How Oakland Teachers Fought Back

Against the Current, No. 64, September/October 1996

Bill Balderston

THE RECORD IN recent years of public-sector union battles, especially strikes, has largely been one of defensive actions. This is not so much due to anti-union propaganda, which labels such job actions as an attack on the ‘public interest,’ but because of the overall austerity programs.

Despite the fact that the level of unionization in the state sector is far higher than in the private sector, such unions, including teacher organizations, have, for the most part, not been able to go on the offensive. Instead they have been portrayed as being greedy just for attempting to defend the status quo.

Teachers and support staff in California–the vast majority being members of the California Teachers Association (NEA), more than 300,000 strong–have long been seen as power brokers in many political struggles throughout the state. Nonetheless, conditions in the classroom have continued to deteriorate, with California being forty-eighth in per student spending and dead last amongst the states in average class size.

While strike action is not unusual among teachers, recent strikes have been noticeably unsuccessful. The outcome of the 1992 Los Angeles strike was an average 10% wage reduction in order to head-off layoffs. Strikes early this year in two major urban areas in California–Oakland and San Diego–were thus carefully watched throughout the state.

The Oakland strike, longer and more embattled, was a major inspiration to teachers and other workers precisely because it had an offensive strategy which led to the transformation of a contract battle into a community movement.

The teachers’ contract expired in July 1994. Due to reopener clauses in the previous contract, negotiations were delayed. There were countless grievances over petty harassments at school sites, which led to a large turnover of young teachers. During the negotiations phase alone twenty-eight complaints were filed with the Public Employees Relations Board against the Oakland Unified School District for noncooperation in bargaining, refusing to provide information, and other stalling maneuvers. Virtually all were upheld.

OEA’s “3 R’s” Campaign

The District proposed to eliminate all class-size restrictions and to offer only a 1% pay increase, despite the fact that there has been no salary gain since 1991. The response of the 3500 member Oakland Education Association (OEA) was to launch a campaign around “3 R’s”: (1) reduction in class size, especially K5, (2) significantly raise the salary (with a 7% increase for the first year and a 5% gain for each of the next two years), and (3) reallocation of resources from central administration to the classroom.

The last demand of this “Classroom First” struggle was especially significant. The Oakland District spent 20% of budget ($300 million total) on administration, of which nearly 15% went to the downtown offices; much higher than surrounding districts (7.6% average), even San Francisco. The District employed over forty top administrators (assistant superintendents, managers,etc.) who each earn over $80,000 a year; Carolyn Getridge, is the highest paid superintendent in the county, at $155,000!

Oakland is a city of approximately 375,000 residents; 52,000 students attend the Oakland public schools. The community was well acquainted with the Byzantine nature and misfunding of this district. The union therefore felt encouraged to initiate a grassroots campaign for “Classrooms First,” largely built on organizing over 100 house meetings. This effort was backed by the Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), a Catholicbased community coalition, representing over 30,000 households. OCO focused largely on the classsize issue and generally backed the OEA.

In the face of growing momentum and unfavorable press coverage, the District made some concession on prep programs (music, science, etc.) for elementary schools that they wished to eliminate, but refused to address the “3R’s.” The School Board backed the District administration, claiming that such a large bureaucracy was needed to implement the varied specialized (categorical) programs, though none of these required separate administrators.

Further, virtually all Board members pleaded that limited state funds prohibited any major change in class size or teacher salary, unless other cuts were made (especially amongst classified workers such as secretarial, janitorial and food service staff). This was one step in a divide-and-conquer strategy.

In this confrontational atmosphere, the CTA staff counseled a strategy of “rolling” strikes, despite legal limitations on such repeated actions. This was largely to minimize loss of pay and community backing. Despite debate on this idea, the membership generally agreed on an initial limited action to break the deadlock. Last November 28th and 29th, well over 90% of the teachers and students participated in the strike, which culminated in a mass march of several thousand to the District offices.

Another oneday action occurred in January 1996, but the District’s only response was a convoluted pay schedule, where some teachers would actually lose money, and no class-size proposal. With this the OEA members moved towards an openended job action. A strike  was set for February 15th.

Dividing to Rule

The walkout lasted more than a month. During that span there were numerous attempts to demoralize and divide teachers and parents. The most controversial was a racebaiting tactic. J.Alfred Smith, a prominent AfricanAmerican minister, and Shannon Reeves, the new executive director of the Oakland NAACP, indicated that this was a strike action against Black youth, echoing some of the School Board members’ verbal attacks. However, most of this rhetoric had more to do with defense of an African-American school bureaucracy (the school staff is about 40% people of color, while the student population is over 75% youth of color).

