Oakland Teachers Strike: A Stepping Stone towards Sacramento

Written by Workers’ Voice/La Voz members in the Oakland Education Association (OEA)
In the year preceding Oakland striking in February, we bore witness to massive teachers’ strikes all around the country. This strike wave, which has since become the driver of labor militancy in the US, began in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona, where teachers on wildcat (illegal) strikes negotiated directly with state governments to win school funding, support staff, healthcare, and wage increases. After eight days of striking in Oakland, the results are obviously mixed and the tensions are high between rank-and-file teachers and the Oakland Education Association (OEA) leadership. Our Tentative Agreement (TA) was ratified with 42% disapproval. Also 50 out of 103 of our Representative Council aka Rep Council (the main voting body of the union) voted No to approve.
Between the District’s disastrous budgeting and the leadership’s unflinching about a contract with major shortcomings and a concession on school closures, many rank-and-file members are still demoralized and don’t see our union as the vehicle to make the changes we desperately need in our schools. We are waiting to see if ours will be one of the 24 schools OUSD plans to close, angry as the District makes $22 million in cuts from student services at sites, and meanwhile still struggling with no relief from the stress of crowded classrooms, high caseloads, and low wages. Many of us are tired, and part of the truth is that we’ll keep being tired until we win what we’ve always needed: fully funded quality public education that serves all of our students’ needs.
The other part is that the only way to win is to keep fighting as teachers, parents, and community, and to do it better than we’ve done before. We have to be the very best learners in our schools, studying our movement and learning the tough lessons from our experiences, if we are going to be strong enough to win. This means assessing our situation in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), the strengths and weaknesses of the strike, and making a plan to keep organizing within our union and the community, so that we have the power to take our fight to the state and beyond.
The Power and Shortcomings of the Strike
Like the January’s UTLA strike in Los Angeles , the OEA strike in February had massive support. More than 80% of members voted in the authorization vote, with 95% voting yes. North, East, and West Oakland neighborhoods were speckled with the green of “We Stand With  Oakland Teachers” signs, posted on  the walls of businesses, restaurants, homes, and in the windows of cars. At the pickets and on the marches, the supportive honking of passing cars was constant. The 88 schools of the district were completely shut down, with fewer than ten percent  of students attending most sites on the first day, and fewer than one percent of students attending after the first three days of strike.  Solidarity schools scattered throughout the district were run by volunteers from the community and non-OEA education workers. In many places food and cash donations were in excess. Very few teachers crossed the pickets. The rallies were massive, with at least 5,000 teachers, students, parents, and supporting community members attending  the first convergence at Oscar Grant Plaza in Downtown Oakland. The usual scene at each convergence: a thunderstorm of drum brigades, a full brass band, and the chanting of thousands for the funding of Public Education. On the third day of the strike, the march stationed outside the state building where negotiations were ongoing was so loud that the bargaining teams could not hear each other from across the table. On the fifth day, we flooded the building and filled it floor to ceiling with the noise of a people, who are tired of seeing our students under-served by a corrupt district, and are ready for change.
Teachers were involved in the everyday logistics of these mass actions, running pickets from 6 am to the late afternoon, shepherding students all over the city, and to the best of our abilities closely following the political situation of the strike. For students and many teachers alike, the strike was a  first glimpse  of  what effective political action can  look like. The strike was massively supported, militant, and had the potential to win more of the demands we campaigned for: living wages, class size reductions, more support staff in schools, and no school closures.
But, at the same time , that potential shed a light on  the greatest shortcoming of the strike, the reason why for many it was not a win.  Because the power of the strike was not directly in the hands of the rank-and-file. It was instead  entrusted to a leadership with openly undemocratic, conservative tendencies.
