On May 22, the results of the vote by members of the Oakland Education Associations (OEA) were in.
Seventy-two percent of members voted, with a 90 percent approval of a Tentative Agreement that ended the strike. This contrasted with a nearly 40 percent “No” vote at the conclusion of an OEA strike of the same length in 2019.
How do these public school educators strikes compare with each other, as well as with some recent school job actions elsewhere which have at times been called “historic”?
Let’s begin with the timing and legal constraints of the strike before discussing the labor/community organizing issues involved.
One obvious concern was that the strike occurred in the last month of the school year (the 2019 strike had taken place in the early spring, February 21-March 1)This created strong pressures, especially at the secondary level, about end-of-school year issues, around grades, AP testing and graduation, voiced by some students, parents and community groups such as the local NAACP. This key factor was linked to the degree of weak (or at least uneven) internal and community organizing. In the earlier strike, the union had a much greater timeline in which to organize and the level of community outreach was much more extensive. Here there was a much greater tentative outlook for the strike including the addition of ‘Common good’ demands (see below)
There were also a number of factors this time beyond the control of the union, especially the pandemic and the accelerated turnover of members (beyond the already troubling twenty percent a year over the last decade), which were very problematic in the interim between the strikes.
Due to the union’s inability to force the Oakland Unified School District to the bargaining table, there were many unfair labor practice (ULP) rulings involving outright refusal of the District bargaining team to appear. This exposed the District’s goal to push a conclusion until late in the school year, attempting to trap the union in endless negotiations.
The result was a decision by the OEA leadership to wage a ULP strike, supported by the over-fifty-member bargaining team, after seven months of attempted negotiations. Such a job action was legal while the District failed to bargain in good faith. The District sought an injunction, which was immediately rejected by PERB (the Public Employee Relations Board). In 2019, the bargaining process involved impasse and fact-finding, which avoided any limits on an open-ended strike.
It is also worth noting that the one-day OEA strike in 2022 around school closures was also a ULP strike.
After a vote to strike was approved with over ninety percent voting “Yes,” the OEA moved ahead with a call for a ULP strike beginning on Thursday, May 4, with less than four full weeks remaining in the school year. The action was quite successful at the start, with only a handful of teachers crossing the picket line; the District required administrators to sit in near-totally empty buildings. The schools were devoid of their 34,000 students and 3,000 credentialed employees (teachers, counselors, psychologists, nurses, early childhood educators, adult education instructors, and substitute teachers).
The strike had been sanctioned by the Alameda Labor Council (Keith Brown, former OEA president, is now its secretary-treasurer). The other main unions in the District (SEIU 1021, AFSCME and Teamsters) did not strike, but many members did not report to work and some came to the picket lines. Other workers, such as UPS drivers, generally did not cross the picket lines.
At one point, a group of more militant OEA members set up picketing at construction sites involving new office space for the District; this involved some disputes, but also discussions, with construction workers.
All these details raise larger questions: was there a clear strategic vision in this process? Were there alternatives, and what was/was not achieved in the settlement?
Unlike 2019, there was not a strong organizing plan, though there were efforts to involve segments of the community, such as the Black Organizing Project. OEA members proved unable to develop ongoing communication with many other Oakland political groups.
The internal organizing was also uneven. Some of this was due, as mentioned, to the pandemic and turnover. However, much division in the OEA ranks was caused by lingering frustrations around how the 2019 strike ended (with little discussion involving members and supporters before a sudden Tentative Agreement; one which fell well short on compensation) and differences on how to respond to the COVID-19 negotiations (there had been a separate bargaining team just for new provisions around COVID-19/safety, and with a considerable number of distinct Memoranda of Understanding around distance learning, staffing, and later, of course, around the return to school). In response, members engaged in protests and wildcat actions, which demonstrated some militancy, but not a coherent vision forward, even as negotiations for the new contract began in the late fall of 2022, with an expanded (50-plus members) bargaining team.
An oppositional current emerged in the OEA, both within the leadership and outside it (much from the former Crisis Action Team). They took on a simple appellation as the “Rank-n-File Caucus” and ran candidates for union officers/board seats in an election which occurred just as the strike was unfolding (only one of their members won, the former head of the Crisis Action Team) It should be noted that a clear majority in both the leadership and opposition caucuses are self-identified socialists, with DSAers on both sides (the union president and co-chair of the bargaining team are members of East Bay DSA).
