Why Oakland’s Striking Teachers Won

Though educators did not achieve all their demands, Oakland’s teachers strike transformed the city, won important gains, and empowered educators to take on the billionaire education privatizers.

Oakland Unified School District students, teachers and parent carry signs as they march to the Oakland Unified School District headquarters on February 21, 2019 in Oakland, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty

After seven days of striking, Oakland’s educators voted on Sunday to ratify a tentative agreement with the district. Though it falls short of many members’ raised expectations, the new contract is a significant step forward: it grants educators an 11 percent pay raise and also includes gains on issues like class size and support-staff ratios.

But it would be a mistake to judge the strike’s outcome only on the basis of the final contract provisions. The big wins lie elsewhere.

Oakland’s walkout has energized and transformed tens of thousands of teachers, students, and community members to fight for more. Educators have felt their own power — and they have recognized their class enemies. Though the war to save Oakland schools is far from over, after this strike, the city will never be the same.

A Remarkable Strike

Under the inspiration of the national teachers’ revolt, and with the blessing of a newly elected militant leadership, a torrent of working-class creativity and self-activity was unleashed during Oakland’s strike. In many ways, Oakland resembled the bottom-up, effervescent upsurge of West Virginia much more than the systematically and meticulously prepared Los Angeles strike.

Whereas the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) had four years to build up to their work action, the new leadership of the Oakland Education Association (OEA) headed by Keith Brown, Ismael Armendariz, and Chaz Garcia had had only six months and little organizational infrastructure to work with. This dynamic created both the space, and the need, for educators to step up at their workplaces.

The strike’s main achievement was in empowering thousands of teachers, support staff, and students. Activities like organizing an effective picket line, leading chants, building turnout for marches, and explaining strike demands to parents could not have happened without the rapid emergence of hundreds of new leaders. Some of this groundswell transformed the union’s lower-level structures; much of it remained semi-autonomous, particularly in those high schools that had organized wildcat sickouts in the lead up to the strike.

Evelyn Ramirez, a first-grade teacher at Melrose Leadership Academy, put it well:

Almost overnight, because of this action, we realized our capacity as organizers, and we gained a lot more awareness of what’s going on in our city. Through my experiences over the past week and a half, I now know what solidarity really means and feels like. We’re united now.

The normal routines of daily life broke down over the course of the strike. All day, every day, people talked politics for hours on end.

Tim Marshall — a middle school science teacher, strike cluster leader, and member of the Democratic Socialists of America — noted, “Just a few weeks ago at my school site, only a few people were interested in talking about how to stop privatization, closures, and charters. But now that’s the only thing anybody wants to discuss.” This transformation was not limited to educators: students of all ages walked the picket lines, spoke at rallies, and drew political signs — many reflecting a remarkable degree of class consciousness — in support of both themselves and their teachers.

Above all, the strike changed the narrative about the roots of the Oakland school crisis. School board members were exposed as billionaire-bought operatives seeking to dismantle the public school system for the benefit of private interests. Board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge may be forced to resign after she was filmed on Friday choking a strike captain protesting a board proposal to impose budget cuts.

Despite frequent rain showers, Oakland had some of the most lively picket lines in recent memory. Beginning as early as 5 AM, singing, dancing, and chanting were the norm. The strike’s spirit was distinctively Oakland. While Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going to Take It” was the anthem of the red strike rebellions, Oakland’s rallies were boosted by hip-hop artists like Boots Riley, Zion I, Mistah F.A.B., and Bambu. One highlight was the Latino family in Lucha Libre masks that drove around town in their low rider, stereo on full blast, to support the teachers.

Particularly given the rushed nature of the strike’s preparation, the level of community support was exceptional. Whereas the 1996 Oakland strike fractured in the face of racial divisions, the OEA this time successfully highlighted the fight against structural racism, raised important “common good” demands for students, and forged a deep solidarity between teachers and parents of all backgrounds. A sense of moral urgency infused the strike: this was an action to save Oakland from billionaire gentrifiers and privatizers intent on pushing both teachers and working-class families of color out of the city.

