Workers Vanguard No. 1150
8 March 2019
Oakland Teacher Anger Over Strike Settlement
Free, Quality Public Education for All!
MARCH 4—The seven-day strike by 3,000 teachers, nurses and other school staff of the Oakland Education Association (OEA) ended today with a settlement that was opposed by 42 percent of the union members who voted. At a heated union meeting on March 3 attended by over 1,000 OEA members, the bargaining committee was heckled and the proposed contract denounced. The OEA leadership claimed the settlement with the union-busting Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) was a “historic contract.” But many teachers, nurses and others who had stood solid throughout the strike weren’t buying it. No wonder. The much-vaunted wage increase won’t even keep pace with inflation in a city where teachers already can’t afford to live; class sizes were reduced by a token one or at most two students; little to nothing was granted to relieve onerous caseloads of school counselors and nurses.
A letter signed by more than 200 OEA members pointed out that the settlement “includes nothing concrete to address school closures, allowing the School Board to push through its plans to close 24 more schools and opening the door for the continued privatization of Oakland education.” A key demand of the strike was an end to school closures, which currently threaten almost a third of Oakland public schools, mainly in black and Latino neighborhoods. Instead, the OEA leadership settled for a meaningless promise of a five-month moratorium on school closures, i.e., simply putting it off until August. As for the privately run charter schools, which already claim almost 30 percent of Oakland students, the agreement calls on the school board to request a moratorium on new charters from California’s Democratic Party governor, Gavin Newsom.
In a school district whose students are 89 percent Latino, black, Asian and other minority, many working-class and poor parents actively sympathized with the OEA strike. Despite the district’s efforts to intimidate parents and teachers, 97 percent of students stayed away, a number of them joining the picket lines. The Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which organizes clerical, paraprofessionals and other school employees, went out in solidarity for the duration of the strike.
On March 1, unionized building trades workers refused to cross a picket line at an OUSD construction site, shutting it down tight. The same day, a 1,000-strong picket line chanting “Get up! Get down! Oakland is a union town!” shut down the building where the OUSD was scheduled to vote $22 million in school budget cuts. But, just as union support for the teachers strike was building, the OEA misleaders announced they had a settlement.
Once again, struggle by the unions was subordinated to the trade-union bureaucracy’s fealty to the capitalist Democratic Party. Like their counterparts in the Los Angeles teachers union leadership who rammed through a similar agreement (see “Popular L.A. Teachers Strike Sold Short,” WV No. 1148, 8 February), the OEA misleaders peddle the treacherous delusion that the Democratic administration of California is going to defend public education. What a joke! For more than four decades Oakland’s public schools have been deliberately starved of funding and resources under various Democratic administrations, local and state alike. The California Democrats have also gone to great lengths to expand charter schools, with Oakland having a higher proportion of students in charter schools than any other district in the state.
In 2003, then Oakland mayor Jerry Brown, along with other Democrats, drove the OUSD into bankruptcy so that the state could take over the district, paving the way for the proliferation of charter schools. Today, the OUSD claims that its high debt to the state means there is no money for teachers, support staff or schools. The OEA leadership dances to this tune, accepting the limits on the school budget that are set by the capitalist rulers.
There is a crying need for a class-struggle fight for free, quality, integrated public education for all. But this just and basic demand runs directly up against the obscenely wealthy capitalist class that controls the means of production, distribution and exchange. Capitalists invest nothing in education for working-class and minority youth beyond what they expect to be able to recoup from exploiting their labor. How many resources for public education, decent medical care and housing can be wrested from the capitalist rulers depends on the relationship of forces in the class struggle.
The power to effectively wage such a battle lies with the working class. But the workers can’t do so when they are chained to their class enemies in the Democratic Party, no less a party of racist capitalist rule than the Republicans. What’s needed is a labor leadership that will arm the workers with the understanding that the only road to victory lies in mobilizing their power as a class against all the political parties and agencies of their exploiters. The fight to satisfy the needs of the workers and all the oppressed must be linked to forging a multiracial revolutionary workers party whose aim is the abolition of capitalist wage slavery and the institution of a workers government.