A related problem was the District’s attempt to portray the 20% of teachers who crossed the picket lines as a group based on a racial divide, which was only true in a relatively small number of schools. Despite these provocations, the teachers, and equally important, the parents of all races, were undeterred. The community support was solidified with the opening of numerous “strike schools” in many churches and neighborhood centers, serving over 3000 students.

Another obstacle was the role of local politicians, many of whom were linked to African-American Board members. This maneuvering occurred in a city where the majority of the Council are people of socialist and/or labor backgrounds.

For the first two weeks these “progressives” were ambivalent on the strike, but as the strike maintained its strength, some council members, such as Ignacio de la Fuente and Sheila Jordan, tried to show support and arranged city aid for the strike schools.

Much later in the struggle, Mayor Elihu Harris made several attempts to float proposals to resolve matters; this was at best a mixed “blessing.” Noted leftliberals like Congressman Ron Dellums and Assemblywoman Barbara Lee gave qualified statements of support but did little to mount real pressure. Even the “friend of the CTA,” State School Superintendent Delaine Eastin, undermined the OEA position with statements of no available funds for salary and class size improvements.

All this led most OEA members to question the role of liberal Democrats and to see the need for a labor-community coalition to run independent candidates. This process began with a slate of candidates for the March 26th school board elections which included activists such as a wellknown Black Marxist, Gerald Sanders. Two of the four were elected.

While negotiations continue at the national level between the 2 million member National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, NEA locals (except where merged as in San Francisco and Los Angeles) are outside the AFL-CIO. There were early attempts to get strike sanctions and bring the OEA into the Central Labor Council (CLC), but this was blocked by locals (especially those in AFSCME and SEIU) representing other school employees and by some OEA leaders.

Some labor leaders actually defended the District on financial grounds and out of fear of layoffs (rather than cutting the bureaucracy). But many progressive unions in the East Bay, such as SEIU 250, HERE 2850, California Nurses Association, and the UFW, backed the OEA. Dolores Huerta came to visit the strike schools.

“Chop from the Top!”

Amidst all these conflicting factors, the teachers and parents (including a group called Parents for Classrooms First) remained solid, organizing numerous mobilizations, especially for school board meetings, around slogans like “Chop from the Top” and “Erase the Board.”

These involved student activists as well. A tent city was established across from the Board offices in support of hunger strikers backing the “3R’s”; this was led by a Latina clergywoman, Betita Coty. Flying squads of picketers continually showed up at Board members’ residences and workplaces.

Finally, after District vacillation and attempts to mislead the public on a settlement, a tentative agreement was reached on Sunday, March 17th, which on Tuesday, the membership voted over two to one to accept.

The strengths of the agreement on wages included an immediate large bonus (7.4%), a 3.14% increase in the first half of the 1996-97 school year followed by an average gain of nearly 10% with a restructured salary schedule (especially rewarding more course credits and classroom experience), with further increases based on COLA. Class size was reduced significantly.

The specialty prep teachers were retained and a new early retirement program will be implemented. Faculty councils at each site were strengthened. While not embedded in the contact, the District projected a $10 million cut in central administration, although only three top positions have been cut to date.

The downside for many members, were the facts that weaker parts of the bargaining unit (school psychologists and child development center teachers) did not receive comparable pay gains and that there was a proposed reduction (since rescinded) in the number of counselors.

A contract must only be seen as a tool for struggle and continued mobilization at the school sites and in the community. The strike was only one moment in this battle. Teachers and community activists were energized by this effort and enlightened on mass politics, on the need for union unity, and on building labor-community coalitions (including electoral structures independent of the Democratic Party hierarchy). Moreover, through the strike schools, a vision of more liberated institutions, without administrators, was created.

During the strike the internal dynamics of the OEA changed noticeably. The exec board, often divided between progressives and conservatives, was marginalized and a daytoday strike leadership of cluster (groups of schools) contacts was established. Caucuses (especially for people of color) and strike school leaders met regularly.

As a result, a whole new layer of activists and grassroots leaders has emerged and a progressive caucus of over 250 has come together, not just to contest union elections, but to develop an activist agenda around teacher/staff control of schools and labor solidarity. The struggle continues.

ATC 64, September-October 1996