Teachers, Oakland school district strike a tentative deal
on March 1, 2019
On Friday afternoon, just as Oakland’s school board meeting was supposed to start, a union representative wearing red–the symbol of the “Red for Ed” movement that has galvanized teachers’ strikes across the nation–stepped in front of the crowd and announced that teachers and school officials had reached a tentative four-year agreement. If ratified, it will end the strike that has shut down Oakland schools for the last seven days.
Among the provisions: Teachers will receive an 11 percent raise, as well as a 3 percent bonus once their new contract is ratified. Class sizes will be reduced for teachers at all schools, and so will case loads for special education teachers and counselors. (So far, press releases sent out by both sides of the negotiations have not specified exact numbers for these reductions, although the statement from the teachers’ union specifies that class size changes will be “phased in.”)
But the news that drew the loudest cheers from the crowd was an agreement on a five-month moratorium on school closures, and a promise that the school board will ask state education officials to place a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools in California. Earlier this week, the board of education for the neighboring West Contra Costa County School District passed a similar resolution. As Oakland’s strike has evolved over the last week, both issues had become negotiation flashpoints, despite the strike’s original focus primarily on teacher pay and class sizes.
In a press release sent out Friday afternoon, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) officials hailed the agreement and praised the bargaining teams on both sides for working long hours, including overnight, to reach an agreement. “This seven day long strike was difficult for the entire community as it threw much of the city into uncertain waters and disrupted many lives. But it also showed our teachers how appreciated they are by our students, families and all of Oakland,” the release states.
Officials from the Oakland Education Association (OEA), the teachers’ union, in turn celebrated “a win in every major proposal that OEA made” and called the strike “historic,” writing that it “united a community to save public education in Oakland.”
But union officials noted that the strike will not end until the tentative agreement is ratified by a majority vote of union members, and that their group must be given 24 hours to review the terms of the agreement.
Starting at 10 in the morning on Friday, students, teachers and families started gathering outside of the La Escuelita Education Complex, where board meetings are held. They began blocking the building’s many entrances in an effort to prevent the board members from gathering to vote on about $21.75 million in budget cuts for the 2019-20 school year, and up to 150 layoffs.
Strikers had previously shut down a board meeting scheduled for Wednesday, arguing that it would be unfair for school officials to make decisions about budget cuts while in the midst of a contract negotiation. They also argued that if board members crossed the picket line, it would disrespect the wishes of the community. A popular chant on Friday afternoon: “If we don’t get a contract, they don’t get a meeting.”
District officials, meanwhile, had argued in a press release sent on Wednesday that they needed to move forward to make those cuts in order to address the union’s demands. “These reductions are needed to prioritize investing in a raise for our Oakland Education Association (OEA) members that will help students and teachers return to school as soon as possible,” the district’s release stated. “We are disheartened by tactics that directly interfere with the District’s ability to give the teachers a raise, and get students and teachers back into classrooms.”
On Friday morning, District 1 Director Jody London was able to get inside the building, arriving before most of the protesters had shown up. But as the day lengthened, more and more picketers arrived, marching and chanting in front of the entrances, until the crowd size had reached at least 1,000 people. Students from elementary to high school age attended the rally, with the older students leading chants like: “Hey hey, ho ho, where’d the money go?” and “Get up, get down, Oakland is a union town!”
Around 12:30, supporters started serving the protesters pizza and tacos. People took turns eating while others marched, and then switched roles.
At 2 pm, when the board meeting was scheduled to start, people erupted in cheers as the union representative announced that a tentative agreement had been reached. He was joined a few minutes later by OEA President Keith Brown, who offered more details on the agreement.
But shortly after these announcements, there was some confusion among the strikers over whether to keep picketing or to stop and let the school board meeting go forward. Just as the announcement was made, District 3 Director Jumoke Hinton Hodge tried to enter the building, but people followed and blocked her, so she turned around and walked away. “Hold the line until we sign,” others chanted. “It was mass confusion,” said Matt Hayes, a 7th grade history and physical education teacher from Life Academy who observed the scrum.
Overall, Hayes said he was happy with the news of the agreement. “I’m really optimistic,” he said. “I need to look at it more tonight, but the early looks that I’ve seen are really encouraging.” He said that three of the teachers’ central demands–on class size, pay, and help for support staff–seemed to have been well met, but he wasn’t certain that a five-month moratorium on school closures would be long enough to satisfy all union members. “I’m just relieved,” he said of the news that the strike may be about to end, and added that he’s “just ready to go back to my classroom and see my students again.”
Joequisha Hill, a ninth grader at Skyline High School, was not impressed with the tentative agreement. “We deserve what we asked for. Teachers deserve a living wage,” she said. (Teachers had initially asked for a 12 percent raise over three years.)
Hill and other students are still worried about the cuts the school board is set to vote on if the meeting still occurs later today. Student programs like restorative justice and foster youth support could be affected. “It ruined my whole mood today to see board members trying to still make cuts and not listen to the community,” Hill said.
Antonio Brooks, an instructional support specialist in special education at Lafayette Elementary, has joined teachers on picket lines every day of the strike. As a classified, or non-teaching, employee of the school district, he’s a member of SEIU, or the Service Employees International Union. Late Friday afternoon, a number of SEIU members were still picketing to block the entrances to the board meeting because up to 150 classified positions are included in the cuts the board will vote on. “The last thing I want is for cuts on classifieds after we’ve been out here for the teachers’ fight,” Brooks said. “They should cut from the top.”
But OEA President Keith Brown had a more upbeat take, telling a crowd that the strike showed the power of teachers, students, families and community members in Oakland. “We are stronger as a community and we must keep fighting,” he said. “This is the beginning of a fight to make sure that Oakland education is fully funded.”
Heavenly Simpson, a junior at Castlemont High School, said she was on the picket lines almost every day of the strike. “It felt like I had great power,” she said. “It’s been a beautiful act of resistance.”
She said that seeing all of the teachers, nurses, counselors, staff, parents, and other students at rallies and on picket lines was inspiring. “If we weren’t out here fighting every day, then we wouldn’t get these changes that we need,” she said. But, she added, the fight isn’t over. She wants teachers to stand with students as they fight against cuts to student programs. While the work may not be finished, she said, the strike was “the best start ever.”
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