receive the individual attention and student-centered curriculum that would lead to better outcomes.

At the same event, Jefferson Student Union leader Sekai Edwards pointed to the effects of systemic racism in PPS, including a high concentration of school closures in the only part of the city where students of color are a majority. Edwards ended by demanding more resources for teachers to address community needs.

Within a week, Kathryn Earl announced that her son was no longer facing expulsion, a small but important victory for parents in the district and a model for collaboration between labor activists and community members.

In another show of solidarity, someone anonymously hired the Portland small business Think Pink to fill the yards of the three most stubborn school board members with plastic pink flamingos and signs with slogans like "Settle a fair flocking contract." In true Portlandia fashion, the pink flamingos have become a wildly popular sign of support for teachers.

AS THE likelihood of a strike increases, more attention is being paid to the issue of revenues for schools--even in mainstream media outlets like the Oregonian, which pointed out that recent tax breaks for Intel have had devastating effects on the operating costs for local schools, with more than $400 million lost to the state education budget.

Obviously, these corporate tax breaks aren't "trickling down" to improve public education. On the contrary, an elite minority is pushing to take control of the content and direction of public schools.

Along with the failure of much of the board to make a meaningful commitment to negotiations over the last several months, there is mounting anger more broadly at the priorities of lawmakers and business owners who would rather bolster their political careers than listen to what teachers, parents and students want and need.

Anyone who cares about education justice must embrace the struggle of Portland teachers as a critical next step in pushing back against the corporate school deformers. As education expert Diane Ravitch wrote in a recent op-ed article:

The union is...necessary as a protection for teachers against the arbitrary exercise of power by heavy-handed administrators...We need independent teacher unions to assure that teachers' rights are protected, to sound the alarm against unwise policies, and to advocate on behalf of sound education policies, especially when administrators are non-educators...

Only in an atmosphere of mutual respect can administrators and teachers produce the kind of partnership that will benefit students. And administrators cannot achieve this collaborative atmosphere unless they are willing to talk with and listen to the leaders chosen by teachers to represent them.

The administrators and board members of the Portland Public Schools haven't got that message. They've been completely unwilling to compromise or to address what it would actually take to support and improve the learning environment for students and for their teachers.

But Portland teachers are standing together with their union, and students, parents and the community at large is behind them. As the teachers say, they don't want to strike--but they will in order to win justice for themselves and their students.

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