Oakland Teacher Strike Builds Steam In California School Funding Fight

Woman on megaphone supporting Oakland teachers and students during Oakland teacher strike.

Oakland teachers organized picket lines at the city’s 86 schools, and 95 percent of students stayed home during the strike. Photo: Joe Brusky.

On the heels of Los Angeles teachers’ winning strike in January, teachers in Oakland 340 miles north joined the strike wave. Three thousand teachers, alongside parents and students, led picket lines February 21-March 1 at the city’s 86 schools.

These strikes, plus rumblings from other California teacher unions, are ramping up the pressure on school boards and legislators to invest in public schools and stop privatization statewide.

The Oakland strike drew an incredible outpouring of solidarity from the local community, Bay Area unions, and teachers in other districts. Supporters donated $170,000 to a “Bread for Ed” fundraiser to provide lunches to students, who attended solidarity schools staffed by volunteers.

School employees from Service Employees (SEIU) Local 1021 struck in sympathy. So did teachers at eight Oakland charter schools, amplifying the union’s anti-privatization message.

The seven-day strike ended with a deal that got teachers and support staff a much-needed raise and workload improvements. On school closures and budget cuts, though, the teachers only bought themselves time to fight.

WHAT THEY WON

“We won some amazing things,” said Kampala Taiz-Rancifer, who teaches at EnCompass Academy elementary school. But, she added, “I don’t think it’s enough. It’s not what we deserve.”

The strikers won a reduction of one student per class in high-needs schools in the 2019-2020 school year, followed by a one-student reduction for all schools in 2020-2021.

They capped caseloads for school psychologists, for the first time ever.

School nurses won bonuses and raises that amount to a $30,000 boost. This will help attract nurses to fill the 22 vacant positions, which means that overall caseloads should go down.

When bargaining began in 2017, the district was proposing zero raises and a furlough day. By the end of the strike, the Oakland Education Association (OEA) had moved the needle to an 11 percent wage increase spread over four years, plus a 3 percent bonus upon ratification.

The school board also agreed to pass a resolution calling for a statewide moratorium on charter school expansion, echoing the deal that ended the January teacher strike in Los Angeles.

But the Oakland contract doesn’t stop the 24 previously announced school closures and consolidations, though it delays them. Nor does it stave off announced budget cuts that would lead to layoffs for other school employees. The union will have to keep fighting for more funding from the district, county, and state to reverse cuts and win better staffing and pay in the future.

The district had initially insisted it would not bargain over school closures. But in the end the board committed to a five-month pause in its consideration of closures and consolidations. If the district pushes again for its previously recommended closures, it will have to follow a new, mutually agreed-upon process for input from parents and the unions of teachers and school employees.

Effectively, OEA Vice President Ismael Armendariz said, that buys the union at least a year to fight off the closures and consolidations.

“We’re not going to make it easy for them,” Taiz-Rancifer said.

TOUGH CONVERSATIONS

After their bargaining team announced the tentative agreement March 1, strikers spent the weekend debating whether they could squeeze more out of the district by continuing their strike.

At New Highland Academy, teachers asked parents what they thought. Those conversations were tough, according to teacher Carrie Anderson. Some parents told teachers to stay out longer.

“We promised you better things for your kids,” Anderson said she told parents. At the same time, she said, “we also were very aware of the hardships families were facing” by keeping their kids out of school.

Leaders of the school employees on sympathy strike joined OEA officers in urging a yes vote, backing the settlement as a path to smaller class sizes and better staffing, and vowing not to let the school board blame teacher raises for layoffs.

The teacher union’s representative assembly voted narrowly to recommend the deal on March 2. At a huge meeting the next day, members voted on the contract in two pieces, approving them by 64 percent and 58 percent.

The strike was powerful. It all but shut the schools and brought thousands of people out to central rallies. But as the strike ended, teachers were forced to reconcile this experience with small gains on their key demands.

“This is not exactly what we wanted,” said International Community School teacher Alejandro Estrada, “especially around school closures.”

Estrada met with the teachers at his school before the ratification vote. Some were leaning towards voting yes, and others no. But whatever the outcome, they agreed to stay united, he said: “This is the beginning, not the end.”