The opposition said little about the bargaining team’s main demands, but offered an alternative strategy, initially proposing a series of escalating actions and a rejection of the dysfunctional bargaining process . The Rank-n-File Caucus also proposed preparing for strike action early in the following school year, with better preparation and greater community support. The clear problem is that lacking significant, short-term improvements, especially around compensation, many members would have fled the District, along with many students and their families. This would have brought the process back to square one and allowed the possibility of imposition.
What was achieved in the contract, and how did the strike impact the strength of the union? On compensation, there was a modest, but significant gain–roughly ten percent (retroactive), ranging from $2,000-$3,700, with a consolidation of the different steps on the pay scale, generally helping the newer teachers most. There was also a $5,000 bonus. This made some inroads against wages lost as a result of the 2019 settlement, which included no language addressing cost-of-living inflation. This only highlighted the fact that Oakland educators are the lowest paid in Alameda County, and in the bottom half-dozen in the state.
There was no significant change in class size, an increase in the number of support personnel (counselors, nurses, etc.), limited gains for special education teachers–a very strong and emotional issue with many of the most militant members and community activists.
But the most visible part of the negotiations had centered around “common good demands.” (Such efforts had emerged more than a decade ago with organizing by the CTU and continued in contract battles in Los Angeles, St Paul, and elsewhere.) These varied from demanding the use of District properties to house unhoused students to environmental justice issues (which were front and center for student militants), transportation issues, more support for newcomers, and programs in the arts.
There was a reiteration and acceptance of the demand for a task force to deal with issues at any site with forty percent or more Black and Brown students; the Board had already set up such a body, which had done virtually nothing. Moving forward, however, the big question surrounds the emergence of “community schools.” These are programs with wrap-around services for students and the community, and promise shared decision-making. These are being funded by over a hundred-million dollars, including $60 million locked into the state budget, for Oakland (and billions in state and federal money for many California school districts). The real question is who will control these funds and what mechanisms at the school site will set priorities. This is a critical question for the future, not resolved by the strike, that will necessitate considerable organizing.
The resolution was to deal with these common good issues through a series of Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs), as we did extensively during the pandemic. The majority of the school board had refused all along to bargain on ANY issues that were not mandatory according to the state education code. The fact that the OEA members forced the District to retreat on this was quite significant, even if the language technically falls outside the contract. The main problem is that almost every MOU has a legal escape clause.
The gains that were made were largely due to the initiative of many newer, younger educators who brought energy to the picket lines, helped organize rallies and marches (despite the reticence of the ever-present staff from the California Teachers Association, CTA, of which OEA is part), and brought their creativity. One must also acknowledge the persistence of the bargaining team and support provided by members of East Bay Democratic Socialists of America (DSA has over twenty OEA members), who raised over $30,000 to provide food (“Bread for Ed”) and mobilized for the picket lines.
What is the balance sheet of this strike? One could assess some important gains around compensation and the “common good” demands, which lay the basis for further organizing, especially around the “community schools” and special education programs.
Many new members felt more empowered, despite attempts by the CTA officialdom to control every move (this also exposed the role of this bureaucracy); there was not the same deflation as in 2019. Members came to prioritize further outreach to the community and parents, and preparation for the next school board election (several local politicians on the School Board and City Council were also exposed in the process of the strike).
One could say there were modest advances, combined with a tactical retreat, due to the timing of the strike and insufficient preparation (for example, unlike 2019, there was no preparation for strike schools, important at the elementary level, and a small advance of these, initiated by supportive parents, as the strike proceeded). This is not to minimize the efforts of the members and the bargaining team. But one should be hesitant to label this strike (and similar campaigns) as “historic,”which is how some in the OEA leadership and some in DSA describe it. We must always attempt to give as honest an appraisal as possible with our union colleagues, other working-class and left activists, and the community.
Featured image credit: San Francisco Public Press; modified by Tempest.
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Bill Balderston is a member and organizer for the Oakland Education Association.