The strategy of the strike and all political decision making was concentrated into the hands of the Executive Board, which weakened the strike and hindered the development of rank and file power. There was also a lack of transparency by the leadership towards the rank-and-file. While the leadership was pleased to make the rank-and-file responsible for the everyday work of the strike, they did not think it was important to involve us in making decisions on  the strategy of the strike or on the daily actions, or even to let us in on how our hard work was harnessed at the bargaining table. On day 3 of the strike, the union’s Rep Council   convened and passed a resolution demanding that the Bargaining Team   provide to the membership daily, detailed, negotiations updates . But they failed to follow through, and when questioned about it at the next Rep Council, on day 6 of the strike, the OEA 1st Vice-President openly stated that the leadership didn’t want to carry out this measure and didn’t believe it was obligated to because the vote was not carried out according to the official union procedure (a classic bureaucratic excuse !) Members were frustrated with being shut out of negotiations, and felt patronized by a leadership that  claimed union-democracy was important,yet would not deign  to tell us how our working conditions (such as how many students are in our classes, our caseloads, our salaries, our workday schedule, etc) were being shifted on the bargaining table. When the leadership called off the strike on day 7, they cited waning support by the membership and community? (though no specific data was provided ). If support among teachers was waning, it was at least in part due to teachers were being excluded from knowing how our strike power was being used.
The next major strategic weakness was that the opportunity to generalize the strike, or spread it to other sectors of workers, was not organized in advance.  . This would have been a huge lever of pressure on the city and state governments (who themselves feel the pressure from corporations losing millions by the hour) to meet our demands swiftly and completely. Likewise, we could have organized solidarity action with other sectors of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1021 union (to which OUSD classified staff are affiliated) such as the nurses and public city workers, which together have the capacity to shut down the city. Generalizing a strike is the strategic goal of any mass, militant workers movement, because the power of workers increases exponentially as we connect our movements and harness the power of withholding our labor. However, with the OEA strike, this was not a mere ideal, but a close possibility that was mishandled by our leadership.
The Measure of a “Good Contract”
From a revolutionary socialist perspective, there is never an ideal contract we can reach within capitalism, for two main reasons: an ideal contract would first mean a contract that would really meet all our material needs collectively, and the capitalist system and the opposition of class interests make that impossible. Management is never going to agree to meet all of our needs on a permanent basis. If that were possible, we would not need to organize for socialism, we could just become more benevolent managers of capitalism (what social democrats ultimately advocate for). As Marxists and socialists, we do not agree that any labor contract is our end goal, because a contract is just a temporary negotiation of the terms of our class exploitation. We want to abolish the system of exploitation altogether, so our strategy in contract fights is to accumulate forces, build our confidence and power, and increase socialist consciousness.
Does that mean that workers need to choose between full socialism or bad contracts? Hell no. This is a false binary and it would mean that we should reject any contract management offers us. This is the  the position of the ultra-left, which calls for “general strike until revolution,” and it is impossible to sustain. Socialists who have a strategy for building power so that we are strong enough for revolution say, “We will strike until our demands are met, or until we are not strong enough to continue given our forces”.
Criteria to Analyze a Tentative Agreement
In a union fight there are two main criteria to evaluate a Tentative Agreement (TA). The first is the content of TA relative to what workers’ actual needs are and what we expected to win based on our strike campaign (key demands, budget analysis, messaging from leadership). The second factor is the relation of forces between workers, management, and the State, and the capacity of workers to win more.
The relation of forces and capacity of workers to continue the struggle is always the defining factor of a contract fight. No matter how much we need to win more, it’s only when workers are united and motivated to continue on the pickets that we can actually do that. All strikes have to end at some point. That is, unless we are at the eve of a revolutionary situation, and the strike has a general character which could turn into an insurrection, in which case we should continue onwards to taking power from the capitalists. It is better to end a strike collectively than to continue into a weak and split strike, because the strike is only one battle in the long class war ahead of us.
What’s key here is how to decide what is the actual relation of forces and the willingness of workers to continue fighting. In the OEA, there was a tendency of some of the leadership to do this in a top-down, paternalistic manner. After a week of opaque bargaining, they came to the rank and file with a TA and said: we know workers are not able or ready to keep fighting, so we need to end the strike now. This is the same logic bureaucratic union leaderships use to oppose going on strike in the first place (bureaucrats claim that workers are not ready, that there is weak support, that going on strike will be a disaster, etc.). To this defeatist rhetoric, we reply that the only way to find out if workers can continue a strike is to ask the workers themselves, and have this conversation be open and democratic, with all facts put on the table. In the absence of this, the strike lacks democracy and legitimacy, which we must clearly identify organize against.
