from the pages of April 1996

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 Oakland Teachers Strike To Win

By Malini Cadambi

Without a contract for a year and a half and having worked five years without raises in salaries, Oakland public school teachers have been on strike since February 15, 1996. This followed a two day walkout in November and a one day walkout in January of this school year. This time the teacher's union has agreed to remain on strike until a satisfactory agreement has been reached.

The Oakland Education Association, the union which represents regular and substitute teachers, school psychologists, speech therapists, and other school support staff, has put together a campaign called Classrooms First. Proposals under Classrooms First include reduction of classroom sizes providing for lower student-teacher ratios, raises for all teachers at every experience level and for support staff, a stronger retirement plan, and more participation by teachers at the district level regarding curriculum and program changes.

All of these proposals would be funded by reducing administrative costs. Put another way the union wants bloated, do-nothing administrators and bureaucrats fired. Oakland has some of the lowest paid teachers with a high turnover rate, yet one of the largest administrative budgets in the Bay Area.

The school district has responded to union demands of an average pay raise of 8 percent this year with a 3.73 percent pay raise. The district will reduce classroom size for the first grade only at the expense of kindergarten and specialty programs.

The school district cries that they are unable to offer more for fear of “bankrupting” the district. The union wants the money to come from eliminating the fat salaries of the administrators. The district has made references to making vague administrative cuts. What this translates to is pay cuts and job elimination for lower level administrative personnel, such as secretaries, and technical staff, which includes janitors and maintenance people. These support workers are organized under the AFL-CIO and are not affiliated with the teacher's union. These workers have reason to worry about their future and the district has taken advantage of this and made no effort to alleviate their concerns. By encouraging fear and uncertainty, the system continues to pit worker against worker.

The school district has also made race an issue. Oakland is mostly African-American and the school board is as well. However, nearly two-thirds of Oakland teachers are white. The school board and district have tried to divide the teachers and the community by exploiting this fact. They maintain that it is white teachers, many of whom do not live in Oakland, and the mostly white union leaders (while one-third of Oakland's teachers are black, only 10 percent of the union's leaders are black) who are trying to deprive black schoolchildren of an education. The NAACP, a prominent community pastor, and members of the local black middle class have jumped into the fray by insisting that black teachers scab and black parents send their children to school in spite of the strike. The current strike was called earlier than many union members wanted because the race issue had gotten so much attention and was threatening community support for the teachers.

The district has tried to give the impression that all schools and classrooms are open and regular instruction is continuing during the strike. This is a lie, as most teachers and substitutes are honoring the picket line. To make up for the teacher and substitute shortage the district has hired unqualified scab substitutes and waived many hiring requirements. Furthermore, the district is paying these scab workers $180 a day during the strike, twice the normal non-strike wage. The district has also failed to tell many substitutes, who may be unaware of the strike, that they are being asked to cross picket lines. Substitutes who were hired prior to or during strikes were asked if they would work for the district during the strike. Many who answered negatively were subsequently not hired.

Support for the teachers has also come from the students. An overwhelming number of the over 50,000 students have honored the strike by not coming to school. The day preceding the current strike, Oakland high school students showed their support by walking out of classes. In addition, new student political unions have organized as a result of the teacher's strike.

Many teachers and students have chosen not to let the district's disdain for the students and contempt for the teachers interfere with learning. Alternative strike schools have been set up, meeting a few hours a day at neutral sites.

Oakland teachers last went out on strike in 1986 and struck for 19 days, culminating with a four day occupation of the district administration building. While many strikers, parents, and students worry about the current strike's duration, most are prepared to hold out until the district meets the union's agreements.

Malini Cadambi is a striking substitute teacher for the Oakland Public School District and a union representative for the Oakland Education Association.