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“We Refuse to Leave Anyone Behind”: Oakland Teachers Secure Wins in Strike

Teachers’ demands included a living wage, equitable class sizes and expanded special education services.

Oakland Unified School District students, teachers and parents carry signs as they picket outside of Manzanita Community School on February 21, 2019, in Oakland, California.

The 3,000 teachers and support staff of the Oakland Education Association walked out May 4, shutting down all 85 elementary, middle, and high schools.

Community support was immediate and widespread—parents were already familiar with the cuts the district had inflicted or proposed. Many donated food and joined our picket lines to walk, dance, and chant in solidarity.

Eighty-eight percent of teachers had voted to strike, after it became clear that our demands were not being taken seriously at the negotiating table.

The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) had stonewalled us—delaying meetings, failing to show up, and presenting vague proposals that demonstrated a limited understanding of what’s really needed day to day in schools.

“Teachers feel disrespected and fed up.” said Sarah Wheels, a fifth-grade teacher and union site representative. “We’ve been bargaining for six months, but our superintendent only came for the first time to meet and bargain with us last Sunday.”

Rats, Asbestos, Sewage

For months, the district had made no concrete proposals to reduce special education caseloads and class sizes, and insisted that it didn’t want to bargain over safety—which is a top issue for union members, students, and families.

Among our safety concerns are gun violence, asbestos and lead, mice and rat infestations, raw sewage, and leaky roofs.

Parents, educators and principals have asked the district to address these issues repeatedly, for years, with no result. Now we were proposing enforceable language in the contract.

Until the strike date was set, the district’s offer of a retroactive pay increase for 2022-2023 was the equivalent of 1.4 percent for most members. OEA members would need a 22.79 percent increase in pay to reach the average Bay Area teacher salary.

“We don’t get raises after 10 years, and we’re worse paid than all the neighboring districts,” explained Diego Feliciano, a second year school psychologist. “Once people hit 10 years, everybody takes off. Some people leave before, because the pay is too low. All my mentors are leaving.

“It’s rough. We love the kids, and we know how much they go through here in Oakland.”

Divide and Conquer?

As the strike became a real threat, the district increased its pay proposal. But in an effort to divide the union, it offered a two-tier raise that would mostly benefit veteran tenured teachers—leaving out 66 percent of the membership, including substitute teachers, untenured teachers, nurses, social workers, speech pathologists, psychologists, and counselors.

Our top demands: a living wage for teachers and staff, equitable class sizes, and expanded special education services.

Since our students’ living conditions shape the circumstances in which they are trying to learn, we were also fighting for “common good” demands on housing and transportation, environmental justice and school safety, reparations for Black students, and a school culture that practices restorative justice instead of discipline and punishment.

Under community pressure, in 2021 Oakland’s school board had voted to designate all schools with over 40 percent Black students as Black Thriving Community Schools. This designation came with a commitment to support those schools—but the district failed to follow through, even though it had already allocated funds. Our contract would force OUSD to make good on its promise.

Our previous strike, four years ago, lasted seven days. We won a pay increase for teachers, a small reduction in class size at some schools, and some support for newcomer students, but it was clear we still had a long road ahead.

Since then we’ve been fighting the district’s austerity agenda. OUSD was planning to close 11 schools over two years, but only managed to close three—we kept the rest open.

50-Member Team

An important new dimension of this year’s contract campaign was that the OEA organized over many months to build a 50-member bargaining team.

Every member of the bargaining team was voted in by co-workers at their school site or in their specialist group to represent that group’s interests and experiences, as well as to solicit feedback and communicate progress on the bargaining process.

Not every school had the capacity to elect a bargaining team member, but individuals from the bargaining team have worked hard to get feedback from and information to those sites as well.

Besides keeping members updated, this “big bargaining” gives teacher representatives a chance to bargain over the needs in their specific specialties. For example, special education teachers can speak to their caseloads and the types of resources they need.

As the strike approached, the district began its miscommunication campaign. The evening before the strike, it sent out an email claiming, “We believe that a deal with our Teachers’ Union is within reach.

“As our negotiations continue today,” wrote the district, “we are discussing additional topics of great importance to OEA leaders, including topics that are not mandatory subjects of bargaining.”

In reality, OUSD had been absent from the bargaining table for the past two days and had left the OEA waiting for seven hours the previous Sunday.

Within days, the power of the threat of strike forced the district to increase its salary proposal substantially. OUSD also verbally agreed to other significant wins, but when the strike began we were still waiting for it to put them in writing.

Community Schools

One big demand still outstanding was about community schools.

Community schools are public schools that provide additional services and support—such as before- and after-school programs, learning opportunities for family members, health programs, and collaborative efforts with other organizations, based on the needs of a particular community.

The point is that children’s ability to learn and thrive at school depends on their lives outside of school.

OUSD had already received a state grant of $85 million to spend over two years on community schools, to include shared governance, community support services, and restorative school culture. We were demanding a say in how this money was spent.

At first, the district outright rejected this demand. School Board President Mike Hutchinson had claimed the district didn’t have the authority to bargain over common good demands such as how this community school money would be spent.

Several days into the strike, the district escalated its media tactics, sowing confusion about what was going on at the bargaining table.

“The media is saying that we are trying to bargain over things we have no right to,” said Timothy Douglas, a fifth-grade teacher and one of the OEA bargaining co-chairs. “That’s not true. Contracts have expanded over the years, and many other districts are bargaining over and winning demands exactly like those in our common good proposals.”

Educators unions in San Diego and Los Angeles, for instance, recently won contracts giving them a say in how state funding for community schools should be spent. “It is absolutely within our scope,” Douglas said.

A strike rally May 5 brought together teachers, staff, families, and community supporters. “We refuse to leave anyone behind,” Douglas said. “The district has sleek graphics, but we have each other. This is hard, and we need to keep communicating with each other. We need to keep standing together. We refuse to let the district divide us.”

Tentative Agreement

We returned to work May 15 with a tentative agreement that we’re voting on now. The vote ends Monday.

Among the highlights are many common good demands, including a new citywide Community Schools Steering Committee where educators, staff, parents, and students will hold a majority. We also won a 10 percent raise for all members. The tentative agreement also provides for additional nurses, counselors, and librarians, and art teachers.

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