The role of the leadership is not only to assess the willingness of the rank-and-file to fight in an accurate manner, but to motivate us to keep fighting until we meet our demands. This motivation is not just done through empty speechifying, but by proposing a realistic plan to increase the strength and efficiency of the strike. In the case of OEA, that would have been a plan to increase support for the solidarity schools, to close the Port of Oakland, and bring other sectors of the labor movement into the fight. Motivation comes from a real, material plan for success, not from rhetoric. That is what a socialist leadership should do, and that is what we should demand from any leadership. They are there to prepare the next steps of the battle with the best possible conditions.
There are a few reasons people vote “Yes” for a TA: They are satisfied with the contract; or they are not satisfied but they don’t want to continue to strike, because they are tired and demoralized; and/or they are afraid of losing something if they continue to strike. A “No” campaign can be used to gauge the willingness of workers to continue the struggle. It also gauges the dissatisfaction of the workers, can help us build political relations with a core of activists in the union, and most importantly allows us to have political conversations with other rank-and-file workers and strike leaders about the TA.
On the Leadership
Because the leadership did not involve the rank-and-file teachers in the planning and strategy of the strike or in the bargaining, they also missed a key opportunity to raise the consciousness of workers and conduct political education. Teachers on the pickets were eager to  know  what was happening at the bargaining table, they wanted to plan the daily actions  and a real  voice in the strike, not to just be the boots on the ground. Thus, the leadership missed its opportunity to cultivate leadership. While much leadership was cultivated through the Clusters (or the organization of action by geographic region) and Picket Captains systems, this was a result of the work of rank-and-file teachers who put blood, sweat, and tears into making the strike powerful, not of any “democratization” by the leadership. Democratization is not the same as delegation.
By keeping members in the dark about the political aspects of the strike, the leadership did nothing to win the trust of members and simply assumed trust was owed to them because they were  elected leaders. This caused mistrust, which led to outright defiance during the debacle of the strike’s conclusion. After 7 days of hearing the patronizing “everything is fine, trust your bargaining team” by strangers from the CTA, thousands of teachers were still holding strong on picket lines to prevent a school board meeting from convening, a meeting where $22 million would be slashed from school sites and classified staff (SEIU). At the moment of peak intensity, when teachers fighting to protect their coworkers’ jobs were literally being shoved and choked by school board members James Harris and Jumoke Hinton,, the OEA reached a TA and sent out a massive text to call off the pickets, ordering the reps to tell everyone to stand down. However, we were not so easily moved, and we understood that letting the board meeting happen would be tantamount to making  a deal on the backs of our coworkers. We stayed on the pickets for another 6 hours, until the board meeting could no longer legally convene. The political consciousness of the striking teachers was a little more than what our leaders bargained for.
Whether from bureaucratic ego, genuine inexperience, or a mixture of both, the current OEA leadership has shown that they cannot be counted on to treat us as equals in the fight for Public Education or to do what any good leader does: present a real plan to keep fighting until our demands are met. They failed the grand test. In the Rep Council meetings and ratification debate that followed, the Vice-President and President repeatedly ignored questions about the lack of Bargaining Team transparency, ignored demands for more empirical data on why the strike was being called off, ignored accountability for calling off the pickets at the school board meeting, and disregarded the hundreds of members who publicly questioned the adequacy of the TA. This does not mean they are bad people or that they need to be exiled. It does mean they need to stop being our leaders.
In their place should be a cadre of fighting union activists who invest their time and energy into real union democracy. This means regular, open meetings with rank-and-file leadership, the constant cultivation of more leadership among teachers, the constant dissemination of quality information about the union’s activities to the membership, the constant work of involving teachers in the fight for Public Education in spite of how difficult it is to even survive as a teacher in this society.
