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2019 Oakland teachers strike

An analysis of the 2019 Oakland teachers strike

Could [striking Oakland teachers] have won more? No. The question is how could they have won more?…I congratulate them for what they did pull off…and I hope that … every critic of that strike has been knee-deep, building the structures since the day the strike ended, instead of just complaining about it, because that’s what it takes to win bigger next time. We win in relationship to the power we build.

—Jane McAlevey, author of No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age,
Interview from “The Dig” podcast, March 27, 2019

The important thing is not to stop questioning.

—Albert Einstein, LIFE Magazine, May 2, 1955

The recent seven-day strike by the Oakland Education Association (OEA) was eerily similar in key ways to its 26-day strike in 1996. Both strikes demanded that Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) “chop from the top” of its bloated administration to fund better learning conditions and fair pay. In 1996 the learning-condition demand was smaller class size. In 2019 educators also demanded class size reduction, but also smaller caseloads for counselors, nurses, and other student-support services. Another focus this time was stopping the district’s plan to close 24 schools in Black and Brown communities. Both strikes had very strong picket lines and community support. And both strikes ended with a resounding “What just happened?”

What happened in both cases was that union members and community allies won on the picket lines and in the streets but got a draw, at best, at the bargaining table. The 2019 strike was neither the “historic victory” claimed by the union’s leadership and others nor the crushing defeat asserted by some.

Appeals to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative”1 can only lead us to the same wall OEA hit in 1996 and 2019 and that has limited the power of the broader labor movement for decades. This article focuses on “the negative,” because documentation and celebration of the strike’s truly impressive aspects are easy to find in numerous publications,2 while more critical assessments have been dismissed as coming from outsiders, ultra-leftists, and/or sectarians.3 This analysis is from the perspective of a longtime educator and teachers union activist in Oakland who served as a lead organizer for one of seven clusters of schools during the recent strike (and a picket captain in 1996), knows and respects OEA’s leaders and the tremendous difficulty of leading a strike, and continues to do the nitty gritty daily work and the “complaining” necessary to win bigger next time.

Amidst all of the rightful acclaim for good organizing, militant picket lines, and strong community support, we need to honestly examine why 42 percent of voting members opposed the tentative agreement and many more expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the result. As OEA leaders have said, the grassroots power the strike built is itself a major victory. But the extent to which we 4 achieved our stated goals alsomatters, and to progress further we must seriously consider why those results fell so far short of what many believed possible. Claiming real victories inspires confidence and positive lessons for each subsequent effort. Falsely claiming or inflating triumphs while shouting down critical evaluations clouds our collective vision.

OEA’s strike leaders argue that the union could not have won more, because (in the words of author Jane McAleavy) the bargaining team simply was “not getting the boss to do anything different at the table”5 and we were about to lose significant member and community support. The claim of impending loss of support is questionable, since percentages of striking members and absent students remained extremely high throughout the walkout. But this article will not focus on how much longer the strike could or should have continued.6 Instead it will consider why the boss didn’t do anything different at the table sooner. Was it solely because we had not organized sufficient power on our side to overcome the power of the district and the billionaire privatizers standing behind it? Or did we fail to sufficiently use the power we had organized, and if so, why? Winning bigger next time depends not only on continuing to build power but also on closely examining how we used the power we built and what possibly limited our use of that power.

This article argues that a lack of transparency and democracy severely limited how OEA used the power it had organized and therefore stunted its potential to win, especially on the key demand to stop school closures. Effectively shutting down Oakland public schools for 26 days was not enough to force the district’s hand in 1996. Not surprisingly, doing so for seven days, though far more thoroughly, also wasn’t enough in 2019. Given the determination of major corporate privatizers to continue destroying public education in Oakland, strong picket lines at school sites are a necessary-but-insufficient condition for victory. Public education workers can’t “hit the employer in the pocketbook” as directly as private sector workers can,7 so they normally depend on community support to generate political pressure on a school district. A public schools strike can raise the stakes, however, by inflicting economic and political damage to corporate interests, such as those who lavish campaign funds on Oakland School Board races to secure a pro-privatization Board majority. Literally from Day One of the strike, OEA picket captains and members backed plans to mobilize members and supporters to significantly disrupt business as usual in Oakland, but leadership did not implement those proposals. Keeping decision making and bargaining sequestered from the view and influence of an increasingly militant membership and community inevitably increased the moderating sway of staff from OEA’s state affiliate, California Teachers Association (CTA), and Democratic politicians brought in to “mediate” negotiations. Such isolation can also cause union leaders and negotiators to lose sight of their source of power and to abandon hope of “getting the boss to do anything different at the table.”

