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Thousands of Oakland Teachers Go on Strike: ‘We’re Trying To Do Something Bigger’

Written by Ida MojadadPublished May 04, 2023 • 9:00am
Members of the Oakland Education Association bargaining team rally outside Oakland City Hall on Thursday, May 4, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. | Noah Berger for The Standard
Congresswoman Barbara Lee who represents California's 12 District speaks at a rally in support of the Oakland teachers' strike outside of Oakland City Hall on May 4, 2023. | Mike Kuba/The Standard

With just three weeks left in the school year, thousands of teachers in Oakland walked out on Thursday, leaving some 34,000 public students out of class.

In a strike deemed legal by state labor officials, Oakland teachers picketed outside of their own schools in the morning, eventually gathering together for a rally outside City Hall in the afternoon. Campuses remain open but not in their usual operations, with administrators and other staff stepping in to supervise.

Outside of Fruitvale’s United for Success Academy, a stream of cars and trucks passing through 35th Avenue blared their horns to the cheers of teachers. Some students joined the picket line to back up their teachers, pointing to facility issues at the school like a rat infestation, weird smells from broken pipes and falling ceiling tiles. 

Ricardo Cruz, who teaches math at Life Academy, strikes with fellow teachers outside the school on Thursday, May 4, 2023, in Oakland. | Noah Berger for The Standard

“If the classroom isn’t suitable for me to learn, how am I going to learn?” asked Manny Rodriguez, a seventh grader at the school. “The district basically expects us to learn in the worst place. I feel like the district will catch on and know it’s serious.”

Manny Rodriguez speaks outside of Life Academy in Oakland on Thursday, May 4, 2023. | Mike Kuba/The Standard

A lack of classroom instruction does not mean schools are completely shut down. Absences for students during this period do not count toward truancy, the Oakland Unified School District said in a guide for families

United for Success teacher Michael Rodriguez, who is of no relation to Manny Rodriguez, said the schools conveyed to families that services like the health center and lunch will still be offered. Staff will also direct students who have nowhere to go to libraries and other community centers and organizations in the area. 

“We’re trying our best to be with the community, offer them what they need,” Rodriguez, who sits on the union’s bargaining committee, told The Standard. “At the same time, we’re trying to do something bigger. Any number they give may sound impressive, but it’s not going to bring teachers here. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.” 

It’s hardly an unusual scenario in California, as frustrated educators throughout the state similarly escalate labor negotiations. Los Angeles teachers had the backs of support staff on a three-day strike in March. The same month, the San Rafael Teachers Association in Marin County authorized a strike amid negotiations ongoing since November. After about a year of negotiations, West Contra Costa Unified School District reached an agreement with its educators' union that was celebrated as a victory by its teachers, who voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike.

The Oakland Education Association has been without a contract since November. Last week, its nearly 3,000 members—teachers, social workers, nurses, counselors and substitutes—overwhelmingly voted to strike. Since then, bargaining has ramped up but no consensus has yet been reached. 

Oakland Unified has since offered a 13% to 22% salary increase for teachers, retroactive to November, with a $5,000 bonus attached. The union sought a 23% raise to be competitive with neighboring districts—something that would keep teachers in Oakland public schools amid a surge in vacancies, along with proposals around staffing levels to help with issues like high caseloads for district psychologists.

The starting pay for a first-year teacher would go up about $10,000, to about $62,000. 

“Our children’s education does not need to be interrupted by negotiations with our union, especially given the major offer the district made on Monday,” the district said in a statement to parents on Tuesday. “We are committed to continuing to work with our labor leaders to discuss their salaries and support services for our students without the need for a strike. Let’s not interrupt our students’ learning.”

On March 24, hundreds of Oakland teachers conducted a wildcat strike, or a collective walkout unauthorized by the union, to demonstrate their opposition to the district’s early offers. Oakland Unified School District previously countered with a combined 8% raise while seeking to add four days to the school year.

Striking Oakland teachers and their supporters rally outside city hall on Thursday, May 4, 2023, in Oakland. | Noah Berger for The Standard

Oakland teachers also staged a one-day strike over the district’s decision to close schools and a weeklong strike in 2019 over the most recent contract.

Since the strike vote on April 17, over 600 people signed a petition started by a literacy nonprofit in Oakland and a statewide group formed to end pandemic school closures. The petition signers oppose a strike and the disruptions that come with it.

“As Oakland district families, we are enraged by this action,” the petition stated. “Our kids’ education is too important to be used as a pawn by adults who are using bad-faith tactics in (what are supposed to be) good-faith negotiations.”

The union has said unless there is an agreement reached, it will strike, leaving the action open-ended.

The teachers have maintained that it’s not just about the pay scale but ensuring support staff for students and ending the detrimental turnover. Michael Aponte, a special education teacher at Life Academy, said students often outlast the new teachers at his school. 

Life Academy special education teacher Michael Aponte speaks while striking outside United for Success Academy on Thursday, May 4, 2023, in Oakland. | Noah Berger for The Standard

“We’re just not competitive,” Aponte told The Standard at the picket line. “OUSD has repeatedly dragged their feet. We’re in it for the long haul.”

Late Thursday morning, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said his office invited “both sides to the table” to mediate negotiations. 

“We are disappointed that the parties could not find an agreement in time to avert a strike,” Thurmond said in a statement. “We observed how hard both sides worked and will start immediately working with the parties in a formal mediation capacity. Our goal is to help the parties reach an agreement and to end the strike so that students can return to class as quickly as possible.”

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