Leading Our Own Strike
A democratic leadership is one that shares the work of the union with members, not one that withholds it from them. This means building for a strike campaign that has open bargaining, where any member can be present at the bargaining table. This would allow delegates from each cluster (or grouping of schools by geographic region) to be sent to the bargaining session, so that thorough reports can be made to sites each day. Imagine if instead of not knowing where we’ll be told to march the next day and wondering if the no-school-closures demand was even on the table, a rank-and-file bargaining committee could inform us that this demand was not being taken seriously by the district, and that we needed to escalate beyond a march in the streets. A strike strategy committee (which in our strike was the President, VP, and union professionals from the CTA) made up of rank-and-file leaders could then decide to plan a more militant action, such as a shut down of the port two days in advance, and then cluster leaders and picket captains would have abundant time to prepare for this action. All committees would be open to union members and function by democratic vote. This is a very different kind of strike than one in which a few people make all decisions. Those same leaders who argued that the strike was too weak to win more will argue that teachers don’t really want to be that involved, or that people don’t really know to run a union.
The task of a real fighting leadership, a revolutionary and socialist leadership, is to make union spaces accessible so that all members can be involved, and so that anyone could learn how to run our unions, run our workplaces, and run our society. If we don’t make this level of democracy our low-bar, we’ll never gain enough power as social movements to stop wars, gun violence, climate change, or  the capitalist system that creates these conditions, let alone build a humane socialist society in all can reach their potential. This is the fundamental difference between a liberal bureaucratic or a social democratic leadership, and a revolutionary socialist leadership. The former seeks to manipulate our collective power to make minute gains and call them massive victories that reflect positively on the leadership. The latter seeks to lead and grow our collective power to make real changes in how our society functions, and the only way to do this is through the painstaking work of mass movement organizing, which transforms ourselves and our coworkers from passive objects  of politics into  creative political actors
Advancing our Struggle
Though the Oakland Teachers Strike was extremely powerful in many respects, it structurally lacked the rank-and-file democracy and militancy that are  strategically necessary to lever our power to make the ambitious gains needed to transform our schools and thus transform our society. The leadership, which should have a key role in raising the consciousness and cultivating the experience of union members, excluded teachers from the bargaining process, and called off the strike with defeatist arguments rather than presenting a plan to maintain the strength of the strike and win the No-School-Closures and other demands. For this, they have lost the trust of many members and demoralized the teachers and broader school community.
Our immediate task is to stop 24 of 88 (roughly a third) Oakland schools from closing (as the school board is calling for).  This would mean a loss of a large segment of the union’s membership, and immeasurable strain for parents and students whose communities would be  torn apart. Defeating the school board’s brutal closures plan will require deepening the organizing that began during the strike among rank-and-file leaders, namely cluster leads, picket captains, and other rank-and-file activists who were catalyzed by the strike. We must win our coworkers to the idea that the strike was not the end but just one stepping stone in the the fight for Public Education, that our union is not a bad-actor to be turned away from but a ship that’s a little off-course, which we must take over. The school closures can only be stopped at the local level, and since we no longer have a legal union-strike tactic available, we must consider higher risk and more powerful tactics that involve all education workers and our whole school community.  Such tactics include wildcat strikes, sick-outs, student strikes, and shut-downs. Politely asking, loudly protesting, and any form of begging directed at the school board has not worked and never will, because they do not answer to us. They only answer to their donors. It would be more effective to target the city government and big capitalists like the Walton family who put money into the pockets of the school board.
As we internally organize ourselves to stop the school closures, we must also consider that the money our schools need is not really controlled by Oakland but by the State. While we haven’t done the organizing at the statewide level that’s needed to make a statewide wildcat strike happen (the most effective tactic of the education movement, given the victories in the red states), we should be taking steps now to make that happen. This could include utilizing our existing networks of those interested in statewide action (California Educators Rising) to plan together with leaders from other locals a coordinated action this school year and the next. We should also remember that already and as the year progresses, reformists and their Democratic Party champions will be planning how to manipulate our movements to get themselves elected. However, it is our movements that should threaten their elections if they do not meet our demands in the coming election season. To do this, we must not let our current union leaderships suck our energies into electoral canvassing or lobbying activities. Our power is always at the grassroots, and it is only by organizing, not voting, that we will win the schools our students deserve.

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