Evaluating the Oakland Teachers’ Strike

Against the Current, No. 200, May/June 2019

Tim Marshall

I WANT TO talk to you about the political lessons of the seven-day strike that we just came out of — and first to thank everyone who contributed in myriad ways on the picket lines and in the marches — every aspect of what I consider to be a victorious strike, and let me explain why, even though some members voted against our contract agreement, and I respect that.

We might discuss that here, as there are probably teachers here who voted either way. Forty-two percent of our members voted against, and 58% in favor of the tentative agreement.

I call it unequivocally a victory, because I’ve been in OEA long enough to know what a defeat is. Defeat is when you get imposed upon, when your leadership fails to organize, to mobilize, to do the things you know are right for your community and your students and your own members. That’s a defeat.

The question that will probably be debated here is whether it’s enough of a victory. We didn’t get everything we hoped for and we didn’t win the schools our students deserve, but I believe we are on good footing for the next round — and this is a long battle that we are going to continue organizing around. That’s political lesson number one.

This wouldn’t have happened without new rank and file leadership in the Oakland Education Association that came forward last year. Last May, our union election brought in Keith Brown, Ismael Armendariz  and Chaz Garcia, and those three leaders transformed the union by opening it up to a kind of rank and file participation we hadn’t seen in many years. That in itself is one of the great victories of this strike.

We’ve transformed OEA from a more passive, bread-and-butter unionism with no real organizing approach, to a fighting union. Even if the strike had lost we would have won something because we organized and mobilized those members — and because we punched a bully in the nose [applause]. Sometimes, even if you think you’re going to get your ass kicked, you have to punch back.

We ran a principled and democratic organizing campaign. We had inherited a giant mess. We had inherited a passive membership. Our bargaining demands were very limited, and to be frank, the charter school horse has been out of the barn in Oakland for a very long time. Thirty percent of our students go to the charter schools, so we had been asleep at the wheel watching charters decimate our local public school system.

We had a lot of work to do, so put that into perspective when you analyze the gains of the teachers’ strike. We had been offered a one percent raise as recently as last May, with increased hours — if you can do sixth grade math as I do, that’s actually a loss. We now have an 11% raise, and significant additional support for our students, including some class size reductions — not everything we hoped for or deserve, but definitely a win.

Reconnecting with Members

We took responsibility, including myself, along with the new leadership, for developing an organizing model, carefully following the example of the Los Angeles teachers and other successful strikes around the country — doing their research — bringing OEA in six months up to speed in what other unions like UTLA had done over four years. We worked hard, we worked fast, we built solidarity.

We rebuilt something that was vital to maintaining our strike, the “cluster system.” Oakland is divided into seven city council districts, which we replicated for the school system. I was the head of Cluster 6, a gigantic cluster containing 15 schools.

The cluster system revitalized rank and file organizing. We brought connections from the OEA leadership to the school sites, which in some cases had been struggling and may not have seen anyone from the union out at their sites in years.

We reconnected with those members, and in a hurry-up fashion brought them up to speed on the OEA’s demands and what was at stake in this struggle. And we were super-successful.

We shut the thing down. Los Angeles didn’t shut down as hard as we shut this thing down [applause]. Ninety-seven percent of our students did not come to school; 95% of our teachers were on strike. That was crucial (better than LA too) [laughter].

We also extended our outreach to community groups with which we had tenuous if any relationships previously. We built things — with the solidarity schools we offered students a safe and productive space during the day, instead of those same students going into the schools and undermining our strength against our bosses. So our ability to get a decent contract, a foothold against the privatizers, was due to these efforts both internal and external.

We had some serious unevenness at our sites. There were sites where I would go in the morning, and people were getting furious because they wanted to know why we were talking about school closures, which we’d never talked about before.

There was a lot of unevenness in our ranks — we have 2500 members, and not all of them read Majority (an East Bay DSA online publication). We were educating on the picket lines about the charter schools, why they’re bad, what the billionaires had at stake in them,  — and it worked.

At my site, we had people at the beginning of the strike who didn’t understand why we would protest at GO (Great Oakland, a pro-charter advocacy group) Public Schools. By the end of the week everyone was more sure, but it took days and it took education — and articles about these issues from different socialist publications were flying around the schools, and I didn’t put them there, so that’s good [applause].