The Strike as a Transparency-Free Zone

The 1996 Oakland teachers strike ended with a deal engineered by CTA staff. It included a decent pay raise but no guaranteed class size reduction language, despite that issue being a major pillar of our campaign. To the shock of many, it also increased each counselor’s caseload from 325 students to 500. The 2019 strike did slightly better on learning conditions, with a small improvement on class size and even smaller gains in student supports. But on school closures, OEA only secured a promise by the Board president to introduce a Board resolution for a five-month “pause” in school closures ending in August. Some say the settlement shortchanged the defense of public schools and learning conditions for the sake of an adequate raise. But the pay increase—effectively a cut in purchasing power—is far from adequate and is not likely to slow the district’s high teacher turnover.

In 2019, as in 1996, a nearly total lack of transparency insulated bargaining and strategic decision making from OEA’s increasingly empowered and militant rank and file and enhanced CTA’s influence. OEA leaders argue that they, not CTA staff, made all decisions. In any case, OEA’s strike “strategy team” was composed of a handful of local leaders without strike experience and veteran CTA professionals. The team made all tactical and strategic decisions under enormous pressure without any system of accountability to OEA’s elected governing bodies or to the unelected, but broad-based picket captains who met daily. Similarly, OEA’s small bargaining team of first-time rank-and-file negotiators 8 was closely advised by CTA staff throughout the two years of bargaining. The presence of local, regional, and state-level CTA staff in the bargaining process significantly increased in the weeks before and during the strike.

CTA normally works closely with the California Democratic Party, which became directly involved in negotiations during the strike, at OEA and CTA’s invitation. Such involvement is problematic for a strike explicitly framed as a fight to defend public education. Democrats are as responsible as Republicans for the ongoing destruction of public education in the United States, and even more so in Oakland. In 2003, a powerful state senator, Oakland’s mayor, and the state superintendent for public instruction—all Democrats—played major roles in imposing a state takeover of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and selecting a string of overseers trained at the Broad Academy for privatizing administrators. Under the pretext of managing OUSD finances, state administrators closed schools, spiked the expansion of charter schools that now enroll almost 30 percent of Oakland students, and nearly tripled the state debt that still cripples the district before restoring the local School Board’s authority in 2009.9 Before, during and following this fiasco, CTA supported the re-election of all of the Democrats involved.10

Only six months before the strike began, a newly elected leadership began to successfully organize and energize a union that had been in decline for years. These leaders had run on a slate called Build Our Power, which included members of a left rank-and-file caucus called Classroom Struggle 11, and others. The election of an African American president and a Latino vice-president reinforced OEA’s commitment to racial justice in a district where students of color comprise about 90 percent of enrollment. The new leadership made good on its top election platform commitment to build an “organized union presence at every school.” Community outreach solidified support for a fight against privatization and for educational, racial, and economic justice. Our strike also drew momentum from a year-long wave of popular insurgency by school workers from West Virginia to Los Angeles.

The second point in the new OEA leaders’ Build Our Power election platform was “No secret bargaining.” OEA’s policy-making body, Representative Council, made that commitment official union policy a few days before the strike by voting nearly unanimously that members would receive daily bargaining updates containing any new official proposals by either side and “a summary of progress or lack thereof,” even if no formal proposals were made. Rep Council also mandated at least a 24-hour period between an eventual tentative agreement and ratification vote.

