Teachers, Parents Win in Oakland

Laurie Goldsmith

When Oakland Education Association President Connie Peoples presented the new contract agreement to striking teachers on January 21, she credited various local and state officials for their role in achieving the victorious settlement. Several on her list, such as Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson, received hisses, not cheers, from the audience.

As she concluded her incomplete list of acknowledgements, the gymnasium full of teachers broke into a spontaneous chant of “Parents, parents, parents.” It was a combination of teacher unity and community support which won the strike for the Oakland teachers, and not any individual politician or bureaucrat.

At a time when workers around the country face concessions, layoffs and two-tier wage scales, it is considered a victory to maintain the status quo.

Oakland teachers have gone on strike three times in the last seven years to demand and receive salary increases. In this most recent strike, they even reversed a two-tier system. While teachers around the country often face a hostile community when they go out on strike, for the last two strikes in Oakland parents have spontaneously come out in support of the striking teachers.

Background to the Strike

Cutbacks in public education began with the general economic crisis of the early 1970s and have intensified under the Reagan administration. Politicians of the New Right successfully directed taxpayers’ frustration over the economic crisis at “greedy” public sector workers. In California, the Proposition 13 tax revolt brought the state from the top of the country to the bottom in support for education. Providing some relief to homeowners, it mainly benefitted large landlords and corporations.

But reports in the early 1980s brought media attention to the declining quality of public education. Parents and teachers rallied in the state capital to demand more money for financially fragile school districts.

Oakland commissioned its own local study of the education crisis in the spring of 1985: the Guthrie Report. It cited the forty percent high school dropout rate and student achievement levels which placed Oakland students four years behind comparable students from other cities in California. The study predicted a teacher shortage within the next five years, and reported that the district was already short several hundred credentialed teachers.

Of the top twenty largest school districts in the state, Oakland teachers had the lowest pay and the highest class size. The district had the state’s highest ratio of administrators to students. By comparison, San Diego had twice as many students but 100 fewer administrators.

To add to the problem, the districts’ financial records were so badly kept that it was impossible to tell whether or not the district had money for the teachers-the board claimed a $2 million deficit.

Oakland is composed of a majority Black population, with a sizeable Latino, and a growing Asian, community. A strong division exists between the working class and unemployed neighborhoods in the “flats” and a professional upper middle class living in the hills of Oakland. In the flatlands’ schools, test scores are the lowest in the state.

Teacher Unionism

It was not too long ago that teachers considered themselves professionals who did not need to be represented by unions. This attitude stems from the contradictory class position of teachers as public service semiprofessionals. As workers, teachers function in an educational hierarchy in which boards of education, high-level administrators, and principals make decisions about long-term goals. As professionals, teachers have immediate control over their work on a daily basis, giving assignments, deciding lesson content, and evaluating students. Teachers view themselves first as educators with ties to their students, but they face social conflicts-which education is supposed to resolve-on a daily basis in the classroom. In the past this “professional” attitude meant that teachers did not think of themselves acting as an organized labor force, or having to go on strike. In fact, it is only twenty years ago, inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, that teachers began to organize themselves as workers.

The two primary teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) grew into two of the largest unions in the country. Initially, members of the NEA considered themselves a “professional association,” unwilling to go on strike or relate to the rest of the labor movement, while the more militant AFT affiliated to the AFL-CIO. Over the years there has been a mixing of ideologies between the two.

The NEA has continued its attitude of professionalism. Nevertheless, it has developed political positions that are more progressive than those of the AFT. It has taken a position against intervention in Central America and has developed anti-racist and peace-oriented educational curricula. And over the last few years the NEA has been forced to defend itself through strike action.

Meanwhile, the AFT has gone from being involved in the civil rights struggle to being dominated by the cold-war liberalism of its president, Albert Shanker. In its early years, the AFT’s goals focused on improving education in low-income urban schools, including demands for lowering class size to an average of twenty students and improving school-community relationships.

The AFT’s recent preoccupations emphasize the issues of merit pay and testing of teachers: ironically, the issues of professionalism. Shanker even invited Reagan to address the recent AFT convention.

