Strikes Work Better When They’re Organized Democratically

Kindergarten teacher Tyler Dupuis went on strike with Oakland teachers in 2019 and Seattle teachers this fall. It’s not a coincidence that Oakland won more than Seattle: when it comes to strikes, militancy and member mobilization get the goods.

Teachers, students, and supporters march down International Boulevard toward a rally at Roots International Academy in Oakland, California, on February 26, 2019. (Jane Tyska / MediaNews Group / Mercury News via Getty Images)

I’ve been a teacher for six years now, long enough to get familiar with the problems in our education system. I’ve taught combination grade classes, and classes filled with twenty-seven students where I was the only adult and the only one who knew how to tie shoes. I’ve taught in schools where the nurse was only present once a week, where many of the students were newcomers to the country and still learning English, and where administrative support generally amounted to “just do your best.”

In the last three years, I’ve also gone out on strike twice, first with the Oakland Education Association and then with the Seattle Education Association. Both times, our demands were for better supports for students, more nurses and psychologists, supports for multilingual and special education students, and better pay for ourselves. The demands at the heart of the two strikes were similar, but the experiences were very different — and the differences impacted the results. In Oakland, we were militant and confrontational on the picket line, but in Seattle, we could have pushed much harder, and it shows in what we won and what we didn’t.

Before moving to Seattle, I lived in Oakland, where educators went on strike in the beginning of 2019. While our wins were modest in Oakland compared to what we really need, the approach to striking was very different from what I experienced this year in Seattle. In Oakland, the union leadership made a clear enemy of the district, whose underfunding of our schools meant we had the lowest pay of all surrounding districts, packed class sizes, and only eleven nurses for nearly thirty thousand students. We began preparing for a potential strike months in advance, and we pushed back hard against a district that was not only refusing our demands but intending to gut the system even further by closing several neighborhood schools.

Our leadership in Oakland was militant, having been elected as a reform slate a year earlier. The slate had read Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age in order to prepare for the organizing and negotiations ahead. The strike came at the end of January 2019. At the conclusion of every strike day, after we broke down pickets, the entire membership came together. One day, we met for a mass rally in Oscar Grant Plaza outside of City Hall and then marched to the offices of a charter school organization that was pulling students from our public schools, essentially defunding them. Another day, we marched down International Boulevard to the schools that, due to this continual defunding and subsequent student attrition, were slated to be closed. Our militancy was felt across the city. Toward the end of the strike, we even considered partnering with the local ILWU to shut down the Port of Oakland — potentially costing the city millions of dollars — in order to have our demands heard and met, though the plan didn’t come together before the six-day strike concluded.

Many of the conditions in Seattle schools are similar to those I faced in Oakland. After three years in Seattle, I was excited by the prospect of a potential strike. A strike meant that our office workers, teaching assistants, and paraeducators might get a large pay raise, which would help the district fill those positions. Understaffing takes a toll: in my very full kindergarten class, I saw students miss out on services because their teaching assistant, psychologist, or other support staff were so overworked that they couldn’t keep a regular schedule. When the TA wasn’t there, my students receiving their services struggled, which meant I had to devote an enormous amount of energy to keeping them on track rather than teaching the rest of the class. It seemed to me that there was enough work for these support positions that they should be doubled or tripled. Instead, at the end of last year, these positions were cut or reduced to half-time.

As promising as a strike sounded, I was skeptical that we would pull it off, given that talks about a potential workplace action began only a week prior to the start of school. All communications stressed the collaborative nature of the discussions in the bargaining room. Contrary to the adversarial approach in Oakland, Seattle Public Schools was referred to as a “partner” in negotiations, and a strike seemed like it would only occur as the next logical step in a series of negotiation tactics.

When we did strike in Seattle, we started strong on the picket line. But after the day was done, we broke down the pickets and went home, unlike in Oakland, where we regrouped. My school is small and located on a quiet neighborhood street, so after a couple of days, my coworkers and I felt a bit low-energy. We eagerly awaited an escalation tactic that would demonstrate our strength and bring us together as a union. Instead, for the third day — a Friday, the final day of action before a weekend — we were told that we’d be performing a “community service event” that was up to us to decide on. That didn’t feel like it was going to impress on the district how dedicated we were to maintaining the strike for as long as we needed in order to win our demands. Thankfully, at the last moment, some militant members at a local high school pulled together an event for all the nearby schools. We decided we would pick up trash as we made our way there, to fit the community service theme. But even so, leadership was firm: we could not call it a rally, nor a mass picket. We could pick up trash as we walked, but it was not a march or parade, and we were to leave picket signs behind at our school sites.

Though the event itself was powerful and energetic, the four hundred of us present were a fraction of the six-thousand-member strong rally we could have held at the bargaining offices or the district headquarters, as some members had suggested. I learned later that there was a plan for an all-member rally at some point in the future. But it seemed that union leadership, like the district, was eager to end the strike quickly and hadn’t seriously planned further actions. We never even set up a strike fund, though lost pay was cited as an urgent reason to return to work when the strike drew to a close.

The tentative agreement was reached near midnight on the fourth day, with a rushed general membership meeting held the next morning to end the strike with several concessions. The district was playing hardball, we were told, and though the bargaining team managed to fight back against most of the proposed cuts, our gains were minimal. Our lowest paid members, who currently compete in pay and benefits with a local burger joint, would receive the same pay bump as our highest paid members, which still fell short of inflation, making it likely that many of those positions will go unfilled. Teacher-student ratios for multilingual and special education students, which the district wanted to do away with, would remain the same and then increase over the following years. And class sizes were not addressed at all, meaning my kindergarten class will continue to have a maximum of twenty-six students to be taught by a single adult. For the next three years, until we can renegotiate, I’ll have to continue to expend most of my energy simply holding my classroom together, rather than getting creative in my teaching to help students flourish.

Strikes are the most powerful tool workers have at our disposal. But they can’t be deployed simply as a next step in a series of behind-the-scenes negotiation tactics. They must be militant and disruptive in order to be maximally effective, or else the company or district can simply choose to ignore them and leave workers’ demands unmet. Holding a picket sign isn’t enough. We need mass militant action to make real change.