How We Organized The Oakland Teachers Strike

Oakland teachers marching down the street en masse with two bullhorns and a sign.

Oakland teachers struck in February. Low wages and bad conditions are causing high turnover. Photo: Joe Brusky.

We organized a seven-day strike last February and March that united 3,000 Oakland public school educators with parents and community against a billionaire-backed school board.

By striking, we forced our boss to double the compensation offer, take all concessions off the table, and admit that privatization was hurting our kids.

Here’s how we organized a shutdown seven months into our first year in office.

STARTED WITH A VISION

Each year 18 percent of teachers have been pushed out of Oakland schools by low wages and frustrating dysfunction. Most continue working in education, just elsewhere. Some schools saw 80 percent turnover in three years.

Despite years of courageous resistance—including a one-day strike, work-to-rule, and numerous protests—this crisis had only worsened. And our union had atrophied. More than a quarter of our schools had no elected officer or steward.

Our leadership slate, called “Build Our Power,” grew out of a reading group where we studied Jane McAlevey’s book No Shortcuts. We saw that too many members were disengaged from negotiations, despite the high stakes. So we asked our co-workers to elect us to organize and revitalize rank-and-file power.

We took office in summer 2018, a year into an expired contract, with negotiations at an impasse.

Billionaires Target Oakland

A financial crisis led to the state takeover of Oakland Unified School District in 2003. On the pretext of balancing the budget, the state administrator closed many district schools. Charter schools frequently reopened on the same sites.

The district is back under local control, but Michael Bloomberg, Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and others have spent more than half a million dollars to buy three seats on the school board.

Across the country billionaires are buying schools boards and taking control away from public school districts to create competition-based “portfolio districts” where schools compete for resources and support, with “investments” going to successful schools while struggling schools get abandoned.

We have fought off the most overt elements of the portfolio model, but the board majority is continuing to implement the model piecemeal. Through cuts and school closures, the board and the billionaires have starved our schools and our students of the resources they need.

Our first task was developing a strategic plan to settle a good contract. We believed that our employer wouldn’t get serious without a strike, or at least the very credible threat of one.

We enlisted the help of an experienced strike organizer from our parent union. We put pen to paper and mapped out a month-by-month plan to win.

Our theory of power is that a strong union is built at the worksite. So we—officers, the executive board, and the organizing team—assessed the status of each of our 85 schools with the data we had available, like membership density, number of elected stewards (if any), and member participation in “hour of power” informational picketing, a coordinated protest at busy intersections around the city.

Instead of asking our site representatives (stewards) to just do more work, we asked every school to form “site organizing squads.” Organizing team leaders offered half-day trainings over the summer, using the Labor Notes book Secrets of a Successful Organizer to teach the basics of organizing to small groups of teachers.

“Educators know the injustices we see daily at our schools,” said teacher Kampala Taiz-Rancifer, our organizing committee co-chair. “The summer workshops bridged the gap between our anger and our capacity to do something about it.”

We tracked who came to the trainings and to our monthly Representative Council. Schools that were absent got visits from leaders and union staff, who spent all day talking to teachers one on one during their breaks to find out who the natural leaders were and to lay the groundwork for electing stewards and forming organizing squads.

We got serious about running monthly structure tests—participatory actions that not only pressured the employer but also showed us where our strong and weak spots were. We used sign-in sheets zealously to track which schools showed up to citywide rallies. We deployed and redeployed leaders to schools that weren’t participating.

“Seeing the participation data helped reluctant stewards know that momentum was on our side, even if their individual worksite had cold feet,” said teacher Carrie Anderson, an organizer for her geographic cluster of schools.

Our weekly Thursday night organizing team meetings mushroomed from just a handful of teachers in August to more than 50 by December.

All elected stewards got to review the participation data—even when the results weren’t ringing endorsements of union strength. This helped everyone understand why we timed the districtwide strike for February even though several schools had organized wildcat strikes as early as December.

LEARNED FROM OTHERS

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We asked people, without judgment, why they weren’t engaged in union actions. Early on, many people told us they didn’t really know what we were asking for at the bargaining table. Even our biggest supporters were more often showing up on principle, rather than from a belief that our actions mattered.