But members received no substantive updates on bargaining progress during the strike other than mentions of what time talks ended each day, who was in the room, and “We’re winning!” OEA reported on one OUSD salary proposal only after the district issued a misleading description of its offer. Therefore, members had no idea that the district was refusing to budge on every major demand through most of the strike. Even the union’s elected Executive Board was largely left in the dark and out of decision making at critical moments. Three reliable sources on separate occasions reported that the OEA and OUSD bargaining teams explicitly agreed to keep bargaining confidential. But when members at OEA’s Representative Council and General Membership meetings asked about this, OEA leaders did not answer directly and, when pressed, denied that OEA had agreed to confidentiality. But bargaining was kept confidential during the strike—at least from OEA members. (One OEA officer repeatedly insisted that the Special Rep Council’s pre-strike motion mandating transparent bargaining was not valid, because OEA leadership had not provided the usual voting cards and sign-in sheet and therefore could not distinguish elected site reps from non-rep picket captains who attended.)

With the curtain drawn tight, Democrats played an even more direct role in bargaining than usual, with newly elected State Superintendent Tony Thurmond coming in to mediate, at OEA and CTA’s invitation. OEA leaders believed Thurmond would support OEA, but according to post-strike reports, he did not. (Before the strike, Thurmond did not respond to requests for support from parents and teachers fighting the district’s closure of an East Oakland school. After the strike, he appointed a state task force to study the effect of charter schools, on which seven of the eleven members are closely allied with pro-charter interests.)

Invisible Decision Making and Bargaining Insulated from Street Power

Meanwhile members’ efforts to use direct action to ramp up pressure on the district met resistance from CTA and OEA leaders. On the first day of the strike, International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) Local 34 passed a motion to honor picket lines at the Port of Oakland if OEA set them up. A meeting of ILWU Local 10 members expressed overwhelming support to do the same, though lack of a quorum prevented passage of a similar motion. The action would generate major media coverage and public attention to the fact that the nation’s fifth-busiest port, handling tens of billions of dollars in goods annually, collects no taxes to support its city’s social services, despite a 2013 court ruling that the Port is a city department. It would also signal to School Board members and their privatizing, billionaire campaign sponsors that strikers and allies were prepared to disrupt business as usual in Oakland for the duration of the strike.

But OEA leaders initially opted to hold a midday rally at the Port, in the middle of dockworkers’ day shift, several hours before the start of the first evening shift. In contrast, about 90 percent of picket captains at a meeting on Strike Day 2 raised their hands in favor of mobilizing striking teachers and community members to an early-morning or late-afternoon mass picket to shut down the docks. A similar percentage indicated support to lead a disruptive march from each cluster to downtown on Strike Day 4. Discussions on the picket line the next day made clear that members would turn out to the Port in large numbers, rain or shine. Still, OEA leaders and CTA staff continued to express reservations. One leader dismissed plans for a Port shutdown as a “fun” distraction. CTA staffers raised concerns over safety, liability, and legality, even though a CTA attorney, contacted independently, confirmed that picketing on public property at the Port is protected free speech. The president of Local 10 reportedly opposed the picket because it would upset maritime employers, but opposition from boss-friendly leaders had not prevented previous port pickets strongly supported by ILWU members. OEA cluster leads and other members considered organizing a rank-and-file and community action, but without official sanction, a picket was less likely to succeed. So a decision to move forward was deferred to the OEA Rep Council, which was scheduled to hold a special meeting on Thursday, February 28, Strike Day 6.

That special Rep Council began by passing a motion to change an agenda pushed by OEA leaders that had placed New Business near the end, behind potentially lengthy officers’ reports. (A member of the strategy team had said that it would be “a wonderful thing” if the Rep Council ran out of time before reps could vote on any motions.) Reps were told that all bargaining team members and the president were too busy in bargaining to attend this meeting, so the first vice president then gave a bargaining report that provided no specifics on bargaining progress. Many reps expressed frustration at the lack of transparency. During New Business, the body passed a motion, almost unanimously to mobilize to the Port on the following Tuesday, March 5, potentially Strike Day 9.

We learned later that the district finally began moving to meet some of OEA’s demands on the day Rep Council met. Was there a connection between the district’s new willingness to bargain and the expectation that OEA would move forward with the Port action and carry it out by Tuesday? Because bargaining was confidential, we don’t know. If it did have an effect, it was too little and too late.

