Oakland Teachers’ Contract: Let’s Do the Math and Learn the Lessons

The original demand of the union, the Oakland Teachers’ Association, was for a 12% raise over three years.  Management, the Oakland Unified School District, countered with a raise of 8.5%.  Rounding to two decimal places of a percent, management’s offer amounted to 2.83% per year, while the union’s demand was 4% per year.

The settlement was for a one time bonus of 3%, plus 11% over four years.  So over the course of a four year contract, that comes out to 11.75%, since 3% is spread over four years.  This is about 2.94% per year.

So this settlement was .11% more than what management offered, and 1.06% less than what the union asked for.  Roughly speaking, the settlement was ten times closer to management’s original offer than the union’s original demand.  Everything else contained in this settlement are promises that come with caveats.

How is this a victory? This strike was characterized by parent solidarity that was reported by the union to be 97% and management to be 94%. Whichever figure is more accurate, the solidarity of the parents, coupled with undeniable support from the community, was overwhelming.  Why didn’t this translate into better numbers?

From the outset, the union instructed picket captains to keep a lid on militancy.  No blockage of cars, whether those of parents, management, or scabs, was allowed.  No engagement of anyone was permitted, although some parents were handed a list of alternative day care sites and conversation with teachers ensued.

I witnessed and participated in one temporary blockage of a scab; but it was ended by a picket captain after a visit by a cop and a union representative.  The cop refused to order me to move, instead protesting that the union had agreed to no blockage of cars.  I finally moved when the picket captain insisted and pulled me by the arm.

At another picket there was a high school, an elementary school, and a charter school sharing the same complex.  Since the charter school might have been inadvertently affected, no picketing took place – just a sidewalk gathering to talk and munch treats.  The possibility of connecting the struggle against charter schools with the teachers’ strike was  present, but rejected.

At one school that was deemed most “problematic” a principal accelerated her car while crossing the picket line in an attempt to intimidate picketers.  We were told that no photograph of that would be permitted, in spite of it being a crime.  A male parent came out to browbeat a female picketer, hurling racial insults.  When one picketer came to her defense, he was admonished for using the word “ignorant”. What was noteworthy about this particular picket was that any common sense concern for the safety of pickets against physical hostility from management and their defenders was absent.

Certainly there were rationales for the strategy employed, such as the need to have constructive relations with parents.  But consider the fact that alternative care was available, and these were the few parents who chose to not use it.  In too many instances this was coupled with overt hostility, sometimes racially charged – a cynical and shameful maneuver by management, who encouraged at least some of it.

Perhaps most telling was that the pickets were tightly controlled by the union, not with a strategy to “shut it down”, as one union official reportedly advocated; but instead to ensure that no tactics that might have guarded against “picket fatigue” might be employed.  No matter what lack of militancy might have been present on the part of the picketers, any militancy that did come up was quickly tamped down by the union.

If this contract is ratified, and it looks likely that it will be, some strategic consideration needs to be done.  We are told what a victory it is, but simple math shows us that it is not.  A proposal regarding a funding source that I submitted to the union, that of the fees from the Port of Oakland that is politically controlled by the city administration, be used, went unanswered.

This strike was representative of a pattern seen too often, that of a union that feigns militancy while those who are close to the action – or lack of it – see the opposite.  The specifics of how to react to this will certainly be debated as much as what actually happened; but we should be honest in saying that this is not the victory that could have been achieved, and a debate on how to do better moving forward needs to occur.