Neighbors supported strikers with food, car honks, kind words, and the generous use of their bathrooms. No less important was the solidarity demonstrated by other workers. Charter school educators organized wildcat strikes at ten Oakland charters. Some school security guards in SEIU Local 1021 refused to cross the picket lines and unions from across the Bay Area turned out in big numbers for the midday rallies. From across the state, UTLA and the California Teachers’ Association donated resources and staff to help the cause. And this past Thursday, dozens of teachers in San Francisco organized sickouts to support their Oakland brothers and sisters.

One of the most important innovations of Oakland’s strike was the creation of dozens of “solidarity schools” that cared for hundreds of children across the city with no other place to go (other than crossing the picket line). Organized in rec centers and churches, and staffed entirely by strikers and community leaders like Pastor Anthony Jenkins, these spaces constituted a clear point of continuity with Oakland’s radical solidaristic traditions going back to the 1946 general strike and the Black Panthers in the 1960s.

Ramirez recalled her highlight of the strike: “For me, the most powerful moment was when our march on Tuesday passed by a solidarity school. As we were marching by, all the students came outside cheering to show their support. Just looking at them — it really grounded everyone. That’s who we’re doing this for. We’re fighting for our kids — no surprise that most are black and brown — to get a quality education.”

Another exceptional aspect of Oakland’s action was the Bread for Ed campaign. Initiated by the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America, the effort soon came to include hundreds of volunteers and over twenty community and radical organizations. With a budget of over $170,000 funded by small donations from across the country, and run entirely by volunteer labor, Bread for Ed fueled the “solidarity schools” and picket lines, in addition to providing over four thousand distinct meals a day. In a city where 73 percent of students depend on free or reduced meals at school, this level of solidarity was an important factor in allowing strikers and families to hold out as long as they did.

Bread for Ed coordinator Molly Armstrong recalls how moving it was to witness the outpouring of support received, among other places, at their daily Costco trips: “We’d have these huge bulk item carts stacked with pizzas — it was really unwieldy and drawing a lot of attention. So people started coming up to me asking out of the blue, ‘Is this for the teacher strike? How can I help?’ and they were so happy to clear the way for us.” Big strikes are made up of many small acts of solidarity.

Assessing the Outcome

There’s no action as powerful as a strike, and no organization as powerful as a union, for transforming working people and forcing employers to meet their demands. Though the final agreement fell short of many members’ expectations, it was nevertheless a significant victory given the unfavorable context facing Oakland educators.

Last May, the district was offering only a 1 percent pay raise. For a workforce already struggling to survive in a city with skyrocketing housing prices, this would not have caught up salaries with inflation. Moreover, it was a de facto pay cut since the raise was made contingent on an increased workload. So it’s no small achievement that through their push for a strike, and the work stoppage itself, OEA and its members forced cash-strapped district leaders to cede an 11 percent raise.

Beyond the salary increase — and the empowerment and politicization of educators — the strike also won modest gains in class sizes and support staff ratios for students. And like in LA, Oakland’s School Board leader Aimee Eng was forced by the strike to declare her support for a resolution encouraging a moratorium on charter schools.

Yet on the critical question of school closures, the strike won only the promise of a five-month moratorium. In part because the announcement of the closures proposal came on the eve of the strike, neither the union leadership nor the rank and file ever fully committed to prioritizing this issue. But if Oakland’s district leaders and their corporate backers are able to move forward with their plans to close twenty-four of Oakland’s eighty-six schools, this will mark the beginning of the end for OEA and public education in the city.

Strikes are powerful weapons, but they are not magic wands. Weighing the pros and cons of the contract, and assessing whether staying out on strike could have won more, requires a concrete analysis of the economic context, and political relationship of forces, facing Oakland educators and their union.

In terms of strike momentum, student attendance remained very low, but teacher participation on the picket lines peaked this past Wednesday and was beginning to drop on Thursday and Friday. High schools were bastions of militancy — many had organized wildcat actions leading up to the strike and their teachers and students certainly could have continued striking for longer.

Yet educators at numerous elementary and middle schools were clearly getting tired and anxious by late last week. By Friday, March 1, more than a few teachers I spoke with on the picket lines underscored their financial inability to continue striking much longer.

The absence of a robust structure for rank-and-file deliberation within OEA made it hard for either the leadership or the ranks to gauge the overall mood and how to best move forward. Given the union’s relatively weak infrastructure, the limited time frame of its strike preparation, and the uneven readiness of members to keep striking, there was no easy answer to the question of whether it made sense to attempt to push forward.

