Oakland High School Teachers Hold One-Day 'Wildcat' Strike Over Wages

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Oakland High School teachers stage a one-day strike on Dec. 10, 2018. (Courtesy Suzi LeBaron)

The vast majority of teachers from Oakland High School — at least 75 of the school's 90 educators — rallied outside City Hall on Monday as part of a one-day strike to protest what they say are low wages and the ineffective tactics of their union.

Oakland Unified School District teachers have been working without a contract since July. The main dispute is over wages. The district has offered a 5 percent raise over five years, but teachers want 12 percent over three years. They are also asking for smaller class sizes and more support services for students, including nurses, psychologists and counselors.

The so-called wildcat strike was not sanctioned by the Oakland Education Association, the teachers union. Teachers say the union’s tactics are top-down and ineffective.

"Now is the time for this movement to happen, and the union is moving too slow," said Alex Webster Guiney, a special education teacher at the school, in advance of the strike. "They need to be supporting the grass-roots movement of their members."

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While the union does not support the strike, Oakland Education Association President Keith Brown said he supports the striking teachers' message, and that he understands the urgency of their demands.

"We understand the frustration of our members at the district," said Brown. "They're tired of the disrespect from the district, and they're tired of being the lowest-paid teachers in Alameda County."

According to science teacher Suzi LeBaron, at least 75 of Oakland High School's 90 teachers took part in Monday's work stoppage.

"I think this is the beginning of escalating action," LeBaron said. "The school knows exactly what it looks like without us here. When we don't show up to do the thing that we love to do, it's a very concentrated impactful message."

In advance of the strike, Oakland High School Principal Matin Abdel said school would stay open. “We are prepared to create a safe and productive space for our students,” Abdel said.

The striking teachers told the district of their plans in advance. The school hired substitutes and consolidated classes throughout the day.

"We did our due diligence," LeBaron said. "We chose a date that we thought would cause the least interference in the students' semester. We gave fair warning to our principal. We've done everything we could do to make sure parents knew they had the choice to come join us, or keep their kids home from school, or send their kids to school to have a marginal school day."

LeBaron said she also talked to her students about the strike, and about what Oakland High teachers are fighting for.

"I think every teacher here today has been very upfront with their students about where the exact issues are. My senior class and I looked at comparative salaries of the different districts around the area and they were horrified. What we are doing today is a form of teaching. We are showing our students through our example what you can do when somebody is not treating you fairly."

LeBaron estimated that the striking Oakland High teachers were joined by at least two dozen educators from Oakland's Madison Park Academy and Fremont High School.

Teachers say the cost of living in Oakland has made it hard to live on a teacher’s salary, and OUSD teachers have some of the lowest wages of teachers throughout the Bay Area.

“We should be paid enough to live in the communities that we teach in, and if we leave it hurts the students,” said Cole Margen, a history teacher.

Teachers said they hope to spark a movement and were inspired by the statewide strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma earlier this year.

“Teachers have reached a point where they're very fed up,” said LeBaron. “We started off as kind of a school movement, and we're hearing from teachers all over the district who want to know what they can do.”

Many parents and students support the action, according to David Byrd, secretary of the Oakland High School PTA and the parent of a junior at the school.

"Teachers have been open about what's planned," said Byrd, who also works as a music teacher at the school.

“Kids are asking me ‘How much do you guys make?’ They know it’s about the contract. They know when they have a good teacher and when they don't."

In an email to teachers on Friday, district officials said educators who call in sick as part of the stoppage might be subject to disciplinary action and a loss of pay.

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified educators joining Oakland High teachers as also coming from a Fremont school district. The educators in fact came from Oakland's Fremont High School.

KQED's Vanessa Rancaño contributed to this story.

This post has been updated.

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