Membership education was another problem we had to overcome. The relatively passive period of the previous leadership created a distance between younger, more militant rank-and-file teachers, people who called themselves “the wildcatters” and the union leadership, even though their aims and tactics were not really that different. There were people who felt alienated from the OEA. We inherited that challenge as well.

One of the things that affected the contract approval vote, and why some felt the victory wasn’t as solid as it could be, was where you sat. In the high schools there was a lot of strength for continuing the strike. In the elementary schools teachers feel closer to and more responsible for the students and their families — we’re there in loco parentis for them every day.

I have two high school daughters who don’t care if they go back to school ever again, so they were going to the protests and having all kinds of fun — so high school teachers may have felt that we could stay out a long time, while more elementary school teachers felt it was time to go back. And that was real.

Transforming What’s Possible

Reasonable people can disagree about the vote, but nobody should disagree that we now have a foothold in our own union, in the community, and we aren’t going to waste that.

We’ve shown what was once just a slogan, “When we strike we win,” is real and we’ve shown that the politics of what is “possible” one day can completely transform — not just in terms of socialist articles and analysis, but as measured by new leaders stepping up at my site who hadn‘t been the slightest bit interested in the union before, now coming forward in a variety of ways, and they are going to be the next generation of leaders in Oakland.

Hopefully our new contract will allow them to afford to stay in Oakland. If they can stay we can build union power, in a way we haven’t ever seen for a long time. We have just tapped into the potential of these young teachers who are ready to fight.

The same thing is true with student activism. Many high school students were involved in supporting our strike. The connections we built are the real manifestation of solidarity.

We’ve received so much love from the students and the parents that we have to do right. We did that on the Thursday immediately following the strike by coming back without a break, without hesitation, to set new goals for the OEA and its community allies, starting now through the month of May and beyond, which will be crucial for mobilizing and for the fight against the privatization of our schools.

We are in a good place now with a more educated membership, and we are going to be pushing that membership to stay active and be vigilant about what’s at stake. We had to educate people about the Board of Education. They are obviously terrible, exposed now almost to a person as being bought and sold by the privatizers and billionaires. That took some work. Most of our membership hadn’t been obsessively watching the school board members as I had, and now some of them are like “Who are those people? They’re bad!” [laughter]

So OEA is transforming itself. The highlights of this strike weren’t just the big marches, but they were the dance lines, the joyful militancy on the picket lines, the putting of demands back where they should be on the state to solve the funding crisis which is all through the state of California, and a disgrace, and of course on the school board.

Rebuilding and Moving Forward

We teachers are rebuilding the tradition of the strike. It’s been more than 23 years since our last real strike here in Oakland. We set up picket lines on the day of the protest at the school board and some of us went around and showed people how to form unbreakable picket lines, and we held those picket lines.

The working-class tradition of picket lines has been largely broken for a generation, so we literally went around and bugged people. We said that “if you’re sitting around having coffee you’re not really on the picket line.” We insisted that this has got to be a really strong strike picket line that you hold so that the school board can’t come in and do their dirty business. We did hold those lines all day and ultimately we turned the school board members away.

We feel that we’ve taken a step forward also as a organizing union. Now we are going to keep organizing around these key issues: dismantling the corporate loopholes of Proposition 13, going to confront the charterizers and privatizers when they come into Oakland, obviously transforming the school board, running democratic socialists and activists [applause] in place of those bought and sold board members.

What we are going to continue to do is socialist education, to make sure people know that the privatizers and charterizers aren’t just some nice people with bad ideas. They are people implementing a strategy of class rule and class domination, which includes the dismantling of public education in the United States.

We have planted the seeds of that struggle and resistance among our members and the communities that supported us during the strike. And when we won we gave people a new energy — to come back and fight against the policies of austerity.

Now we can take up the issues of what the teachers’ union does at the state and national level, and the contradictions of relying on the Democratic Party — and all of those things are more possible now than when we started.

We are part of a strike wave and a winning movement. If the strike had lost it would have been a crushing defeat. Since we won, we’ve kept the pressure on the politicians in Sacramento.

We are going to create a crisis in the state of California in which we will make these schools unmanageable until they start to tax the rich to pay for quality schools, and to demand equity for Black and Brown students, for the working-class majority in California. [applause]

May-June 2019, ATC 200