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Union Members Try to Support Oakland General Strike

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Steve Rhodes/Flickr

A supporter of SEIU in Sept. 2011.

By Mina Kim

Thousands of people are expected to march as part of a general strike by Occupy Oakland today. Some will picket banks, and others will march to the Port of Oakland, underscoring the argument that the country's top one percent of income earners should pay more taxes.

Many local union workers are trying to support the general strike, without breaking the rules of their contracts.

Aaron Stark is a special education teacher at Oakland's Maxwell Park Elementary. He's taking the day off today to participate in the general strike. Stark says after years of budget cuts to public schools, his message is: reinvest in public education.

Stark: I think for a long time now, teachers have felt somewhat disrespected in the national discourse. We feel like we are blamed often for what seems like the failings of the public school system.

The Oakland teacher's union worked with the district to approve personal days for teachers like Stark who want to support Occupy Oakland. The hitch is teachers needed to find a substitute. The school district says some 260 teachers have called in for subs. Stark says initially all the teachers at Maxwell Park Elementary wanted to participate.

Stark: It's a difficult thing to go on strike as a teacher. Especially when you're not striking against the school district, because many people feel -- or the teachers feel -- it's just as a strong an act, and showing of a commitment to the community to come in and work as a teacher every single day.

The trick for the Oakland teacher's union and many other unions, is that members can't strike while under contract. That's leaving unions looking for other ways to support the strike.

Liz Jacobs is with National Nurses United. She says nurses are required by law to give 10 days notice to hospitals before a work stoppage -- so some members will be showing up at the strike between shifts.

Jacobs: We're staffing a nurses first aid station, so you should see a pretty good contingent of nurses out there throughout the day.

As for Oakland city workers, the Service Employees International Union asked the city to allow workers who want to participate to use vacation days or other paid time off. City spokeswoman Karen Boyd says the requests need to come through supervisors.

The Oakland Police Department is on mandatory staffing.

And that's putting police officers in a bad spot, says Sargent Dom Arotzerena. He's president of the Oakland Police Officers Union. Arotzerena says it's pitting city workers against the police and a lot of his officers are tired of being the bad guys in this situation,

Arotzarena: You know were not far away from the 99% of the people that are in this Occupy Wall Street movement. We want to support their cause and allow them to peacefully protest.

Sometimes supporting the cause hasn't been easy for other unions. Josie Camacho is head of the Alameda Labor Council. She's used to labor organizations having a lot of structure to them, so she says it's been a learning process working with Occupy Oakland, a self-described leaderless group.

Camacho: I went to one of their assembly sessions, and I went out there and I went to speak, and they were interrupting me. But not in a bad way. They had their structure, and I said, 'hold on you guys you need to be a little patient because I don't understand this process of you can do eight words at a time.'

One of Oakland's most notable general strikes was back in 1934. That strike followed a walkout by longshore workers and weeks of clashes between police and strikers. This time, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has not authorized a strike, but some longshore workers say it would be tough to cross a strong community picket line.

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