Separate and Unequal
Universal public education in this country was the product of revolutionary struggle, the victory of the North over the Southern slavocracy in the Civil War and the ensuing period of Radical Reconstruction. Slaves were banned by their masters from reading and writing. Recognizing the importance of literacy, the black soldiers, who were critical to the Union victory, went into battle with spelling primers strapped to the same belt as their cartridge boxes. But the promise of black freedom was betrayed by the Northern bourgeoisie, who brought Reconstruction to an end with the withdrawal of the Union troops that had defended the black freedmen.
In the aftermath, the system of Jim Crow was established in the South. The segregation of schools and all aspects of public life was enforced through terror as black people were forcibly subjugated at the bottom of society. The mass struggles of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s brought down Jim Crow in the South. However, the pro-capitalist leadership of that movement, which looked to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, could not make a dent in the de facto segregation of black people in the North. Black oppression is rooted in the system of American capitalism which uses black people as a “reserve army of labor”—the last hired and the first fired.
Today, the war against public education is a measure of the decay of American capitalism. With the destruction of hundreds of thousands of unionized industrial and other manufacturing jobs, the poor have been all but written off as an expendable population. The passage of California’s Proposition 13 in 1978, which capped property taxes on which schools depended, was a watershed in the racist onslaught against social programs viewed as benefiting black people and Latinos.
By 1996, the last time the OEA had a significant strike, Oakland’s school district, then majority black, was in a dead heat with Washington, D.C., as the worst in the U.S. (which itself ranks well below most other advanced industrial countries). The same year, Prop. 209 abolished affirmative action in public education, slashing university admissions for black, Latino and Native American students. In 1998, taking aim at the growing population of Latino and other immigrants in California, Prop. 227 banned bilingual education in public schools, although its “English only” requirement was overturned in 2016. Today, half of Oakland public school students speak a language other than English at home. The fight for bilingual education is vital for immigrants, and beneficial for native-born students, who would gain from learning another language.
The same government forces that reduced public education for black and Latino youth to decrepit, heavily policed schools joined with billionaire “school reformers” to sell charter schools to desperate black and Latino parents as an alternative. In fact, charters increase racial segregation and class inequality while undermining teachers unions. Charter school teachers are forced to work hellish hours with no job protections. A fight to unionize charter schools would be a major step toward eliminating the charter industry and bringing charter teachers and staff into the public school system. Standing in the way of such struggle are the teachers union misleaders, who accept the existence of charters and make groveling appeals to the Democrats to simply regulate them.
Break with the Democrats! For a Class-Struggle Workers Party!
As the L.A. and Oakland teachers strikes clearly show, embracing the backstabbing “friend of labor” Democrats is a dead end. Yet a panoply of fake socialists works overtime to put lipstick on the Democratic donkey. Foremost among them in the teachers strikes has been the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which hailed the OEA settlement as a “huge victory” against “billionaires and their lackeys.” Itself an integral part of the Democratic Party, the DSA peddles the delusion that there is a fundamental difference between establishment Democrats and “progressive” Democrats. In fact, the role played by such progressives is to keep discontented workers and minorities shackled to the capitalist Democrats.
Meanwhile, taking their usual side with the union-busters were supporters of David North’s World Socialist Web Site. Purporting to offer “a fighting program for Oakland teachers,” this sinister outfit demanded that education workers “break with the unions.” This is an open call to bust the OEA. No one should be fooled by these scab socialists’ call for “rank-and-file committees.”
Unions are the basic defensive organizations of the working class; what is needed is a fight for a class-struggle union leadership. This must be linked to forging a workers party dedicated to constructing a socialist America. Only when those who labor rule can society be organized on an egalitarian basis, with quality housing, health care and education for all.