Assessing the Results Soberly

On the strike’s seventh day, Friday, March 1, OEA and the district announced they had signed a Tentative Agreement (TA). Leaders on both sides heralded the settlement as a “historic” advance for Oakland teachers and students. Members spent much of the next two days reading the details and arguing about whether the TA was really the best OEA could achieve. On Sunday nearly 2000 members, about 70 percent of the membership, attended the general membership meeting for a debate and vote on contract ratification that included two ballots, including one on a retroactive bonus for 2017-18. On the key vote on our contract from July 2018 through June 2021, the result was 58 percent “Yes,” 42 percent “No.”

Union members typically approve TAs overwhelmingly, especially after prolonged bargaining (two years in this case) and a strike. Compare the 42 percent “no” vote in Oakland to just 19 percent of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) members who voted to reject their settlement after their six-day strike in January. Many members who voted to ratify were unhappy with the TA but believed that the announcement of a “historic victory” had converted union and community members’ determination to continue the strike into preparation to go back to school.

So why, in spite of pressure to accept that the strike was over, did 42 percent vote no?

1. The agreement fell far short of the victory touted by OEA leaders

Class Size: The class size reduction, though slim, is nevertheless the first time OEA has lowered contractual class size limits since 1982. But many members note that reducing class size by one student at schools where at least 90% of students are classified as having “high need” next year and then one more at all schools beginning two years later won’t make a big difference.

Student Supports: The contract achieved minimal caseload reductions for counselors and special education resource specialists and first-time caseload caps for speech pathologists and psychologists. One apparent significant gain was additional support for newcomer immigrant students, but the district now claims the new contract language doesn’t require it to provide more staff. Nurses opposed the TA, angered that—over their repeated objections—OEA had dropped the demand to lower their caseloads from the contractual limit of 1350 students. Instead, the union settled for bonuses and increased pay to attract applicants for vacant nurse positions that currently boost actual caseloads to 2000. Nurses argued that improved recruitment and retention requires better conditions, not higher pay.

Salary: OEA had demanded a 12% increase over three years, starting retroactively on July 1, 2017, to bring the lowest-paid teachers in Alameda County a bit closer to the county median. So members were disappointed to read of an 11% raise over four years in the TA summary. But that increase actually occurs over five years, since the final 2.5% raise takes effect in the school year after the contract expires. During the four years of the contract, the raise amounts to 8.5%.Since most of the raises come at mid-school year, the total income (including the one-time bonus) accumulated during the four-year period of the contract will be equivalent to a 1.5% pay increase per year. The Bay Area’s cost of living rises about 3.5% annually.

Substitutes, the lowest-paid among K-12th grade teachers, got the best pay increase, about 15% effective immediately.

School Closures: In the last few days of the strike, OEA leaders announced that the district had been forced to bargain school closures and that this was a historic achievement. But the result appears to be token, at best: the Board president agreed to propose a district policy to “pause” school closures for five months until August 15, 2019.

2. Many members believed that the meager concessions OEA won came at the expense of funding for student programs and up to 150 jobs held by school workers in other unions

During the strike the School Board made three attempts to cut vital student programs, such as Restorative Justice, and to lay off up to 150 school workers belonging to Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021. The district claimed it could not pay for OEA’s bargaining demands without making the cuts to qualify for state funding to help the district pay off more than $40 million of debt to the state. OEA had maintained throughout two years of bargaining that the district could meet our demands by cutting its gross overspending on administrators and consultants. One planned mass picket and an actual one forced the Board to cancel two meetings where it was to make these cuts. When the Board made a third attempt on Friday, March 1, hundreds of strikers and supporters surrounded the school where the Board planned to meet. This show of solidarity represented a sharp break from the strike of 1996, when unions for classified (noncredentialled) workers rightly accused OEA of signaling that the district could lay off lower-paid employees to pay for teachers’ demands.

At precisely 2 p.m., the School Board meeting start time, OEA leadership announced that the union and the district had reached a tentative agreement. Minutes later leadership announced that it was ending the picket line blocking the School Board meeting. Many strikers and supporters asked why. Members had not yet ratified (or even seen) the tentative agreement, so the strike was still on. And shouldn’t they still block the School Board from cutting student programs and other workers’ jobs? A large number of OEA members ignored leadership’s instructions and, along with many SEIU members, continued picketing until the School Board meeting was canceled at 6 p.m. But the district then announced it had been granted an extension to qualify for state funds and scheduled another meeting for Monday morning, during the first school day after the strike. Hundreds of students skipped classes to attend the meeting and demand the Board spare their programs. Many teachers also “sicked out” to stand with students. But with the strike over, the Board made the cuts and publicly justified them as necessary to raise teachers’ pay.

