Oakland Teachers Strike for Better Lives

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Meager pay. Crowded classrooms. A ratio of one counselor for every 600 students. The Oakland Education Association says these are just a few of the reasons that its 3,000 members, who have worked without a contract since 2017, are on strike for a third day. Contract negotiations between the union and the Oakland Unified School District continued on Friday afternoon, and though the city’s schools remain open, a spokesman for the district told New York Magazine on Friday afternoon that the “majority” of their students did not appear to be in class. It’s unclear, still, if the union and the district will make enough progress to prevent a continuation of the strike on Tuesday.

OUSD officials have said they can’t afford to meet the union’s demands, which include a 12 percent retroactive pay raise effective from 2017 to 2020 and the hiring of more support staff, like school counselors and nurses. OUSD has offered the union an 8.5 percent raise instead. In an op-ed, OUSD superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said the district must “live within” its “current financial reality,” and urged the state to increase funding for public education. The union, meanwhile, blames charter schools for siphoning needed funds away from traditional public schools. According to the OUSD, 13,219 of the district’s 50,119 students attended charter schools during the 2017 to 2018 school year.

Some of OEA’s demands are familiar. In January, Los Angeles teachers also struck, largely over charter schools, which had proliferated in the city while traditional public schools struggled to serve their student population. But the economic context of the Bay Area distinguishes Oakland’s strike from the Los Angeles strike and from other, previous teacher walkouts. Oakland’s teachers work in the nation’s costliest metro region, and with a starting salary of only $46,500, OUSD pay is low even when compared to the surrounding cities and suburbs that make up the Bay Area. The union says that that one in five Oakland teachers leave the district every year because they can no longer afford to work in the district.

Oakland, like the rest of the Bay Area, is caught in the throes of an inequality crisis. The region reportedly has the third-highest number of billionaires per capita in the world, but that prosperity hasn’t trickled down to educators or to many of their students. The wealthiest families in the San Francisco area make 11 times more than the poorest, the Mercury News reported; in nearby San Jose, wealthy families earn ten and a half times more than those in the lowest income bracket. That wealth gap has been exacerbated by rising rents. Exact rent figures vary depending on the source, but in 2018, median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland was around $2,100 a month. Housing is even less affordable in nearby cities. In San Francisco, renters who want to put their beds behind a door paid a median rent between $3,300 to $3,400 a month in 2017. As rents go up and price workers out of local housing, workers are forced to live further and further from their jobs. Apartment List, a real-estate site, compiled available U.S. Census data and found that the number of Bay Area residents who commute more than 90 minutes a day more than doubled between 2005 and 2016.

In a piece for the Bold Italic, Oakland native turned teacher Grace Bigler said that she struggled “profoundly with housing instability,” and that she had recently considered a short-term trailer rental as a move-out date loomed. She eventually found an apartment with a friend, but the situation is not ideal. “My commute has grown by 25 minutes, I had to re-home a pet, and my status as an Oakland resident expired, meaning I no longer get to share a city community with the students I serve,” she wrote.

Oakland teachers in need of affordable housing also have few local options available to them. In fact, teachers across the Bay Area endure similar indignities as they struggle to live where they work. Some cities and counties have already built affordable-housing units earmarked specifically for teachers; others have similar housing projects in the works, though they sometimes face opposition from local residents. In San Jose, for example, a proposal to build affordable housing for teachers on land on which two public schools sit was met with vehement opposition from some residents.

The OEA, for its part, has said that it opposes housing projects for teachers on principle. Its former president, Trish Gorham, told the Mercury News in 2017 that her members didn’t want “a privileged place” to live, that they were just the “canary in the coal mine.” The same inequality displacing teachers displaces the communities that have traditionally called Oakland home, too. In 1980, the Guardian has reported, black residents made up around half of Oakland’s population. In 2010, that figure had fallen to 28 percent and could fall to as low as 16 percent over the next decade if existing trends remain steady.

As the city grows whiter and more expensive, charter schools have taken root, and there’s evidence that they have contributed to the district’s financial crunch. A study from In the Public Interest, the same left-of-center think tank that studied the fiscal impact of charter schools in Los Angeles, estimates that charters cost OUSD $57.3 million during the 2016–2017 school year. The district, which has a budget shortfall due in part to declining enrollment at its traditional public schools, has already implemented drastic budget cuts that reduced resources ranging from school library staff to toilet paper, and is contemplating the closure of up to 24 schools, the East Bay Times reported. The union has called for an end to school closures as part of its contract demands, and says that the district received $23 million in extra revenue last year that it could put toward paying teachers a living wage and the hiring of necessary support staff.

The union’s demands for local schools, fair wages, and student access to health care and emotional support services all link back to an economic crisis that disadvantages teachers and students alike. In the yawning gap between the rich and the poor, the Bay Area’s public institutions struggle to bear up under a crushingly heavy economic burden. Local billionaires can afford to exempt themselves from crumbling public transit and roads clogged with commuters. Their children don’t have to rely on a school nurse for preventative health care, and they can live as close to or as far from their work as they please. Oakland’s strikers are asking for equity — for themselves, and for their students, too. As the union’s president, Keith Brown, wrote in an open letter, “We are in a struggle for the soul of public education in Oakland, and billionaires can’t teach our kids.”

This Is Why Oakland’s Teachers Are on Strike