Oakland Teachers Go on Strike in Fight for Higher Pay, More School Resources

Teachers outside Lincoln Elementary School in Oakland drum up support for the picket line from passing motorists on Feb. 21, 2019. (Sheraz Sadiq/KQED)

Updated at 2 p.m.

Thousands of Oakland teachers and school staff began striking early Thursday morning, establishing picket lines outside nearly every school in the district in a push for higher wages, better classroom conditions and an end to school closures.

Following last-minute negotiations with Oakland Unified School District officials on Wednesday, the teachers union said the latest offer didn't go nearly far enough.

Holding signs that read, "We Stand With Oakland Teachers" and "On Strike for a Living Wage," striking teachers and their supporters gathered in the early-morning chill outside Manzanita Community School, chanting, "When public schools are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back."

Keith Brown, president of the Oakland Education Association, which represents some 3,000 teachers, counselors and nurses, joined Thursday morning's picket line at Manzanita.

"Today is a historic day in Oakland where teachers united with parents, students, are on strike at 86 school sites, and we are demanding a living wage to keep teachers in Oakland," Brown said.

The district's most recent offer would have given teachers a 7 percent across-the-board raise over three years, plus a retroactive 1.5 percent bonus. While a bump from the 5 percent raise over three years the district had previously put on the table, it still fell short of the 12 percent the union wants.

“The proposal still does not address essential needs of our students,” Brown said, adding that it also failed to address the high cost of living in the Bay Area. He said negotiations with the district would resume Friday morning.

Low pay and difficult working conditions, he added, have led to a noticeably high rate of teacher turnover in the district, with roughly 300 teachers leaving annually, many going to neighboring districts with higher salaries.

Oakland Unified teachers are among the lowest paid in the Bay Area and have been working without a contract since July 2017.

Gesine Cotteral, a teacher at Lincoln Elementary School near Lake Merritt, has worked in the district for 25 years and echoed those concerns.

“We are here because of a massive exodus of teachers leaving schools who can’t afford to live in Oakland," said Cotteral, while picketing outside her school. "We had four teachers leave last year ... and then students need support staff, special ed teachers and nurses.”

Luz Chavez, who teaches at Manzanita, said the strike is not just a fight for better pay, but also better classroom conditions.

"We're not out here for the money," Chavez said. "We're out here for our kids, and we've told them that multiple times as we've been talking about the strike with them throughout this week."

The district said it is keeping all schools open for the duration of the strike and encouraging students to attend. Schools are being staffed by principals, central office staff and temporary substitute teachers. But it will definitely not be business as usual, said OUSD spokesman John Sasaki, noting that the vast majority of the district's more than 36,200 students had not come to school on Thursday.

“It's a very powerful effect sent by the union and by the supporters among the families," said Sasaki, who counted 14 students in attendance at Manzanita this morning, out of the roughly 400 kids enrolled there. "Oakland is a union town and our families and our students support our teachers and support the union effort. And we do, too. That being said, we certainly want our students in class and hope that more come to school tomorrow.”

The district receives state funding based on daily student attendance, and stands to lose a significant amount of money each day if absence rates are high.

Sasaki confirmed that talks with the union would resume on Friday morning and that the strike would more than likely last for at least one more day.

In the late morning, teachers and their supporters, including a number of students, rallied in Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland and marched to the district's central office, before returning to school picket lines later in the afternoon.

Striking teachers gather on Thursday at Frank Ogawa Plaza. (Sheraz Sadiq/KQED)

A host of local elected leaders, including Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and congresswoman Barbara Lee, made statements on Thursday in support of the striking teachers.

"I know that this whole community stands with our teachers … in their quest to just get a living wage and decent working conditions to support our students," said Schaaf, a graduate of Oakland schools, who also commended the district for putting forward another offer. “Today is going to be a citywide day of showing our love and appreciation for our educators.”

OUSD classified workers, including 1,000 instructional specialists, school security officers, administrative workers and other workers, also honored the picket lines on Thursday, according to the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union, which represents them.