Instead of reaching a deal on Friday, the OEA leadership conceivably could have attempted to rally its members and community supporters for another week of striking and escalating actions. But it’s hard to say with any certainty whether such a wager should have been attempted.

Given the Oakland Unified School District’s long-standing budget woes, it’s far from obvious that even another strong week of striking would have been enough to significantly change the content of the agreement. Unlike in Los Angeles, where the union was able to show that the district had a $1.86 billion surplus, OEA was never able to articulate a clear vision of where exactly the funds for its demands should come from. Though the union rightly complained about administrative bloat in the district, winning major funding concessions would likely have required intense statewide pressure upon Sacramento to have abolished Oakland’s unjust school debt or to have granted some form of emergency funding.

Despite some lip service, neither Governor Gavin Newsom, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond, nor the Democratic supermajority in the legislature took any significant action to back Oakland educators. Events yet again have shown why workers and unions can’t rely on, or expect support from, the Democratic Party. And while a statewide public education movement is now emerging in California, it was too weak to have generated the political power required to force Sacramento’s hand.

Strikes are necessary — but they aren’t enough on their own. The types of systematic transformations envisioned by OEA, UTLA, and educators across the United States will require directly confronting the billionaires on a political level.

Many Oakland teachers were understandably disappointed on Friday when they read the content of the final proposed agreement. But it’s important to keep in mind that this has been the case in every single education strike over the past year. In West Virginia, the 2018 walkout ended without having won educators’ main demand — a fix to their public health insurance — resulting in many public expressions of outrage. The same was true in Los Angeles, where large groups of educators sharply criticized the contract because it fell short of what their students deserved.

On the whole, these expressions of disappointment, and rank-and-file pushes for “No” votes, are positive manifestations of the rapid empowerment and union engagement generated by these strikes. Only a few years ago, a contract without any major concessions — even one without a major pay raise — would rightly have been seen as a victory. But educators, particularly after the transformative experience of these strikes, are no longer content to accept the status quo.

A disjuncture between heightened hopes and the final contract agreement has been particularly felt in Oakland because of the district’s dire financial situation, the exceptionally inspiring feel of the strike, and because the OEA leadership did not attempt to lower its members political expectations either before or during the action. By pushing such an ambitious set of “common good” demands, and by fighting so hard over seven days of shuttered schools, the union dramatically changed Oakland’s political dynamics, while simultaneously setting the stage for disappointment among significant layers of teachers and students.

To its credit, the OEA — by approving a rank-and-file resolution insisting upon a twenty-four-hour discussion and voting period — organized the most democratic ratification process that this strike wave has yet seen. Whereas many other union leaderships unilaterally declared an end to their walkouts and essentially imposed agreements upon their memberships, Oakland educators were granted the weekend to deliberate. With strikes looming in Sacramento and San Ramon, unions would do well to follow OEA’s example on this question.

Ultimately, over 60 percent of the union voted in favor of the agreement at Sunday’s membership meeting. This relatively split vote reflects the fact that the agreement is both a real step forward and significantly less than what is needed for Oakland public schools. Regardless of how teachers voted, the vast majority agree that the struggle to defend and transform public education in Oakland has just begun.

No Time to Waste

Though teachers may understandably feel like they need weeks or months of rest and recovery, there’s no time to lose in the battle around state funding and, especially, school closures. Winning these struggles will require immediately deepening the movement’s level of organization.

Crucial to this will be cohering Oakland’s new worksite leaders and semi-autonomous networks to fight together with, and as part of, the union. And since this battle against privatization and underfunding cannot be won in Oakland alone, the next phase of the struggle also has to be part of a massive statewide movement — notably, to pass a statewide charter moratorium and to approve a 2020 ballot initiative to end Prop 13’s infamous commercial tax loopholes.

Though there will be many battles ahead, Oakland educators deserve to celebrate their victory. The momentum, militancy, and workplace power generated by this strike is a game changer for the city’s schools and political trajectory. There are good reasons why Evelyn Ramirez at Melrose is more optimistic than ever: “We all realize that this is just the start. It’s going to take a lot of work over many years to defeat the privatizers — but after this strike, I feel confident that we can win.”