Teachers began protesting outside of Oakland High School early Thursday morning. Photo by Juliette de Guyenro.

Oakland teachers strike for higher wages, smaller classes

on February 21, 2019

Early Thursday morning, Oakland teachers went on strike, calling for a pay raise and a reduction in class sizes. As early as 6 am, teachers gathered—equipped with coffee, jackets, and beanies to withstand the chilly morning weather—and started to picket in front of their schools.

The strike follows two years of failed negotiations between the Oakland Education Association, which represents teachers as well as school nurses, counselors and other staff, and the Oakland Unified School District. The teachers have been working without a contract since July, 2017. The OUSD’s uncertain and challenging budget situation has been a big obstacle during negotiations; the school board is set to vote on about $20 million in budget cuts on Monday and is projecting a $30 million deficit for 2019-20 school year. The two sides remain far apart on the core issues of teacher pay and class size, though there have been recent signs of movement toward an agreement.

A fact-finding report released Friday by a team of three, representing both sides of the negotiations and a neutral chairman, recommended several compromise measures and prompted the school district to release a new offer on Wednesday. But after a last-minute meeting between teachers and district officials, OEA rejected the offer. OEA President Keith Brown said Wednesday afternoon that the proposal did not do enough to offer teachers a living wage in Oakland’s expensive housing market. He also said it “still does not address the needs of our students.”

By Thursday morning, crowds had gathered at several school sites in Oakland, including Oakland High School and the International Community School. At the high school, teachers chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, where did all the money go?” and “When schools are under attack, what do we do? We fight back!” The drivers of almost every passing car honked to support them.

At Castlemont High School in East Oakland, about 50 teachers picketed in front of the school entrance. Some wore red—the color for the national “Red for Ed” movement that spawned teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Los Angeles over the last year. Some wore the green and black colors of the OEA. Others wearing purple were members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), who were out supporting the teachers and refused to cross the picket line.

Heavenly Simpson, a junior at Castlemont, picketed with the teachers. She wore a red armband and held a sign that read: “We demand change. Higher teacher pay.” She said she was there to show support for her teachers and did not want to cross the picket line. “All of their demands are absolutely necessary. Our teachers need to live here so, of course, they need a raise,” Simpson said. “The rent here is getting higher and higher.”

She said that she knew some students who were going to school today because their parents worked and they had no other option. But, she said, she’ll be on the picket line each day, as long as the strike goes on.

For teachers at Roots International Academy, the strike held extra importance. The Oakland school board recently voted to close the East Oakland middle school at the end of this school year. The district has plans to close or merge up to 24 schools over the next few years. Over the last few months, OEA has sought to include the issue of stopping school closures in contract negotiations.

As they picketed in front of the school, Roots teachers chanted: “One: We are the teachers. Two: A little bit louder. Three: We want justice for our students.” In the middle of the marching circle of teachers, two students laid flowers and plants onto a tarp—a reference to the school’s name.

Quinn Ranahan, a math teacher at Roots, said she was striking to stop school closures, in addition to asking for a living wage for teachers and more support for her students. She said the closure vote combined with the strike has taken its toll. “It’s been exhausting. We’ve been fighting a school closure while also strategizing and planning a strike,” Ranahan said. “It’s worth the emotional stress it’s been causing because our students are at the center of what’s happening right now.”

Ranahan was joined by fellow teachers from Coliseum College Prep Academy (CCPA), a 6-12 grade school that shares a campus with Roots. Teachers from both schools—many wearing their black and green OEA t-shirts—were backed up by drums and tambourines as they marched in front of the school. The chants shifted from “Hey hey, ho ho! Where did all the teachers go?” to “Billionaires can’t teach our kids!” Drivers passing by on International Boulevard honked to show their support.

Edgar Sanchez, an 8th and 9th grade teachers at CCPA, said he was energized by the support that teachers are feeling during the strike. Over the blaring car horns, he said that “the district has been defunding education for a such long time, disrespecting the students, the community, the teachers, so it feels good to be out here and push back for what our students deserve.” He wants smaller class sizes and for the district to hire more nurses, psychologists, speech therapists and other staff to support students.

Sanchez has been teaching in Oakland for ten years, and said that recent teacher strikes in Los Angeles, West Virginia, and Denver have really inspired him. “That’s the moment we’re in right now—to really fight and defend public education and to bring back resources that have been taken away from public schools over the last twenty years,” he said. 

As teachers picketed outside of school sites, others rallied in front of Oakland City Hall, where OEA President Keith Brown began the rally by asking the crowd to join him on stage. “Today would not be possible at all without the love and support of the parents. Our parents know that this is a righteous fight,” he said.

“In Oakland we are truly making history today,” he continued, in a speech that spelled out the union’s plea for increased wages, as well as for more mental health services and counselors for students. “We need to provide essential resources for our schools,” he said.

“We need for our school board, we need for our superintendent to see the unity we have today,” Brown said, and ended the rally by leading the crowd in a chant: “When we strike, we win!”

Teachers continued picketing this afternoon as the school day came to a close. At Kaiser Elementary in North Oakland, a group of 25 teachers, parents, and kids came together to support the teachers and to stand against school closures. Parents said that they’ve been told that the district doesn’t have money to keep Kaiser open and that it may have to merge with Sankofa Elementary School.

Margaret Yang, a Kaiser teacher who has taught in the OUSD for 35 years, said there’s no reason Kaiser can’t stay open and doesn’t believe that district officials have a plan. “We’re a small school, just 270 students—we’re a safe space for students who need a quieter space, from families all over Oakland,” she said.

Kathy Lee’s daughter just started kindergarten at Kaiser in the fall. As she watched her daughter—holding a sign that read “Support teachers, support education”—Lee said that Kaiser already felt like home for them. Regarding the strike, she said, “Teachers should be the best-paid people, not the least. But it’s like their work is expected to be an act of charity.”

During a press conference held later in the day, Brown provided updates on the results of the march and announced further plans for Friday. Chaz Garcia, the second vice president of the union, repeated the announcement in Spanish.

Brown said that 85 percent of Oakland teachers were on picket lines this morning. He provided the specific numbers of teachers and students—collected by members of the union who were at those sites—who crossed the line to work at three schools, to showcase the success of the strike. At Fremont High School, 55 teachers and 8 students attended school, according to Brown. At West Oakland Middle School, 15 teachers showed up, but no students. At Manzanita Community School, two students attended.

“We used our collective voice to let Oakland know that our students are at the center,” Brown said.

When asked if the bargaining agreement had changed, Brown said that they didn’t want to bargain via the press—but that teachers felt invigorated by the strike today.

When asked about the 20 members of the union who had reportedly crossed the picket lines today, Brown said the union was committed to investigating whether there had been any intimidation from district management members that may have contributed to that figure.

“I am confident we will win,” Brown said. “I am confident that we will be able to make our students a priority in the city of Oakland.”

Negotiations between the two sides are set to resume on Friday morning.

A rally to support the strikers will be held at 11:30 AM on Friday at de Fremery Park, 1651 Adeline Street.

Text by Wyatt Kroopf. Edward Booth, Juliette de Guyenro, Drew Costley and Annie Berman provided additional reporting and photos for this story. Top photo by Juliette de Guyenro.

Oakland North reporters will be in the field reporting all day; we’ll update this story as well as our Twitter feed @northoaklandnow with new photos and information as it becomes available.

You can listen to an audio piece here of teachers describing their reasons for going on strike as they prepared their picket signs last week.

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