By Mike Myslinski
Betty Olson-Jones, president of the 2,800-member Oakland Education Association, rallies members at the successful one-day strike.
Fed up with being the lowest-paid educators in Alameda County, Oakland educators mobilized their community with a successful one-day strike April 29 that motivated the school district to return to the bargaining table after it had just imposed its final contract offer of no raises for teachers through 2012.
“We would rather be teaching than striking, but we needed to show the district how serious our concerns are,” said Betty Olson-Jones, president of the 2,800-member Oakland Education Association (OEA). “A quality public education is a civil right. The future of this district is in doubt and teachers had to take a stand for our students and our community.”
If it holds up, the district’s unfair imposed contract would sharply increase class sizes and possibly eliminate the adult education program. Oakland teachers would receive a mere 1.75 percent raise over an eight-year period from 2004 to 2012. Starting pay for educators in Oakland is about $39,000, compared to $50,000 in San Francisco.
The 38,000-student district is supervised by a state-appointed trustee and one of the highest-paid superintendents in Alameda County. Oakland teachers are exasperated because of the recession and state cuts taking their toll, and because the district receives much more than the average district in per-pupil funding, yet spends far less on teachers. This creates a teacher turnover rate of about 20 percent.
Oakland teachers also want the district to stop spending on outside contractors at a rate twice that of the average school district, and to cease spending voter-approved parcel tax funds on consultants and bureaucracy, instead of on reducing class sizes and retaining educators.
Contract talks resumed May 13, and five more dates were scheduled, jump-starting negotiations that broke off in December after almost two years of frustrating meetings. As painful as the strike was for OEA members, 91 percent of them walked picket lines and stayed out of their classrooms. The week after the strike, a strong majority of Oakland educators affirmed their solidarity by voting to authorize their leaders to call another strike, if necessary.
“I think the strike was the right thing to do, because Oakland needs to become more competitive to retain its quality teachers,” said Peter Mates, an Alameda County Teacher of the Year who was also picket line captain at his Bret Harte Middle School. “Our parents were very supportive.”
To show solidarity with teachers, parent Kristin Miller-Nicholas kept her two daughters out of class at Joaquin Miller Elementary and spent the morning on the picket line with her school’s educators. “Our teachers are under-respected and underpaid,” she said, calling the strike “a statement that needs to be made.” Her parents were teachers in Michigan, so she understands the sacrifices teachers make. “Oakland has the money. It’s just a matter of them prioritizing where the money goes.”
As three television news trucks covered predawn picketing at Oakland High School, Amy Wilder, a special education teacher, tried to keep warm. She was there to “demonstrate to my students that their education matters to me,” and to tell the district that it “needs to shift its priorities to fund our students’ education appropriately.”
Eleanor Alderman, a teacher at ACORN Woodland Elementary, walked her picket line and said the stress of having to hold three jobs to pay her mortgage is hard on her. Born and raised in Oakland, she works weekends as a waitress in Berkeley and as a nanny for a couple in Oakland — in addition to full-time teaching.
“I absolutely believe in living in the city that you teach in,” said Alderman. “There’s no way I could survive on just my teacher salary and pay my mortgage.”
CTA Board member Eric Heins, a teacher in nearby Pittsburg Unified, pledged the resources of CTA to OEA at a noon rally and march held during the one-day strike in downtown Oakland — with 2,000 teachers, parents and students. “An injury to one is an injury to all,” Heins said to applause. “Keep up the fight.”
For updates on the Oakland showdown, see www.oaklandea.org. Video of the strike can be seen at www.cta.org/About-CTA/News-Room/Media-Center/Media-Center.