Since the end of the strike, OEA leadership has reaffirmed that the district had the money to pay for our new contract without classified layoffs and program cuts. But then why didn’t we use the enormous power of our strike to block those moves? Prior to the strike, OEA leaders understood that if strikers and allies mobilized overwhelming street power, the union could force the district to address issues it was not legally required to bargain and win a significant moratorium on school closures. An increasingly militant strike—including a Port shutdown on Day 4 and then escalating—would have presented OEA’s best opportunity to do that, as well as stop punishing cuts and press the state to cancel OUSD’s remaining state debt. It would take such massive direct action against corporate power to force the Democrat-controlled state government to cancel a debt its own administrators nearly tripled while running OUSD for six years.

OUSD’s per-student spending on consultants is three and a half times the average amount for large California districts. Conversely Oakland spends a far lower percentage of its budget on classrooms than other districts do. If OUSD would cut the percentage of its budget devoted to administration and consultants to the average for districts in Alameda County, it could save about $50 million for other uses. It could also redirect tens of millions of dollars from categories such as Books and Supplies, money that later reappears elsewhere in the budget, preventing the public from getting a fix on where the money is.

But throughout two years of bargaining, CTA did not provide additional staff to aggressively investigate and help fight the district’s malfeasance. Attempting to fill that void, OEA members and supporters who follow OUSD finances formed a budget analysis committee and met with CTA staff. The committee identified how and where OUSD was hiding a surplus of at least $30 million while claiming a deficit. We don’t know whether this information was communicated to the bargaining team. CTA finally flew in its top budget expert in the last two days of the days of the strike and claims she went through the district’s budget “with a fine-toothed comb” and “found” barely enough to pay for what ended up in our tentative agreement. CTA staff advised OEA that this was the most the district could afford.

Where is the evidence for this conclusion? CTA staff reported that the district never turned over budget documents OEA asked for in September 2018. These could have helped provide a clearer view of OUSD’s exorbitant expenditures for top administration and countless contracts for consultant and vendors that OUSD creates and renews repeatedly at Board meeting after Board meeting without independent scrutiny. It’s also worth noting that the pre-strike fact-finder’s report recommended a 3% retroactive raise to last year, an additional 3% retroactive to the start of this year, and a reopener for next year. That’s much better than what we got.

Throughout the strike CTA staff and OEA leadership celebrated the awesome power of our strike, with 95% of members striking, 85% of them on the picket lines, and 97% of students staying home. But after the tentative agreement was signed, CTA staff and leadership told members that our picket lines and midday rallies were growing weaker and predicted that members would not be able to sustain sufficient strength in the next week if we remained on strike. This may have reflected a trend at some schools but not a thorough citywide assessment of OEA’s strength. Members in my cluster (mainly West Oakland) were preparing to go back to the picket lines on Monday if the tentative agreement were to be rejected and to increase their support for students in “solidarity schools” held in churches and other places.

At post-strike cluster meetings, members expressed frustration that the walkout “was ended for us.” They also said that many parents were telling them the strike ended too soon and could have won greater reductions in class sizes, caseloads for counselors and nurses, and a real moratorium on school closures. They also heard from students who felt teachers had betrayed them by ending the strike after winning some of their demands, seemingly, at the expense of programs supporting vulnerable students.