BUILT SCHOOL SQUADS

Until the strike, the district was barely moving on the union’s demands. Management claimed it had no money, declining enrollment, and too many schools open. The solution: closures and cuts.

Meanwhile the union pointed to privatization—30 percent of Oakland students are in charter schools—and financial mismanagement—too much money for administrators and consultants. “They’ve divested from the classrooms,” Armendariz said.

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By the time OEA President Keith Brown and Vice President Armendariz took office last July, the bargaining team was a year into negotiations and nearly at impasse with the district.

The Los Angeles union, which in 2014 elected a new slate of leaders called Union Power, had four years to prepare for a strike. Oakland had seven months.

The new union leaders set out to build an aggressive contract campaign. The first steps were recruiting teams at every school and organizing schools into clusters, each with its own communication tree.

Anderson, who’s been a union rep for her school for four years, said she used to email the union president whenever she had a question or problem. Now she can call the cluster leader or use a messaging app to ask other union reps from nearby schools.

Last summer a group of leaders and activists attended a Labor Notes Secrets of a Successful Organizer training, where they picked up materials on how to conduct an organizing conversation, identify and recruit leaders on the job, and plan a campaign around an issue.

They used these materials to hold mini-trainings through the fall as they recruited new leaders to form school-site squads. Squad members in each school made an action plan—sometimes to build the contract campaign, sometimes to confront a bully principal.

The contract campaign escalated through school walk-ins, citywide rallies, and a high-turnout strike vote where 80 percent of OEA members voted and 95 percent of those voted to strike. In the weeks leading up to the strike deadline, five high schools organized walkouts.

The results of all this organizing showed when 85 percent of teachers reported to the picket lines. OEA reports that even more didn’t go to work. While schools stayed open, staffed by substitutes and administrative staff, 95 percent of students stayed out.

That made Oakland’s strike participation percentage rate similar to Los Angeles and its student absence rate higher.

KEEPING ENERGY UP

As in Los Angeles, the public and the media overwhelmingly backed the teachers’ message. During the strike, union members picketed outside schools, encouraging students to instead attend solidarity schools at nearby churches, libraries, and community centers.

Teachers also rallied at city hall, a state office building, and the oddly named charter school advocacy organization GO Public Schools. Supporters surprised the CEO of GO with an early-morning picket and house visit.

“They’ve been buying these [school board] seats using billionaire money,” said Armendariz. “This is our opportunity to expose them for the astroturf organization they are.”

Later in the strike, picketers physically blocked several attempts to hold a school board meeting to pass a budget that would include cuts.

When energy flagged on the picket lines, Estrada said, the central rallies were a boost. And at his school, which had no OEA members cross the line and no students attend, teachers came up with creative ways to raise spirits.

“We had dance sessions,” Estrada said. “The parents were joining us. Dance lines, drumming, chanting that just kept us going.”

NEW FRIENDS MADE

The union’s next challenge is to keep members united and fighting for more funding. A related priority is electing a pro-public education school board.

With teachers back to work, the school board met and voted to cut $22 million from its budget, as previously announced, opening a new round of battles with the district and state.

The strikes have already created a political shift in California. New Governor Gavin Newsom signed a charter school accountability law that the previous governor would not.

But far more is needed. OEA is joining United Teachers Los Angeles and other unions in supporting state legislation to raise $4.5 billion in public education funding by increasing commercial property taxes.

The strike sparked lots of new relationships—not only across the state, but also inside schools.

For instance, Taiz-Rancifer said, before the strike, teachers and school employees on her campus were divided between two schools and often didn’t interact.

But during the strike, that changed. The adjacent public library hosted a community school. Retired teachers came in to help out. Parents brought coffee and snacks. And a new feeling of unity grew that has carried on post-strike.

“We are now spending a bunch of time together,” Taiz-Rancifer said. The week after the strike, teachers from both schools went to Friday happy hour together for the first time.

“One of the amazing things about this whole process is that before, people felt so isolated.” Anderson said. “They are isolated by their awful principal or because their co-workers aren’t engaged. Now there’s a community.”

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 481. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.
Samantha Winslow is co-director of Labor Notes.samantha@labornotes.org