So we chose a theme for our bargaining: ending the teacher retention crisis in Oakland. We hit the employer hard for the constant turnover that destabilized schools. And we offered a straightforward solution that teachers and parents could get behind: raise wages, lower class sizes, and add more student supports.

We borrowed liberally from teacher strikes elsewhere. Conversations with West Virginia and Arizona strike leaders pushed us to get more comfortable with social media. We started livestreaming updates after every fruitless bargaining session.

We borrowed from United Teachers Los Angeles—their PowerPoints, their handouts, their memes. Most important, we saw how they changed the narrative about privatization. So we started naming the billionaires like New York ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg who kept spending in Oakland school board elections to elect privatization-friendly candidates.

Today nearly 1 in 3 children in Oakland attends a charter school. Charters are mostly non-union. Since most California schools are funded by the state per pupil, the proliferation of charter schools diverts resources away from public schools.

Last year, researchers estimated that charter schools cost our school district $57 million. That’s $1,500 less in funding for each student who attends a neighborhood school. This has contributed to Oakland educators becoming the lowest-paid teachers in the county.

This political education helped our members and the community to understand the roots of the crisis. The failure to fully fund Oakland schools was specially named as a racial justice issue, in a school district that is overwhelmingly students of color.

With help from our national union, we held a weekend “Art Build” where we invited parents and children to make art for the strike. We paid artists to guide the rest of us through screen printing and banner painting. The media ate up the ready-made visuals as pro-union parents and students painted stunning parachute strike banners.

Back in August 2018, when we circulated a petition supporting our bargaining demands, only 35 percent of members signed. But by January 2019, 95percent of members participated in the strike authorization vote.

Gains and Misses

Gains:

  • Eleven percent raise over three years, plus 3 percent bonus
  • First class-size reduction in grades 4-12 since 1982
  • Additional class-size reduction at 45 schools with very high-needs students
  • Lower caseloads for counselors, resource specialists, psychologists, and speech therapists
  • Additional staffing for newcomer (recent immigrant) students
  • Thirty percent raise for substitute teacher daily rates
  • Twelve weeks paid leave for child bonding
  • Stronger commitment to recruit and retain teachers of color
  • Rejected concessions on special education, evaluations, work hours
  • Temporary moratorium on school closures
  • School board resolution calling for a moratorium on new charters in Oakland

Misses:

  • Majority of raises come at end of contract, not front-loaded
  • School closure moratorium too brief
  • School nurses caseload not reduced
  • Class size reductions smaller than demanded
  • No progress on special education inclusion language

BIG TEAM NEXT TIME

Our strike was not perfect. We knew some teachers would scab, and they did. Our contract wins felt small compared to our sense of power on strike. The state legislature did not pump more money into our district coffers.

What we’ve won so far isn’t enough. But the high participation in our strike points to a way forward. We’re already looking ahead to the next stage of the struggle, including our next contract campaign, which will start in 2020 just after California voters weigh in on a tax the rich ballot initiative to fund schools and community services.

This last go-round, our union bargaining team consisted of just five teachers plus a union staffer. This small team didn’t have the bandwidth to both prepare for frequent bargaining sessions and make itself available to hear rank-and-file feedback and explain what was going on.

Our next bargaining team will be much larger. Inspired by the Chicago Teachers Union and the “bargaining for the common good” concept, we will have no fewer than 85 bargainers. Every neighborhood in Oakland and every type of educator we represent will be on this team. Community allies and students will be invited to the table as well.

We think this will help break down the artificial barriers between bargaining and organizing in our union and democratize access to information.

What else? We’re quadrupling the size of our grievance committee, to empower members to enforce the contract at the earliest stages instead of putting outside arbitrators in charge of enforcing it months after violations occur.

And we have adopted a new strategic plan with substantial input from the nearly 250 elected leaders in our union this year (one for every 12 members). This plan charts the direction of our union in the fights ahead.

“Before the strike, our school site had the reputation of being a non-union school,” said Marisa Villegas, a teacher at Madison Park Academy. “Joining this staff in an impending strike year gave me a new perspective on what building community looks like.”

“I only hope we don’t have to go through this again anytime soon,” she added. “But if we do need to pick up those picket signs again, we are ready to do it together!”

Keith D. Brown is a middle school teacher and union president. Ismael Armendariz is a special education teacher and first vice president. Chaz Garcia is a peer coach and second vice president.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 490. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.

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