Some leaders underestimated the impact our strike was having on political leaders locally and statewide. “The state doesn’t care about our strike,” was one sentiment filtering out from the strategy team. What is the basis for that assessment? Politicians care about public perception and have to be concerned about a strike that adds to the rising tide of a popular year-long school worker insurgency. Even the 1996 Oakland teacher strike, despite its disappointing settlement, was soon followed by landmark class size reduction legislation signed by a Republican governor.12

Before moving to suggestions for steps forward, here is one more, especially complicated, problem shared by 1996 and 2019 strikes: OEA’s “chop from the top” strategy. OUSD’s spectacular overspending on administration and private vendors has been so much worse than most, if not all, other sizable districts in California for so long that it almost demands to be considered THE problem. It certainly is a problem that must be fixed if students are to benefit from whatever amount of funding, large or small, reaches Oakland. But we ultimately will have to find a way to better combine our local contract struggle with a fight to extract far more money from the state government and corporate profits, for two reasons:

  1.  “Chop from the top” repeatedly gets bogged down in the thicket of a steadfastly inept and corrupt district bureaucracy and a budget that has grown even more opaque than it was in 1996. Meanwhile state and county officials back OUSD’s claim that it can’t afford OEA’s demands, while refusing to provide additional funding or even debt relief. It’s a shell game with bureaucrats from all three jurisdictions pointing and crying “the money went thataway.” We will have to extricate ourselves from this trap and put pressure on all parties at once, forcing them to cough up the necessary resources.
  2. Even if successful, “chop from the top” won’t yield nearly enough to pay for the drastically improved conditions students really need and deserve. But there’s more than enough money to pay for everything our students and communities need in California’s state budget and its vast corporate wealth. Eventually we’ll have to do what school workers in “right-to-work” states have done by necessity: organize and strike statewide.

Possible Lessons for Continuing the Fight

The strike and the organizing that preceded it has generated energy, consciousness, and determination to build a long-term fight for quality public education and against privatization. Much of this is attributable to intensive outreach before the strike by OEA leaders and a cadre of organizers visiting many sites, including many that had not even had an OEA representative or any other connection to the union for years. They identified “organic leaders” (members considered to be especially influential and respected) and helped sites form organizing teams to assess and develop colleagues’ readiness to strike.

At the same time, among rank and file members began to bubble up independently. Site reps and others at several high schools and middle schools began organizing and launching “wildcat” sickouts beginning in December to increase pressure on the district to bargain with OEA. These actions garnered media coverage that heightened public awareness of the fast-approaching confrontation and framed the call for fair pay in Oakland as a racial justice demand.13 They also injected a surge of democratic, bottom-up energy to a largely top-down organizing campaign. More democracy generates creative initiatives and actions as well as (sometimes constructively) critical responses to leadership. This brings us to a first lesson.

Continue to organize rank-and-file activity and communication via OEA’s cluster system

For years OEA has used a system of communicating instructions and information from leadership to members via organizers who contacted reps within geographical clusters of school sites. That system became more dynamic and interactive leading into and through the recent strike. Cluster leads met with picket captains, site representatives and others in our areas regularly to share information and gather concerns, questions, and ideas from members. Continuing to meet and build solidarity and communication among members in each cluster can increase rank-and-file power and ability to exert pressure from below.

  • Support thoughtful discussion and analysis of what happened; and push back when constructive criticism is dismissed as divisive rhetoric, personal attack, or griping. We should credit and build upon the very positive organizing before and during the strike that made it powerful. We also need to name and analyze a problem that isolated leadership from that rank-and-file and community power, namely top-down leadership and lack of democracy and transparency.
  • Build an effective, militant and diverse rank-and-file caucus. Since 2012 Classroom Struggle (CS) has occasionally moved OEA to act somewhat more militantly and democratically. CS includes members who are part of OEA’s leadership, others who are critical of leadership, and some who are both simultaneously. It met only a few times after the new leadership’s election and once during the strike. (Before the election Build Our Power had committed to twice-monthly meetings but met only two times after its candidates won.) CS—and, as a CS member, I—could have done more to organize for some of the ideas advocated here, such as planning in advance for a Port action and proposing a broad-based strike committee (see below). Whether CS continues or another left rank-and-file group emerges, an effective caucus needs to grow larger and more racially diverse and develop a clearer program and educational and organizing strategy than CS has. It can help support and coordinate independent rank-and-file actions when necessary, such as sickouts, to fight school closures, charter colocations,14 and cuts to school programs and classified jobs.
  • We need a two-pronged understanding and strategy in our fight for funding:
    1. Develop and sustain, under our local union’s control, a robust knowledge and analysis of district finances and how much the district can afford to improve learning conditions and compensation for workers. Additional funding won’t help students much unless we force OUSD to prioritize spending to improve learning conditions. A member-controlled OEA funding committee should develop a strategy to fight to restructure district spending and integrate the struggle with a larger campaign for the far greater state funding needed for high-quality public schools and services that must be taken from corporations and the rich.
    2. Continue building a statewide movement to fund high-quality public schools and services. Even a complete restructuring of the district’s budget will not pay for the conditions students need, such as class sizes of 15 or less (as students in elite private schools enjoy), individual support for diverse student needs, more teacher preparation time, safe and comfortable facilities, and other qualitative changes in teaching and learning conditions outlined in the OEA Vision. For that we need a redistribution of corporate wealth statewide (and nationally).