Diana Fuentes, 8, a third grader at Community United Elementary School, joined teachers at a rally in downtown Oakland on Thursday. “I want to support my teachers because I want more people to help my teachers,” she said. (Sheraz Sadiq)

Joseph Wagner of the Amalgamated Transit Union in Los Angeles was among a number of union workers from outside Oakland who also joined teachers on the picket line.

“It’s obvious that public education is under attack, and all public unions, and unions in general are under attack," Wagner said. "Solidarity should be the basic understanding that union members have that we are in this together against the bipartisan, frankly, capitalist attack on all workers and students.”

Rosa Aguirre, a middle school math coach at West Oakland Middle School, said she was trying to convince families not to drop their kids off today.

“It’s hard to cross a picket line when you know the money isn’t being allocated properly, and we need the resources in a historically underprivileged community that’s being gentrified more rapidly than any other part of Oakland, I believe,” Aguirre said.

The small number of parents who did bring their children to school ran into picket lines of teachers, and in some cases were dissuaded from going inside.

"So basically, they’re trying to tell us that there’s no teachers here," said Monique Green, who tried to drop off her daughters at Lafayette Elementary School in West Oakland on Thursday morning, but didn't end up going in. "I don’t know what’s going on. I’m just confused about the whole situation.”

Green said she supports the teachers, but is frustrated that schools aren't operating as normal.

“I think they need to fix this problem and get the teachers what they need," she said. Pointing to her daughters, she added: "They’re both ready to go to school.”

Teachers from Fremont High School in Oakland marching down Broadway. (Sheraz Sadiq/KQED)

On Wednesday, on the eve of the strike, a group of more than 30 Oakland school principals lobbied lawmakers in Sacramento for additional per-pupil funding and forgiveness of a $36 million state loan. They also pushed for a revision of the state's charter law, which has allowed charter schools to proliferate in Oakland and, they argue, has drained huge amounts of funding — and students — away from the district.

"Pretty much every principal is in support of the teachers having higher pay," said Cliff Hong, the principal of Roosevelt Middle School.

Officials in the financially struggling district, which faces a huge budget shortfall and is looking to cut more than $20 million next year, say they're sympathetic to teachers demands for a raise, but can't swing such a big pay increase. A nearly 45 percent decline in student enrollment over the past 15 years is partly to blame. But union officials argue that fiscal mismanagement has also played a major role in the district's ongoing budgetary woes.

An independent fact-finding report, released on Friday, noted that while the district's initial offer of a 5 percent raise over three years wouldn't keep pace with inflation, a 12 percent increase was simply infeasible, given the district's squeezed finances. The union swiftly rejected the report's recommendations, which included a short-term 6 percent raise and continued negotiations next year.

For parents who don't want their kids to cross the picket line, the city is offering space, rent-free, in 15 recreation centers across Oakland, as well as in city libraries where students can spend the day. These "solidarity sites," as organizers are calling them, will be supervised by volunteers, with breakfast and lunch provided by the Bread for Ed campaign, an online fundraising effort organized by the OEA and Democratic Socialists of America that has already raised close to $90,000.

A number of churches throughout the city are also opening their doors to students, including Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church in West Oakland.

“We put a lot of thought and love into what we’re doing here for the students and the support of our Oakland teachers,” said the Rev. Anthony Jenkins Sr.

Oakland teachers last participated in a sanctioned strike in 2010, which lasted just one day. The previous strike, in 1996, went on for 26 days.

The strike is part of a growing wave of teacher activism that began in February 2018, when West Virginia teachers participated in a nine-day strike that drew national attention and was followed by a statewide teachers strike in Oklahoma. In January, Los Angeles teachers went on strike for six days, gaining a 6 percent pay raise and significant class-size reductions. And last week, teachers in Denver ended a three-day walkout after reaching a tentative deal that included a pay increase.

KQED's Lily Jamali, Vanessa Rancaño, Julia McEvoy, Stephanie Lister and Sheraz Sadiq contributed to this report.

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