History of Oakland Teachers’ Strike Locally, the Oakland Education Association (OEA), an NEA affiliate, won the certification election over the AFT affiliate in 1977. The history of teachers’ strikes in Oakland points to the weaknesses of the OEA leadership’s narrow attitude of professionalism.

The 1979 strike was typical: the OEA called a bread-and-butter strike over wages and benefits, while then superintendent Ruth Love successfully rallied the parents to her side with her well-publicized concern over the children’s education. Isolated from the community and the rest of the labor movement, the teachers returned to the classroom after eight days on strike with a four percent raise.

When the OEA called a strike in 1983, 90 percent of the teachers and 75 percent of the students were out of school by the end of the four-day strike. The OEA’s lack of strike preparation hadn’t changed-the leadership had made no formal links with the community or the rest of the labor movement. But public opm10n in Oakland had turned in favor of the teachers, with parents showing their passive support by keeping their children at home or sending them to alternative schools. The result: an average wage increase of seven percent-and the imposition of a two-tier contract.

The OEA leadership’s actions in the 1986 strike displayed problems similar to previous strikes. Once again, little was done by the OEA to make formal alliances with parents or labor unions, or to involve the membership in strike preparations. But the recent public awareness about the extreme conditions of Oakland’s schools, and the exposure of the incompetence of the school administration brought the community to the side of the striking teachers.

Labor Solidarity

The OEA leadership resisted attempts by the building reps (shop stewards) to create an alliance with the other employees of the school district. The weakness of this position was proved once the teachers were on the picket lines. The janitors, who were also working without a contract, could have shut down the schools completely if they had walked out in support of the teachers. But talks between the two unions broke down when the OEA leadership refused to pledge to stay on strike until both teachers’ and janitors’ contracts were settled.

The OEA leadership can’t be asked to assume all responsibility for labor solidarity. The teamsters’ local joint council initially agreed to honor the teachers’ picket lines, only to have the international reverse the sanction several days later. And it did not help to have the president of the Oakland School Employees Association, the union for teachers’ aides and clerical staff, threatening in the middle of the strike to sue the school board if they closed the schools in response to parents’ and teachers’ demands.

Lack of preparation for the strike left teachers and parents mistrustful of the OEA leadership’s actions. It was only with the advent of the strike that union officials were forced to inform and mobilize the membership. The fundamental decisions were still made by a small core of union officials. Regular mass meetings of the union membership were not a feature of the strike.

Nevertheless, teachers were organized by school, or group of schools, and had a “cluster” captain who went to the almost daily meetings that discussed tactics. The captains were responsible for delivering the daily OEA strike bulletin to the membership. Even more importantly, the OEA leadership endorsed a whole range of action proposals that came from its ranks or from the Oakland community, ranging from the sit-in to the parent support rallies. This was a critical ingredient to the success of the strike.

Although the OEA did little to organize community participation, parent support was strong, with parents keeping their children at home or helping to organize Freedom Schools. Teachers who organized the schools showed the community that teachers care about their students’ education. They countered the image often projected by school boards and media that striking teachers were acting only in their own self-interest.

The school district tried several intimidation tactics on both teachers and students. During the first week, the district threatened to fail all students who were absent from school for more than six days. Parents who had children in child care centers were told their children would lose their places in the centers if they did not report to school.

Both of these attempts backfired. The OEA distributed a leaflet explaining to parents that students would be covered by a no reprisals clause in the contract. And the threats served only to further alienate the community from the school board. Mobilizations in support of the strike began during the first week of the strike, beginning with a candlelight vigil before the school board meeting, attended by 500 parents and teachers.

Parents vigiled at the Hilton Hotel, site of the negotiations. They called for a speedy settlement and a fair raise for the teachers. Angered by the disclosure that the Oakland City Council had put aside $30 million in a secret fund to buy back the Raiders football team, parents demanded that the city find money to make its schools the priority.

The media was mixed in its portrayal of teachers and parents. It was only after the strike was over that the Oakland Tribune, the city’s main newspaper, reported: “Parents played a vital role in helping Oakland’s teachers achieve victory in contract negotiations. They staged rallies at the district’s administration building; walked picket lines at their neighborhood schools; packed city council meetings demanding financial support for Oakland’s troubled schools; berated school board members at Board of Education meetings; and kept their children out of school for a month to show their support for teachers.”