To win that increased funding, we need to coordinate efforts by school workers, unions, and community organizations all over California to tax the rich and corporations.A corporate wealth campaign must spotlight and fight for untaxed and undertaxed wealth statewide and take on local targets like the Port of Oakland, Clorox, Kaiser Permanente, and top real estate developers. OEA led such a campaign for several years, starting in 2003, holding rallies and distributing flyers outside these corporations’ headquarters. Following the Wall Street meltdown and recession of 2008 and the Bush-Obama bank bailout, OEA and other organizations led disruptive demonstrations and civil disobedience at major banks, including California-based Wells Fargo, to demand a bailout for public schools and services and a halt to home foreclosures.

To relaunch an effective, sustained action campaign to redistribute corporate wealth for public schools and services will require patient, long-term organizing and education with union and community members. One step—and only one—is the campaign for the Schools and Communities First Initiative in November 2020 that, if passed, will generate billions of dollars for public schools and services by closing Proposition 13’s corporate property tax loophole. (CTA leaders refused to endorse this initiative until pressed to do so several months after it was launched.) Ultimately it will take coordinated direct action, including a series of statewide strikes, to win significant progress on that front.

  • Elect a broad-based rank-and-file strike committeeto help lead the next strike.15 The picket captains’ support for militant action reflected the extraordinary power on our picket lines and in the streets that was celebrated throughout the strike. Their readiness to act boldly and creatively contrasted sharply with the cautious, legalistic counsel influencing OEA’s secretive strategy team. We can’t know whether the district would have begun bargaining sooner if we had escalated this strike’s disruptive actions early, but increasing members’ decision-making authority can translate to more powerful choices and results next time.
  • Recognize that our fundamental power lies in grassroots organizing, solidarity, and direct action, not on lobbying and alliances with the Democratic Party. Our recent experience teaches us that power comes from organizing members and community allies and by mobilizing strong picket lines and other actions. We’ve also seen how that power can be held back when we rely on Democratic “friends” who have collaborated with corporate “reformers” in attacking public education. We need to employ a variety of tactics but prioritize the kind of power we recently built and that West Virginia teachers demonstrated recently when they squashed pro-charter legislation in its tracks with their second statewide walkout in a year.
  • Continue organizing with other unions, community, and social justice organizations to build a broad movement against racism, militarism, and neoliberalism/capitalism. The broad, passionate public support for our strike astounded even our community engagement organizers and the most optimistic OEA activists. We need to keep that going and expand and deepen ties with other workers and the community. Many teachers, including those who have not been union activists, are involved in a wide range of social justice struggles and organizations. We need to organize and act with all of them, because our fight for “schools students deserve” is really for the lives and world students and all of us deserve.

Solid organizing is key to this effort. But organizing without a clear political analysis about what we are organizing forand against and a strategy to effectively use the power we’ve built will continue to lead us nowhere. It’s long past time to say publicly and often that the fight for quality education for all is fundamentally anti-racist and anti-capitalist. A system prioritizing profits for the few (and its two political parties) will never significantly redistribute resources to benefit poor and working-class people, including the vast majority of people of color. Nor will it allow high-quality public education that empowers the 99 percent to “see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together. And you can’t get rid of one without getting rid of the other.”16 This analysis by Martin Luther King Jr. led to the launch of a Poor People’s Campaign of “mass civil disobedience” in 1968.17

The turn “from protest to politics”18 since the 1970s—a project to transform the Democratic Party into an agent of social justice— has failed to challenge growing economic and racial inequality, endless war, and catastrophic environmental destruction. To win, a movement for quality public schools and a just world must reject illusions that union bureaucracies and capitalist political parties will lead us beyond incremental and short-lived reforms.

