Oakland teachers won’t wait for a strike deadline

January 18, 2019

Educators at six Oakland schools are walking out today for a one-day wildcat. Rebecca Mason and Ann Coleman explain why the revolt extends from SoCal to NorCal.

EDUCATORS FROM five Oakland high schools and one middle schools are planning a one-day wildcat strike today to demand that a city swimming in tech money provide the funding and salaries that its schools and teachers deserve.

The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is offering teachers an insulting 5 percent raise over five years — in a region where the cost of living has risen 14 percent in the past five years.

The Oakland Education Association (OEA) is demanding a 12 percent increase over three years. Like the United Teachers Los Angeles members currently on strike down the coast, Oakland educators are also fighting for smaller class sizes and hiring more nurses, psychologists and counselors.

The job action, like a similar walkout unsanctioned by the teachers’ union in December, shows that the determination to take a stand over California’s underfunded schools isn’t just an LA thing.

Oakland teachers march in defense of public schools
Oakland teachers march in defense of public schools (Oakland Education Association | Facebook)

And in Northern California, it isn’t just an Oakland thing. The January 12 East Bay Rally to Fund Public Education Now, which brought out 1,500 teachers, parents, students and community members in downtown Oakland, was organized by the East Bay Coalition of Public Education, which is composed of teachers’ unions from across region facing contract fights. Teachers from 14 different East Bay unions were present at the rally.

OEA PRESIDENT Keith Brown is expected to call a strike authorization vote in late January, which means that Oakland teachers may be on the picket lines as early as next month. The last time the Oakland Education Association went on anything more than a one-day strike was in 1996, when they walked the picket lines for 26 days.

Teachers in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) are the lowest-paid in Alameda County, and the high cost of living in the Bay Area means that they are struggling to get by.

The starting salary for an Oakland teacher is $46,570. To put that into perspective, the Oakland Housing Authority’s low-income threshold for a family of four in Oakland is $89,600, and $62,750 for a single person. It’s no wonder that about 70 percent of new teachers leave the district within five years.

“If there’s one thing we know, it’s that students learn better with good teachers,” said the mother of an Oakland teacher — who is subsidizing her daughter’s rent — at the January 12 rally. “And good teachers aren’t going to stay in Oakland for what they’re getting.”

Jennifer, a third-grade teacher in Fremont, said that teacher salaries aren’t keeping up with the high cost of living in the Bay Area.

“I have been teaching for six years,” she told SW. “I have a bachelor’s degree, a teaching credential and a master’s degree, and I can’t afford my bills. I can’t afford to teach in Oakland and live in Oakland. I can’t afford to live in Fremont where I teach, so I commute two hours a day, every day, and I’m exhausted all the time.”

Teachers want to be paid a living wage, but they are also quick to point out that social justice issues are central to their fight.

Wally, who has taught in Oakland for the past 14 years, was at the Saturday rally to advocate for teachers and students. “I’m here today to support education for all,” he said. “Funding is at an all-time low, class sizes at an all-time high. There’s not enough counselors, social workers, or teachers. We’re prepared to strike for our students until they have the resources and support that they deserve.”

Gillian, an Oakland teacher and parent, said: “We can’t do the job that kids deserve without increasing education funding. That’s what we’re out here for, that’s what we’re supporting.”

OEA President Keith Brown captured this sentiment from the front of the rally, saying:

We are also here to pressure the state to fully fund federally mandated services for our students with special needs, and we are here to make sure that our students have the teachers and the education workers by providing a living wage to give our students the best possible education.

SCHOOL CLOSURES are also a key issue for OEA. The OUSD plans to close as many as 24 “underperforming” schools — most of which are located in poor, working-class, Black and Brown neighborhoods.

These school closures would continue the expansion of charter schools in the district, which already enroll 24.4 percent of students in Oakland — four times the national average of 6 percent.

“Public education is one of the most important things in our society, and I want to protect that. I want to protect our teachers,” said Pam, a Piedmont teacher with two children in OUSD schools.

Stephanie Schwartz, a Berkeley Federation of Teachers member and special educator, explained:

Almost 90 percent of Oakland Unified School District students are students of color. So when the district is trying to close 24 schools in the flatlands to be replaced by unaccountable charter schools while all the schools in the wealthier, whiter hills neighborhoods remain open, that’s a racial justice question.

A group of parents is planning an action at the OUSD School Board meeting on January 23 to put a halt to the proposed closure of Roots International Academy in East Oakland. Parents and teachers say that closing the school would displace vulnerable Black and Brown students.

“The focus needs to be on building up our community schools, not shutting them down,” OEA President Brown told the East Bay Times. “It’s important that we have thriving neighborhood schools in Oakland, especially in the flatlands. Our priorities need to be supporting our neighborhood schools and ensuring that they have the resources that students need.”

MANY OF the speakers at the January 12 rally — including school board officials and Oakland City Council Members — tied the fight for school funding to an important 2020 ballot measure that would scale back the limits on property taxes paid by businesses that were enacted under Proposition 13, a disastrous 1978 measure capping property taxes that has slowly squeezed the state’s budget over the past four decades.

But attendees at the rally recognized that the fight to demand more and change the narrative around public education funding needs to start now.

Teachers have had enough, and it’s clear that they have the community’s support. The rally was buzzing with talk of next steps: sick-outs, strikes and possibly a march on Sacramento to defend public education in California.

In Fremont, teachers recently began a “work to rule” campaign after reaching an impasse in bargaining over wages. What this means is that teachers won’t be performing any of their usual “volunteer work” beyond what they are required to do by their contract.

“The vast majority of our educators do voluntary work essentially for free,” said Fremont Unified District Teachers Association President Victoria Birbeck-Herrera. “It includes tutoring before and after school and during lunch. And those things would not get done. All of those things that we normally just do for free, and those hours are not at all part of our working contract.”

California Educators Rising (CER), an important new grouping of rank-and-file educators inspired by the recent wave of educator strikes and walkouts, is helping to coordinate solidarity and generalize lessons across school districts.

Ariela Karchmer, a United Educators of San Francisco site rep and organizing member of CER, explained:

California Educators Rising is promoting a program called “Adopt a Striking School,” where any community member can reach out to an LA contact and ask them what support they need. It might be fundraising for picket-line lunches, or it might be buying red ponchos so that people can stay on the line in the rain, or it could be posting on social media.

If you are in Oakland or another district that is facing a tough contract struggle, it would be great to talk to LA teachers about how they are organizing their sites and what lessons they have learned in the process, and use that to strengthen our organizing across the state.

Solidarity greetings at the January 12 rally from Rob Goldberg, a UTLA member and secretary treasurer of the California Teachers Association, expressed the growing sense across California schools that educators and their supporters are part of a historic moment:

Every generation has its impact to fight, and every generation has to do it in different ways. The most beautiful thing that I see happening is that we are figuring out different ways to connect our struggle for respect, for dignity of educators and workers, [with] the respect and dignity of our students and the kids we serve...

It is not an accident that we do not have the funding for education...In the 1960s, we had free UCs, free Cal States, and free community colleges...That doesn’t disappear overnight it was deliberate, and it deliberately starved our students of the resources they need...Our struggles for dignity for educators has to be connected to struggles for social justice for our students.

Rowan Allen and Mukund Rathi contributed to this article.

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