Oakland Teachers Will Win

Dalia Fernandes

It takes the town to shut it down.

Today is day seven for the teachers’ strike taking over the city of Oakland, California. On day two, crowds of people wearing red hoodies emblazoned with the slogan “Teachers Are the Heart of Oakland” packed West Oakland’s Lil’ Bobby Hutton Park. Teachers and members of the Oakland Educational Association (OEA) stood holding a banner that spoke to the recurring sentiment of these teachers’ strikes: “Oakland Teachers and Families United for Public Schools.” Punctuating this, students, teachers, and parents most affected by the pending shutdown of twenty four Oakland public schools protested using another banner that read: “No Cuts, No Closures.” These slogans symbolized the key demands of the strikers: no school closures, class-size reductions, a 12-percent teacher salary raise towards a living wage, as well as an increase of critical school support staff like nurses, counselors, speech language pathologists, and psychologists, to name a few. Each day a rowdy rally is held between the morning and afternoon pickets outside local schools.

“The picket line becomes a place for people from a variety of working-class backgrounds to gather and trade strategies of resistance.”

This particular march was on its way to Jack London Square to antagonize the office of GO Public Schools (GOPS), one of the leading agents of pro–charter philanthropy. I am a special education teacher for middle and high schools. While some of my coworkers knew the role GOPS plays in funneling corporate dollars into school board elections and pro–charter school media campaigns, many more saw and understood for the first time the organization’s powerful role in the future of Oakland public education. The superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell, advocates for charter schools, as do OUSD school board members. After the protest at the GOPS office, we left in groups to head back to our schools to resume the pickets.

On the march back, we passed the entrance to the Port of Oakland. The sight of the port brought back a flood of memories. After the eviction of Occupy Oakland, a citywide general strike managed to shut down the entrance to the port for many hours. The rally at the GOPS office was an important move in the long-simmering fight against privatization, but the presence of the port left us wondering what it would take for this strike to expand and perhaps shut down the port again. This past week’s strike—especially the “solidarity schools” and the militant pickets that have turned away scabs—makes me feel like we are on our way there, just like so many other teachers’ strikes across the nation, which have become moments of citywide resistance against exploitative working conditions and school privatization.

Strike Solidarity Schools

Walking back to my car, I passed a church. A group of students on the other side of the fence were chanting, “We deserve teachers! We deserve teachers!” The church had been set up as a strike “solidarity school,” where volunteers looked after school children, giving them an alternative place to go during the strike. I had helped build the infrastructure for these schools alongside union members and community activists. Socialist organizations—the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in particular—took on the task of coordinating donations for food that could help feed children in solidarity schools. Committees like Bread for Education took on the task of coordinating online donations, the assembly of thousands of bagged lunches, and hubs for drop-off and distribution of food to the solidarity committees. These committees organized on the fly, and kept up the organization of food support in order to ensure that solidarity schools had what they needed to keep the students out of school. I started thinking about the whirlwind of activity that I’ve been engaged in for the past few months in the lead-up to this strike. The organization of the solidarity schools is an example of community and worker solidarity—solidarity that’s been there, latent, for a long time, but which we’ve tapped into in a major way as part of the strike wave rippling across the United States: West Virginia, Los Angeles, Denver, and Oakland.

The Whirlwind Before

As a relatively new teacher, one of the first union events I went to was a membership meeting called in May of last year to discuss the possibility of a citywide strike. There were only two hundred people there, out of a union membership of around three thousand. “Oh my god,” I thought. “We have hella organizing to do!” At that moment I realized how much I and other teachers needed to step up in order to make the approaching strike happen.

A few weeks later, I participated in my first act of community outreach. I drafted a flyer, made copies, cut them up with a paper guillotine, and handed them out in the school parking lot to parents. My coworkers didn’t even show up to help, so I was there by myself passing out flyers on the last day of school! “Tal vez vamos en huelga,” I told the passing parents. Even though it was just me, I had some good conversations that led me to believe there was a lot of support from parents. A family told me about their experiences as part of a community organizing effort that won a new building for La Escuelita elementary school on 2nd Avenue and East 10th Street. The student’s father then told me that they also support “el dos.” I didn’t know what “el dos” referred to in that moment, but later my friends told me that he meant UNITE HERE Local 2, a hotel workers’ union that, at the time, was in the middle of a heroic nine-week strike. This was a reminder that there are probably many parents who are already taking actions against their employers and who already have experiences organizing against the school district––as they did at La Escuelita. Conversations with parents revealed that while the contract negotiation was a huge step in organizing for this teachers’ strike, we were, in a way, catching up to what some of our community was already in the midst of back home and at work. That day for me set the rhythm for the next few months: we are a country on strike.

After that, I joined public outreach efforts with my neighbors, retirees, Democratic Socialists, and others who all participated in crucial ways in the lead-up to the strike. House meetings were organized by activists who taught at local schools and whose family members attended those schools. Parents who were invited to these house meetings came to hear discussions about the objectives of the strike and left with tasks to carry out. These meetings were how the strike solidarity schools were organized.

