A lesson on the picket line in Oakland

April 30, 2010

Teachers in the Oakland Education Association (OEA) took part in a one-day strike April 29 to protest cuts in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) that are wrecking kids' education and teachers' living standards.

The action comes after two years of negotiation with the district. On April 21, the school board voted to impose their "last, best and final" offer on teachers. Such an imposition is all but unprecedented, and, as California Teachers Association staffer Ward Rountree said, it's a declaration of war. Teachers are now working under the terms of a contract they rejected months ago.

John Green reports from the front lines of the strike.

5:55 a.m.: Teachers at Oakland High School get a jump on the official 6 a.m. start time, giving interviews and shooing away support staff, construction workers and would-be scabs.

It's dark, cold and windy, but spirits are high on the picket line. Four news vans are keeping everyone busy even though school doesn't start for another two hours.

Most students enter campus through the rear gate, which abuts a neighborhood, so when I drive by there's a glob of picketers impossible to miss on the small cul-de-sac that leads to the entrance.

At the same time, my friend Dana texts me to say that she's at Oakland Technical High School with a half dozen teachers from Berkeley who've shown up to support the teachers there.

7:00 a.m.: Over at the Oakland Unified School District administration building, a small but determined group of picketers are working especially hard to turn away would-be scabs. OUSD is paying $300 a day for substitute teachers and a few late hires are showing up to get their assignments.

Teachers in the Oakland Educators Association on strike
Teachers in the Oakland Educators Association on strike (Alessandro Tinonga | SW)

The picketers manage to turn one or two away while I'm here.

Many of the picketers here are from the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) at the University of California (UC)-Berkeley. As Alex tells me, "Teachers always support us, so we're supporting them." He sees a direct parallel in Oakland to his union's fight to save jobs and "chop from the top" of the administrator-heavy UC system.

Each year, OUSD actually pays a penalty to the state government for having so many administrators. State Education Code requires 55 percent of a school district's budget to be spent on classroom instruction. Oakland passes on a paltry 44 percent. Priorities?

On a sour note, school officer Pete Sarna threatened to arrest picketers for impeding access to the district parking lot. Most of the time he just stayed inside his $35,000 muscle car, scowling.

Why does a school resource officer need a muscle car? For all of the high-speed chases on the...blacktop?

8:05 a.m.: Next up is Franklin Elementary. With more than 700 students, Franklin is Oakland's largest elementary school. (Franklin's high test scores have saved it from being broken up into smaller charter schools.)

I don't realize that I've driven to the back gate, and just a few minutes after the last wave of scabs at that. At first, they're ready to pounce on me.

Thankfully, the teachers here are actually quite friendly. Our conversations are interrupted by greeting each new parent who arrives (and who often turn right around and leave without any further prompting).

Over on the front gate, there's a huge spread of food set up. Teachers are laughing and joking around. They're feeling good because fewer than 150 students have shown up to school.

The district managed to provide all of three subs to the site.

I speak at length with a friendly teacher named Ron. He's not a union official or even a picket captain, but he articulately explains to me why he's striking and points out how Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) could meet their demands to raise their salary-- Oakland teachers are the poorest paid in the county. Ron laughs and says he would have considered voting in favor of the neutral fact-finder's recommendation to give teachers a modest raise in 2012, even though he's going to be retired by then. But the district shut the door on that report and imposed its own contract.

Driving away from Franklin, I'm thinking a lot about the Oakland Tribune editorial slamming the teachers' requests and the snotty headline on the OUSD Web site this morning about "union officials" orchestrating a strike. The implied message is that teachers like Ron are dupes.

9:55 a.m.: I haven't been to many Oakland schools since a summer job in college, so Horace Mann Elementary across town seems like as good a target as any. Driving through the Fruitvale neighborhood, I can't help but see the amazing picket outside of the Urban Promise Academy. (An ironic name given how little OUSD spends on student achievement.)

The picket line looks like it's out of a Hollywood movie--there's not an inch of daylight between the teachers, parents and students surrounding their small school. Everyone is wearing the bright green T-shirts of the Oakland Education Association (OEA) and it seems like there's a noisemaker attached to every bouncing picket sign.

I can't imagine a scab crossing through that.

10:05 a.m.: There's the discouraging sound of kids playing when I pull up to the Global Family/Learning Without Limits Academy. But there are only eight kids playing in the school yard... The sound is really just coming from the dozens of families supporting their teachers out front.

The kids are playing hopscotch. The weather's warmed up, so I walk around the building and see OEA signs up all over.

Spying through the window, I can see about eight kids in a classroom. They didn't even bother taking down the other chairs in the room. The children's handmade signs are all over, too. One sign says "No Rats, We Love Our Teachers" with an awesome drawing of a rat's pointy head. Ouch.

Driving away, the eight kids in the courtyard are still there a half hour later enjoying the world's-longest recess.

10:30 a.m.: Students and teachers have taken over both sides of the street outside of Fremont High School. The students start yelling that I'm not honking enough. To make them happy, I pull a U-turn at the next street and go by honking again.

10:40 a.m.: Driving down Foothill Boulevard, all of a sudden there's a posse of a dozen people pushing strollers and carrying strike signs. Cars are honking at them. (I learn later that they're a group of Adult Education instructors and their family members. OUSD is completely dismantling Adult Education, which is a critical pathway for adults to get GEDs.)

10:45 a.m.: After finally arriving at Horace Mann, there are a dozen teachers in extraordinarily good spirits. They skirmished with a district delivery truck just before my arrival and then give the driver a pretty good send-off a few minutes later when he leaves. What has to be delivered to an empty school?

Fewer than a third of the students attended today.

A teacher, whose name I missed, wants to talk about next steps and the New Jersey walkouts. If only the Oakland Tribune could meet her, she could tell them about the $80 million that OUSD spends on outside consultants each year or the $10 million spent on district-level assessments that even No Child Left Behind doesn't require.

From here, it's nearly time for the big lunchtime unity rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland.

Noon: The Plaza is a large outdoor amphitheatre and it's filling with hundreds and hundreds of teachers, counselors and nurses from across the district. Students and families are here, too, alongside representatives from the Service Employees International Union, International Longshore and Warehouse Union and other unions.

Signs like "Lowest-Paid Teacher, Highest-Paid Administrator" call out Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith's $300,000 a year compensation.

After a little warm-up by the "Big O" teachers' band and a quick march to the State Building, OEA President Betty Olson-Jones takes the stage to announce 100 percent strike participation at 36 sites (nearly half in the district). "We shut the district down!" she says, to a deafening roar.

OEA Secretary Steve Neat teaches at one of those schools with full participation, Kaiser Elementary. In fact, not a single student crossed the line there, either.

"We did a lot of outreach [at Kaiser]," says Neat. "We handed out flyers, built relationships with parents, let them know what's happening and they understood we're all in this together."

Oakland High School student Jimmy Tran echoes that solidarity.

"The cuts are not right," he says. "We're the next generation, but they're taking our teachers away from us, discouraging our teachers by not paying them well."

He's at the rally with a friend to send a message to the superintendent. Before I lose him in the crowd, I see him grabbing more literature from the union explaining alternatives to cutting programs or freezing wages any longer.

Twenty-eight hundred educators on strike produce far too many stories and anecdotes to fit into a report, let alone actually experience as an eyewitness. I'm dehydrated and my feet hurt, but I'm incredibly proud to see teachers standing up for themselves and for the goal of quality public education.

The Oakland teachers have a mass membership meeting set for Monday, May 3, to figure out next steps. There couldn't possibly be a better catalyst for change than shutting down the entire school district for the day.

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