Oakland teachers are fighting for the future

February 26, 2019

SW reports from the picket lines of striking teachers in Oakland, with reporting from Ann Coleman, Alex Schmaus, Bruno Ruviaro, Jeffrey Boyette and Mukund Rathi.

ANOTHER “BLUE state” teachers’ strike is on in Oakland, California, and teachers, students and parents are standing strong on the picket lines in a struggle for the schools they deserve.

The strike began on February 21 with lively and well-attended picket lines at schools across Oakland, followed by big rallies bringing everyone together. An initiative organized by strike supporters called the Bread for Ed campaign is keeping students who rely on schools fed.

With strike solidarity schools organized by parents, churches and community members running at full steam, the number of students, parents and staff who are crossing teachers’ picket lines to attend school is well below 10 percent, with many schools reporting only 1 to 3 percent attendance.

The stakes in this showdown between the Oakland Education Association (OEA) and the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) are high.

Oakland teachers strike in defense of public education
Oakland teachers strike in defense of public education (Morgan Shidler | Oakland Education Association)

The school district is pleading poverty to put off teachers’ wage demands and threatening to close as many as 24 schools. There is a constant shortage of funding for the services that students need, and every problem is made worse by the charter school offensive driven by corporate education “reformers.”

At Oakland High School, Cole Margen, a history teacher for English language learners and OEA picket captain, talked about what the union is fighting for on day one of the strike: “We’re out here for a better educational future for our children, and we’re pumped. The picket line looks great today. We have 120 people out — teachers, students, parents, community members. No scabs crossed our line today.”

Margen was an organizer of two one-day wildcat strike actions at Oakland High and five other schools in December and January that gave a sense of teachers’ determination. That was also reflected in an overwhelming strike authorization vote in early February. Students showed support for their teachers with a sickout that was estimated to involve more than 2,000.

“To win,” Margen explained, “we’re going to need a 12 percent raise, smaller class sizes and more support for our schools, like more nurses. We definitely need all of those things to reach an amicable agreement with the district. So we’ll keep fighting until we get them.

“This is a continuation of the Red For Ed movement that was started by the brave teachers of West Virginia and Oklahoma. The labor movement in this country is waking up.”

One of the questions at the heart of the OEA struggle is the turnover rate of teachers who can’t afford to live and work in Oakland, where the tech boom is pushing the cost of living every higher, on a current teachers’ salary.

One relatively new teacher at Melrose Leadership Academy said, “I’m even slightly frustrated with the union because I think the demands are too timid. A 12 percent raise won’t even begin to address the disparity between Oakland teachers and the regional average.”

But, the teacher said, this strike was a starting point to build power to demand even more in the future.

ON FRIDAY, the second day of the strike, teachers at up to 10 different Oakland charter schools organized wildcat actions in support of OEA teachers, highlighting the fact that the struggle to stop the privatization of public education will require charter and public educators to organize together.

According to one report, Oakland has the highest concentration of charter schools of any city in the state — a total of 34, many of them housed inside public schools, compared to 86 public schools. As of the 2016-17 school year, charters accounted for fully 30 percent of the more than 52,000 students in public and charter schools.

Both types of schools receive public funds based on attendance records and are available through school-choice selections by parents each year, but only the public schools are accountable to OUSD.

Arati Warrier, a 10th grade English and creative writing teacher at Arise Charter High School, was one of 18 teachers at Arise who signed an email telling their administration that they would go on strike in solidarity with OEA teachers.

Warrier walked the picket line at Elmhurst Community Prep, a public middle school:

It was amazing to picket at Elmhurst. It was really well organized and very joyous. They didn’t want people to shame anyone crossing the picket line, because they knew some kids had to. There was some chanting, some people spoke, people told their stories to keep our energy up, and there was music.

Elmhurst really did a great job organizing with the solidarity schools and building with the community. They wanted to do what was most beneficial for students and parents. It was remarkable — strategically smart, but also just community oriented. That’s how all strikes should be.

AT ROOSEVELT Middle School, Julie Mendoza, a seventh-grade humanities teacher, is leading community and family outreach, and organizing teacher turnout for the strike. She also talked about teacher turnover:

I’m striking today because our students can’t be successful if every year has to be treated like year one because over a dozen teachers are being on-boarded each year since the teacher retention crisis has started. I don’t think that our students can be successful under these current conditions. I believe that public education should be top priority for Oakland if it cares about its future as a city.

Also on the picket line at Roosevelt was Sean Sawyer, a moderate/severe special day class teacher, who wants to “see more support for our special needs teachers and our families, and to make sure that the caseloads for our teachers are in a quantity that our teachers can handle.”

Sawyer recently moved from North Carolina and took part in the one-day statewide teachers’ strike there last spring. “To strike or to picket in North Carolina has its challenges, where you don’t see as much support as you do here in the East Bay Area,” Sawyer said. “So to get the kind of support we saw yesterday and today has been very validating, and I’m lifted.”

At Oakland International High School, Susan Keen, a world history teacher, said the pickets were big and lively, with dancing and singing, and some puppies walking the line.

Keen, the OEA site representative at International and cluster leader for 10 schools during the strike, pointed out that there are only 21 nurses for 37,000 students in OUSD and currently 40 classrooms in the district without teachers:

There’s this narrative out right now that OUSD doesn’t have the money to fund schools. But in reality, we know that California is the fifth-largest economy in the world, and we know that the Bay Area is the largest economy in California.

So whatever numbers and reasons that OUSD is putting out, we have money, and we’re choosing not to spend it on our schools and our classrooms. And if you look at the amount we pay to consultants and administration and [district headquarters], we’re deciding to spend our money on people who aren’t students and who aren’t teachers.

We saw Occupy in years past talking about the 99 Percent and the 1 Percent. We know that the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. And what we’re seeing right now in schools is this privatization and charterization, which is closing our public schools and putting charters, which have the right to segregate what students they accept, in their place.

So the charters are saying they don’t have the capacity for special ed students, and those students aren’t getting served. They’re Oakland students, and they deserve an education as much as anyone else.

So for me, this strike wave right now is just about recognizing that students deserve an education. We can either allow this to continue — allow these schools to be shut down and privatized, and students denied an education — or we can stand up and fight. And we’re ready to stand up and fight.

We really want to upset the narrative that teachers just want money. We want to change that to: Teachers want students and classrooms. And because that’s not happening in 40 classrooms in Oakland, we want to talk about what the lack of money is doing to our students — because they all deserve an education, and we’ll fight for it.

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