Notes

  1. “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” popular song, first recorded by Johnny Mercer and The Pied Pipers in 1944.
  2. For example, “Why Oakland’s Striking Teachers Won,” by Eric Blanc, Jacobin, March 2019.
  3. Locally some also have argued that articles critical of OEA leaders of color by white people reflect white privilege, though many union and community members of color also have strongly criticized the union’s leadership and contract settlement.
  4. As an active OEA member, I often use “we” in this article in reference to OEA and Oakland educators.
  5. Jane McAlevey, Interview on “The Dig” podcast, March 27, 2019: “What I want people like that person who is writing critical pieces [about the Oakland teachers strike] to ask is… ‘[Imagine] you’re in charge dude. What are youdoin’?’ Like, the discussion [at the bargaining table] is not changing. You’re not getting the boss to do anything different at the table.’”
  6. Readiness to stay out longer matters, however, and more powerful actions early on may encourage members and families to stay out longer. Once a tentative agreement is signed and declared a “historic victory” by union leaders, the chances of extending a strike drop drastically. And school districts and state governments certainly have noticed that every teacher strike in the current wave has been relatively short.
  7. In California this is partly because a district’s state funding is based on either the current or prior year’s average daily attendance, whichever is greater. (CA Ed Code 42238.05) Also, one cannot assume that district officials who actively undermine and privatize their public schools worry as much about revenue for those schools as corporate owners care about their company’s profits.
  8. OEA’s bargaining team during the strike was appointed by the previous president and had been strongly criticized at OEA’s Rep Council on multiple occasions for making irrevocable bargaining moves without a mandate from the union’s elected governance bodies, including a decision to compromise on OEA’s class size and caseload demands.
  9. Since then the district has been overseen by a state trustee (recently changed to a county trustee) with “veto authority over financial decisions that might imperil the stability of the OUSD.” (OUSD website)
  10. The Democratic Party has held an overwhelming majority in both state legislative houses throughout California’s two decades as a leading charter school state and among the lowest in per-pupil public school funding, currently ranking 41stnationally. CTA has maintained its firm allegiance to the Democrats while failing to fight hard against privatization (e.g., supporting “good” charters and lobbying for moderate regulation) and resisting pressure from its members and other progressives to tax corporations and the rich to fund public education and services.
  11. The writer is a member of Classroom Struggle and was a founding member of Build Our Power.
  12. About three months after the strike ended, the California legislature enacted a class size reduction (CSR) program providing additional funding to schools that limited their K-3 classes to a maximum of 20 students. Starting with the recession of 2007, budget cuts watered down the program to support a schoolwide K-3 averageof 24 students.
  13. “The primary difference between Oakland and many of these districts is the percentage of black and brown students we educate” said Suzi LeBaron, a science teacher department head and pathway director at Oakland High. “You can look at the demographics and the comparative salaries and see a clear trend. This is institutional racism at work and no one is talking about it.” Press release by The Wildcat Underground, Oakland High Educators United, December 5, 2018
  14. Under California Proposition 39 school districts must offer “unused space” (including rooms used for student conferences, special education support, computer labs, and other needs) in public schools to charter schools who apply. Every year many public schools in Oakland’s low-income communities of color are threatened with such “colocations,” allowing charters to take space in their buildings, and sometimes entire sections or floors of their facilities. Colocations often disrupt public school programs and activities, bring public and charter schools and their students into direct conflict, and deprive public schools of needed space. In some cases, collocated charters have expanded to take over entire facilities, forcing the public school that initially held the space to relocate or close.
  15. In OEA this may require a bylaws change.
  16. Speech at Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff retreat in Frogmore, South Carolina, May 1967
  17. “Non-violent protest must now mature to a new level to correspond to heightened black impatience and stiffened white resistance. The higher level is mass civil disobedience. …There must be more than a statement to the larger society—there must be a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point.” Martin Luther King Jr., at another SCLC staff retreat in Frogmore, S.C., January 1968
  18. “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” Bayard Rustin, Commentary, February 1965.

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