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Classified workers represented by SEIU were on the picket lines with teachers during their strike in February. Now, classified workers are challenging layoffs and low pay.

Oakland Unified School District plans to eliminate 100 classified workers’ positions

on April 24, 2019

Melvin Phillips has worked in Oakland schools for the last 27 years. He is currently the lead school security officer at Fremont High School and he is one of hundreds of classified employees in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). Classified workers include instructional specialists like classroom support staff and tutors, administrative workers, custodians, security officers, and other school staff.

During the Oakland teachers’ strike last month, classified workers joined the teachers on the picket lines in a sympathy strike. Now, with the strike over and the teachers having won higher wages, the school district is following through on planned budget cuts, which are expected to eliminate over 100 classified positions, including college counselors, reading tutors and school security officers. While Phillips believes this will create a problem, he said it’s not unusual—classified workers are laid off nearly every year, which creates understaffing and instability at the schools. “It puts more stress on other workers to carry the heavy load of the work that’s not being done,” he said.

Classified workers are different from certificated staff—teachers, nurses, school psychologists, and other employees whose positions mandate certification or a credential. The two separate bargaining groups are represented by different unions. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) represents classified workers, and the Oakland Education Association (OEA) represents certificated staff.

Nevertheless, the two unions cooperate: Bettie Reed Smith, the president of the OUSD’s classified workers’ SEIU 1021 chapter, wrote during the strike that classified workers were out on picket line “because we recognize this is not just the teachers’ fight, it’s a community fight. This is a fight for our children’s future.”

After the teachers’ union and the school district agreed to a new contract, the Oakland school board voted to make about $22 million in budget cuts. Board members argued that the cuts were necessary to help pay for the new teachers’ contract.

Phillips, who is also the vice-president of SEIU 1021, said that cuts to classified positions have been a consistent disruption throughout his time in the district. And even without cuts, low pay is the biggest challenge for classified workers, who can make anywhere between $25,000 and $40,000 a year, according to Phillips. After 27 years in district, Phillips makes $32,000 a year. Two years ago, he had to move out of Oakland to Antioch because his landlord raised the rent and he couldn’t afford it.

Still, Phillips said, he has it better than some of his fellow classified workers, who are homeless and live in their cars or in shelters. “We see it and hear it all the time,” he said. “They work here, they want to stay here, but there’s no way on the income that they’re making right now.”

Click the audio piece below to hear more about Oakland’s classified school workers.


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