Why I held the line for my kids in Oakland

March 8, 2019

After nine days on strike, the Oakland Education Association announced a tentative agreement March 1 on a contract that union leaders called a “significant victory,” but which was ratified by only a narrow majority of teachers two days later.

The contract contains advances on many of the issues teachers were fighting for — a strong wage increase and decreases in class sizes and caseloads for school staff — but the union gave ground on its goals in many cases. The school board president agreed to a five-month moratorium on closures, but that may not include one school that is still slated to close at the end of the school year, and district staff are still presenting plans for further closures or mergers. Plus, the day that teachers went back to work, the board met and voted to cut more than $20 million from the budget — something that teachers, parents and supporters had prevented during the course of the strike.

The nine days on strike showed the strong support for Oakland teachers and the struggle to save public education at every picket line and every protest — and the determination of the community to hold the line along with teachers. Here, Jenna Woloshyn, a SocialistWorker.org contributor, a Teamster member at UPS and parent of three students in the Oakland Unified School District, tells about her experience in the strike, including a confrontation with members of the school board during a protest against budget cuts.

I MAKE it a point to walk as many picket lines as I can. I’ve never been on strike, but as a UPS Teamster and socialist activist, I know an injury to one is an injury to all, and what happens in the fight at other people’s workplaces will have ripple effects across the labor movement.

But when I joined the picket line of the Oakland Education Association at Melrose Leadership Academy (MLA) starting on February 21, I also did so as a stakeholder. My twins attend kindergarten at MLA, and I have a senior who attends Met West High School.

Incidentally, he received his acceptance letter to UC Santa Cruz during the strike, so: Thank you, Oakland teachers!

Oakland teachers and parents hold the line at a protest against the school board
Oakland teachers and parents hold the line at a protest against the school board

I was excited to see Oakland become the next stage in the #RedForEd teacher strike wave that started last year in West Virginia and continued through Los Angeles and Denver this winter.

My kids and I walked the picket lines every morning, rain or shine. I came to expect a festive atmosphere of solidarity as the strike continued.

What I didn’t expect was to get roughed up by the “bodyguard” of a school board member as they were trying to push through a crowd of teachers and parents on March 1 for a planned meeting to push through more cuts.

The power of teachers and parents organizing together

From the beginning and throughout the strike, the Melrose picket lines were impressive. Families and community members joined the teachers and blocked the entrances with continuous picket lines, chanting and dancing. It felt as much like a party as a picket line. The teachers referred to it as “joyful militancy.”

In fact, folks from our school were often asked to help shore up the picket lines at other sites to raise morale and remind strikers that support throughout the city was strong, even if it didn’t appear that way at their school.

This was smart organizing by the union, but I also realized that there’s no substitute for having people connected to the school site be there to make those arguments and create that environment organically.

At Melrose, only a handful of students crossed the picket line. In fact, throughout the city, only 3 percent of students did.

The few people who were still driving up to school to drop off their kids were greeted by parents who would help them find other locations for their kids — we called them “solidarity schools.” The parents trusted that information because of the community that this school has around it all the time.

Melrose is a bilingual Spanish/English immersion school. Because teachers must be bilingual, and the school is doing something unique, the teachers tend to be more long term than a lot of schools in Oakland.

And this being Oakland, I’m not the only parent who is a longtime activist. Parent participation year-round is high.

These are the people who send out e-mails for the teachers, help garner participation in fundraisers, organize volunteer days, help find chaperones for field trips. Now, during the strike, they were the people organizing childcare co-ops, forwarding strike info, rounding up supplies and sending out reports from the picket lines when they went.

Contrast that to schools with hostile principals who threatened their teachers, schools with a lot of teacher turnover or areas of the district with a high concentration of charter schools. Those were the schools that had more students and even a few teachers crossing, and low community participation.

Protesting the school board

At 9 a.m. on Friday, March 1, the teachers got called off the school picket lines to start picketing at the school board meeting. The board had been trying to meet that week to ram through district-wide budget cuts — basically adding insult to injury.

Previous attempts to hold this meeting were successfully shut down by the community, which showed up in large numbers and blocked it from taking place. That was our goal again on March 1.

I arrived at 10:30 a.m. with one of my daughters, and the space outside the building where the meeting was to take place was already packed. There are about two dozen entrances to the building, which is a block long, so the entire place was surrounded with active pickets at each entrance.

Because my daughter wanted to be with her teacher at the pickets and rallies, we stayed mostly on the line where she was. This just so happened to be one of the first entrances that school board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge tried to enter with her “bodyguard.” They tried to push through, but the picketers were tight enough to keep them out.

Almost out of instinct, I put my daughter to the side to help hold the line. I approached the “bodyguard” from behind with some others who came to help, and he turned and pushed me, and knocked down another person.

Soon after, they gave up on that door and walked down around the corner. I followed him with my daughter and got in front of them, wanting them to have to see a student who is affected by the decisions of the school board.