Creative Militancy

By the third week the strike was still strong, but there had been little change in the school board’s position. Teachers felt the need to break through the impasse. Two days after the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, forty teachers staged a sit-in at the district’s Administration Building.

At the subsequent cluster meeting, there was a lively discussion of this tactic. The group of teachers who had initiated the sit-in wanted the entire union to be involved. Finally, the OEA leadership decided to endorse it, and the next day 800 teachers poured into the building, effectively shutting it down.

The teachers returned again after the weekend, but this time they found themselves faced with a line of Oakland security police blocking the steps to the building. Two hundred teachers staged a sit-in on the steps to the front and back entrances, while strike supporters jammed the district’s phone lines the entire day.

Later that week 250 teachers, parents and students involved in alternative schools crowded into a nearby college auditorium after a pouring rain cancelled plans for an outdoor rally. Youth dominated the stage as fifty children, aged 8-14, and sang “We are the world.” High school students put on a skit, lampooning the school district’s tough stance. The rally was addressed by Tonia Pleasanton, vice-president of the OEA.

That night, thousands of Oakland residents watched a debate on the strike broadcast live on TV. The panelists included Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson, School Superintendent Joe Coto, and Tonia Pleasanton, representing the teachers.

Coto appeared incoherent as he tried to answer questions about the $2 million debt deficit that he claimed existed at the outset of the strike, but which had disappeared by the strike’s second week.

During the debate, a member of the Board of Education, speaking from the floor, stated that the district would honor the nonbinding recommendations of a neutral arbitrator. Pleasanton accepted the offer.

Within a day the stalemate was broken. The teachers had won a package substantially better than the compromise their negotiators accepted the previous Sunday, and one which the district had rejected.

Why the Victory

Oakland’s teachers won a decisive, but unexpected, victory. Through four anxious weeks it appeared that the teachers would have to compromise and end the strike. Suddenly the school board agreed to a contract that had them spending more money than a proposal they had rejected a week earlier.

The teachers won the salary raises they went on strike for, bringing Oakland’s salaries from the lowest to the average of California’s twenty largest school districts. In order to end the critical shortage of substitutes, the school board agreed to a 30 percent wage increase for that group. There was no “cap” on fringe benefits, meaning the district would continue to pay all increases in health care costs. Most importantly, the board removed the threatened bankruptcy disclaimer clause which would have allowed it to break the contract by claiming insolvency.

The reason for the turnaround in the school board’s position remains a mystery, but several factors brought the strike to a happy ending. The unity and resilience of the teachers and the popularity of their cause with the community remain first on the list of explanations. But the school board could only have driven Oakland into a deeper crisis by defeating the teachers, lowering teacher morale even further.

Lessons of the Strike

The rep council’s decisions to set up a strike fund and a committee to meet with the other school unions reflect some lessons of the strike. There are more conclusions to draw from the experience.

Given the history of parent organizing and teacher unionism in Oakland, the OEA cannot count automatically on the good will of the community. Parents spontaneously rallied to the side of the teachers in this strike because of the crisis conditions in Oakland schools; they may side with the district in a future strike as they have in the past.

The OEA needs to show the Oakland community that teachers are interested in more than just their salaries; they are also concerned about the education of Oakland’s students. The OEA should take positions on ways to improve the quality of education in Oakland’s flatlands, as the AFT did in the early years of teacher unionism. When preparations begin for the next strike, the OEA needs to provide resources for organizing alternative schools, and not leave it up to individual parents and teachers.

Similarly, the OEA leadership should support the committee set up by the rep council to begin alliances with the other school workers’ unions. A concerted force of all the school workers could only benefit the teachers’ bargaining position against the school district. This mutual support must be developed before a strike begins.

The OEA should begin to view itself as more than just a trade union. It should project itself in the Oakland community as a social organization of teachers fighting for better education. This can be achieved above all by allowing for participation and decision-making on the part of its own members. Regular democratic meetings open to all teachers need to be held to discuss not only traditional union business, but also matters of educational policy on the national, state and local level.

This approach would extract progressive meaning from the ideology of professionalism, and prepare Oakland teachers for the difficult struggles that lie ahead.

March-April 1986, ATC 2

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *