Chapter 1 - The Strike Conceived
Five years ago consumer product prices were significantly cheaper than they are today. A gallon of gas cost consumers ninety-eight cents today it costs $1.60 per gallon; a compact disk cost about $14, oday it's closer to $16; even comic books which used to cost eightyfive cents now cost about $1.75 per issue. The rising costs of living and luxury are a result of growing inflation. Within these five years, however, many workers have suffered a serious problem: working wages have not risen to match the rise in consumer prices. Wages, then, have become less valuable, and many workers in fact have received no wage increases to accommodate for this conflict.
Workers of the Oakland Unified School District have faced similar problems. Teachers in this district have been subject to the same unequal pay problems that workers elsewhere have had to face. This is especially true for Oakland teachers, because unlike many other workers who receive small wage increases, the teachers of the Oakland school district, prior to the strike of 1996, had been without a raise for five straight years. The rise in costs of consumer necessities and, or, desires, then, had greatly outgrown the stagnant wages of working public school teachers in Oakland as well. This has been a big problem, and it has been the cause of many other problems also.
The fact that Oakland teachers toiled for five years without a raise is not ironic when it is taken into account that the contract gained by the teachers' strike of 1986 expired in June of 1994. When contracts expire, and they are not immediately reinstituted, as with the Oakland teachers' contract, it is not surprising when employers fail to appropriate raise increases to their workers. In other words, workers can, and should, expect to be abused as long as employers can expect it to be allowed. With the 1994 expiration of the Oakland teachers' contract, then, further financial abuse of teachers naturally followed.
Wages, however, were not the only expense that the Oakland school district chose to withhold from their workers. They also withheld necessary supplies that were needed for students as well as teachers. The district also refused to hire more teachers to accommodate for the growing number of students. These problems were the concerns of teachers, students and parents, but the district still refused to address the issues. By withholding the necessary funds to deal with these exterior concerns the Oakland school district was not only abusing teachers, but the students whom they teach as well.
Class sizes and the lack of necessary supplies caused severe hardships for teachers and students alike. Class sizes were perhaps the biggest problem outside of wages. The size of the class, in great part, determines the level of education that each student is able to gain. This problem was addressed by one substitute teacher who explained that:
Class size is a real problem. We have so many students in each classroom that each student does not receive the individual care that she or he might need. As a result we have students in the fourth and fifth grade who can barely read, and we also have mixed classes which cause an even greater strain on the students. For example, I teach a class that has 113 kindergarteners, 113 first graders and 113 second graders; all of them on totally different educational levels. This makes it very difficult to teach and it is the result of a lack of teachers and a lack of new available classrooms for the growing number of students.
The lack of supplies was perhaps the second greatest exterior hardship on students and teachers. "The district refuses to give us the supplies we need for the students," explains one concerned teacher, "when we ask for crayons they tell us they're out, when we ask for chalk they say they have none, and when I ask for paper so the students can do some class work it takes three weeks to get paper. We, as teachers, are forced to spend close to a thousand dollars a years on supplies for our own students." While most teachers agree they do not mind spending their own money on students, this becomes difficult when the teachers themselves haven't the financial means to do so.
The lack of supplies, the overcrowded classrooms, the five year old stagnant wages, and the absence of a contract between the Oakland school district and the teachers were becoming more and more upsetting to the teachers in the district. In order to combat these problems the teachers turned to their union for support and help. The Oakland Education Association (OEA), the union of the teachers, responded by recommending community outreach and passive requests to the district. This is exactly what the teachers did. For many months, in fact, teachers could be found in front of grocery stores and other crowded areas distributing literature about the problems within the classrooms and about teacher wages and contract. They also contacted parents and spoke with them about the problems in the district. The idea was, basically, that if the community could urge the district to respond to the teachers' concerns
then no further action would be necessary. As a result, many parents and community members did respond. The problem was that the district did not.
After several individual and collective requests by teachers, community members and the OEA to address the problems of wages and class size, the district still refused to cooperate. In response, the OEA urged teachers to walk out on strike for two days in November, 1995, on the 29th and the 30th. The teachers complied but the district again failed to respond. However, by January of 1996 the district had received a great number of requests by concerned parents and teachers expressing their desire for the union and the district to rectify the unequal problems that the teachers and students have had to face. Apparently, after these issues gained significant popularity, the district realized worker and community concerns were growing more serious, so the district was ready to negotiate.
On January 11, 1996, the district met with the OEA, several community members and teachers. Twenty minutes of negotiating took place and the district refused to cooperate anymore. Instead of responding to critical but concerned community members and workers, the district officials got up, angered, and marched out of the conference frustrated by the demands for change. "...[A]ll but one of the board members took part in an impromptu walkout," explains Oakland's Montclarion, this was their, "response to criticism from the audience." Frustrated by the district's walk out and refusal to cooperate another sporadic strike took place on January 31, 1996 at the union's request. The Oakland teachers marched out of class again and refused to work for one day. Urging further attempts at negotiation, the teachers and the OEA threatened a third and indefinite strike. As one paper reported, "Oakland teachers say strike three will begin next week if the Oakland Unified School District doesn't meet demands ranging from smaller class sizes to higher teacher salaries." Following the first and second sporadic strikes, and constant pressure from the union, the district still was not willing to meet the needs of the teachers and the community. Further action now became necessary.
1. Cadambi, Malini, Free Radio Berkeley phone interview, "Freak Show," Mar. 7, 1996.
2. Ibid., February 22, 1996.
3. Ryan, Lucinda, "Negotiations renew amid uncertainty," Montclarion. January 12, 1996.
4. Segal, Matt, "Teachers threaten long-term strike," Montclarion, February, 9. 1996.