He began strong-arming his way up a ramp to another entrance where two cops were keeping the gates open. I set my daughter off to the side again and jumped over the railing of the ramp to join the line. I knew from his previous push what this person was capable of. I was scared, but prepared to be pushed again — and maybe give people who weren’t prepared for that a chance to get out if they wanted to.

You can see what happened next in this cell phone footage (I’m the one in the Teamster jacket). When he started pushing backward, I pushed back, and he ended up grabbing me out of the line, pulling my jacket half over my head and nearly pushing me backward over the railing. My back and neck were sore for a couple days as a result.

The point is that I knew I was going up against a man twice my size, and decided the risk was worth it. And I felt like there were at least 100 people in the immediate vicinity who would take care of me and my daughter had anything serious happened. I trusted them, and I also trusted them to hold the line once I decided I had enough and needed to get back to my daughter.

I found out later that at the same time I was getting tossed around, Jumoke Hinton Hodge was choking a kindergarten teacher. It wasn’t long until they gave up on that entrance, too. The board’s meeting was again successfully shut down.

In the aftermath, I felt guilty for putting myself in the fray with my daughter there. She’s a neuro-diverse kid with high anxiety, and I exposed her to something rather scary. But then I remembered: The reason I put my body on the line was because of her.

Now that the strike is over, we’ve begun the process of changing schools for her. The district won’t provide the resources she needs at her current school, and when we asked for more, they explained that they can’t give more at that school because then other kids would get less.

They’ve turned public education into a sick game where 6-year-olds compete against 8-year-olds for the crumbs that trickle down to us.

Moving schools for my daughter is a disappointment for us because, among other things, we have to separate her from her twin, who will be staying at MLA. But for families whose first or only language is Spanish and who are trying to provide their kids with better access to education in their own language, having to move their child would be devastating.

All schools in the district should provide the services every kid needs in the school they attend. I will continue to put my body on the line, because I won’t stand for a world in which my daughter is competing for crumbs against all the other kids who also deserve better.

The future of the struggle for our schools

And I will continue to put my body on the line for all of public education in Oakland.

I took my kids to one of the rallies to save Roots International Academy before a school board meeting where they were slated to vote on closing it. They didn’t vote that night, but did at a subsequent meeting.

Since then, my daughter has been very concerned with school closures. Every day of the strike, she asked me: “Is Roots open now?” And very often, she asks: “Are they closing my school?”

Thankfully, I get to reassure my child that, no, her school is not closing. In fact, MLA is slated to expand.

But I will put my body on the line because I will not stand for a world where some schools get to expand, while 24 other schools are slated for closing so they can be offered up as space for more charter schools — 17 of them in East Oakland, disproportionately affecting Brown and Black communities.

Oakland has a rich history of alternative schools created by the community such as the Oakland Community School (OCS), a project of the Black Panther Party during the 1970s and early 1980s.

OCS became a model elementary school, showing the world a glimpse of what progressive, racial justice-centered education could look like. But that history was erased in the 1990s with the establishment of charter schools to siphon public funding into private hands.

Today, charter schools are promoted as providing choice to families, but in fact, they limit choice by eliminating community schools altogether. If my kid asks me tomorrow, “Is Roots open now?” and I can’t say “yes,” I want to at least be able to say: “No, baby, but we did everything we could.”

And we did. We walked the picket line everyday. Attended all the rallies, except one because I was helping with childcare at one of the family co-op solidarity schools. And I physically helped hold the line when the stakes were highest.

The union announced a tentative agreement on March 1, the very day that we were holding the line against the school board and its cuts. Two days later, the contract was approved, but with only 58 percent voting yes.

Plus, the board finally got to meet on March 4, and despite a large student-led protest, it passed more than $20 million worth of budget cuts.

You can imagine my disappointment. They even told students that the board needed to make the cuts to pay for the teachers’ raise — a blatant attempt to pit students against teachers. Truth is, these cuts were already planned before the strike happened and before the teachers won the gains made during the strike.

I think the union leadership made a tactical error in agreeing to the tentative agreement on Friday. Teachers were put in an uncomfortable position for the ratification vote on Sunday. Some who voted yes would gladly have continued the strike, but felt that once the TA was announced, there was too much division to continue the strike with the same amount of strength. I don’t envy them the choice they had to make.

The union leadership says it got the best deal it could get right now. I wasn’t in the room, but from being out on the streets, I know that Oakland had more fight left in it, and I for one would have liked to use it.

The fact that the contract falls short of teachers’ ultimate goals doesn’t discount the positives that came out of the strike — or the fact that there’s still a lot of will to continue the struggle in other ways.

We can be both disappointed by the contract’s shortcomings and excited about the power of this strike to mobilize the entire city and inspire 97 percent of families to honor the picket lines. The teacher strike wave is still new and continuing. More mistakes and more triumphs are coming. Onward to more “joyful militancy.”

Further Reading

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