Convergence on the Picket Lines

We come out at 6:30 every morning to picket until noon, hold citywide rallies or go on a march like the one at Lil’ Bobby Hutton Park, and then go back to our schools to picket again until the afternoon. After the second pickets, picket captains meet in a crowded room with long tables to debrief about how the day went and to debate strategy for the coming days. The hall where we meet is so loud with the recounting of the day’s pickets that you have to yell to your neighbor to be heard over everyone’s strategizing. These vital assemblies are key to the innovation and creativity of the striking teachers, who have gone beyond the usual picket-line tactics and been self-reflective throughout.

It hasn’t just been teachers on the picket lines. Service workers from AFSCME and SEIU, who also work in OUSD schools, have shown up to support. Some of them have had to take sick days or days without pay in order to walk the picket line with us. Miguel, a public school custodian politicized by the strike, urged us to make sure we shut down the whole school. He provided us with logistical support to help block the entrances with roving pickets to make sure that workers who show up have as difficult a time as possible getting in. We sent picket squads to all corners of the campus, which spans a full city block. Custodians really know how to shut a place down! Workers from unions outside of OUSD have also shown support: teamsters and construction workers brought stories of their own strikes to share with us. The picket line becomes a place for people from a variety of working-class backgrounds to gather and trade strategies of resistance––where whole new layers of people learn how to collectively struggle.

“The next day, the striking teachers decided they would blockade the kitchen building so that food delivery trucks, which arrive at the central kitchen around 2:30 a.m., could not make their deliveries.”

At my school, many of us have never built a picket line before. We had to use our knowledge of the infrastructure of our workplace for new purposes, namely figuring out where scabs and other workers might be tempted to cross the picket line. This whole strike has involved a lot of trial and error. For example, on the first day of the strike, we failed to position a picket squad at a small back gate in the corner of the school, and a couple of scab substitute teachers and other support staff were able to cross. On the second day, we made sure to send people to this corner gate so that when these workers pulled up in their cars, we would be able to confront them directly.

One worker pulled up around 7:30 a.m. and we sent one of our picketers to stand next to the driver’s-side door of the worker’s car and reason with her. This was a challenge because many of us picketing at this entrance didn’t know the worker personally, but we did know that she was a support-staff worker who made less money than we do. After some patient but insistent persuasion, she eventually called her supervisor and said that she could not safely enter the school because of our picket. Then she reversed her car and left. Many of us are new to building and holding a strong picket line because we haven’t participated in a strike before. But hundreds of us have come to understand the importance of a strong picket line through the process of building one.

Blockade the Central Kitchen

On the first day of the strike, activists and teachers noticed that the central kitchen responsible for food distribution to all Oakland public schools was located adjacent to Prescott Elementary School. Teachers on the Prescott picket line handed out flyers in English, Cantonese, and Spanish to kitchen workers to convince them that they could take a day off without losing pay. Their union, AFSCME, has a clause in its contract stating that union members do not have to cross picket lines. Still, many workers were unconvinced, and headed into the kitchen to carry out their work. The next day, the striking teachers decided they would blockade the kitchen building so that food delivery trucks, which arrive at the central kitchen around 2:30 a.m., could not make their deliveries. When the strikers arrived in the middle of the night, the fence was already chained shut! Someone else, in solidarity with the teachers, had already shut down the central kitchen. The teachers hung a banner on the fence that read, “The Teachers Will Win.” Then they moved a twenty-five-foot table weighing over a hundred pounds in front of the chained gate. The table blockade quickly became a picnic as teachers and their supporters showed up with coffee, donuts, and other treats to share. When delivery trucks arrived at the central kitchen, the picketing teachers approached the trucks and talked to the drivers. After a long conversation, the drivers cancelled their deliveries and drove away. They haven’t returned since. This level of solidarity from outside activists demonstrates the power that people have to escalate strike actions even when they’re not directly connected to the organizations on strike.

The Strike Continues

As a wave of teachers’ strikes ripples across the country, we should look to the strike in Oakland for three key lessons: the nightly assemblies led by picket captains have given participants from different communities and political tendencies a place to come together and debate strategy; the picket lines and the central kitchen blockade have provided a way for teachers and activists alike to participate in the strike, disrupting the education economy together; the planning that went into the solidarity schools resulted in a networked city of resistance capable of the rapid distribution of goods and care. Today, the strike continues. On February 27, we shut down the school board meeting for a second time and danced in the streets under the February rain. Today, we will do it for a third time. We will continue to strike for a strong contract, but the momentum and solidarity that this strike has built will carry forward far beyond that. There are twenty-four Oakland schools facing closure in the coming year. We are ready to fight against this. The tactical innovations and the relationships that have come with them must be channeled towards future actions and disruptions after our pickets come down.