Chapter 10 - Reflecting on the Outcome of the Strike
An objective analysis of the Oakland teachers' strike can tell us many things. It first of all tells us that strikes still work. This an important factor to be taken into consideration. While not all of the demands were met, the teachers are back at work, they still have their jobs and they also now have raises. In a time when strikes are at an all time low since World War II, and strikes are being undermined by new business tactics, it is important to note those instances where workers achieve victory through striking. Their accomplishments should be studied and their flaws taken into consideration. Any victory for working people these days is an important one.
The fact that the teachers, if no one else, were victorious in this strike was a result achieved through solidarity. Teachers held the line, scab rates were low, and community support was relatively high. Solidarity is the strongest power a strike can have, without it the strike will crumble. The fact that solidarity was so high, even after an onslaught of anti-strike propaganda and sheer fabrications by the district, shows that there is real hope for the future of local workers. People of the Oakland and Bay Area communities have proven to their spectators that working class values have not gone away, and when a union presents a reasonable and all-encompassing concept such as "Classrooms First," people respond logically in support. So, if nothing else, the community has learned a valuable lesson: when an all-encompassing appeal is presented, that addresses the concerns of workers as well as the community, a wide range of support can follow. Such support can breed solidarity, and as a result the necessary ingredients for a successful labor victory can be achieved.
Since the strike was victorious, at least to some degree, the community has also learned that employer justifications for low wages and insufficient worker aid should be questioned. At the beginning of the Oakland teachers' strike it was said again and again that the demands the union was making were financially impossible. There just wasn't enough money. The district insisted that it was providing all that it could for their workers and students. However, weeks later, when the strike was won, suddenly the district has the money to pay for wage increases, retirement plans, possible class size reductions, and dental plans. One must wonder where the money evolved from, or was it there all along? There is an important lesson here that tells the community that employers cannot always be trusted, and, in fact, should be challenged. If workers are being paid unfairly, the Oakland teachers' strike showed something can be done about it.
The fact that these victories were achieved through solidarity becomes ironic though when it is revealed that the victory of the teachers came at the expense of many of the supporters. The new contract and all of its benefits were possible only because so many people supported the cause until the end. Counselors, psychologists, students, and supporters of smaller class sizes picketed side by side with teachers everyday. Instead of scabbing they fought for their rights and the rights of their teachers and fellow workers. Since it was solidarity which won the strike it would have been logical if all those supportive of the strike were included in the victorious outcome. Unfortunately, as explained, this wasn't the reality.
The failure of the contract to include all of the workers and students it concerned cannot necessarily be blamed on the teachers. While it was teachers who voted "yes" on behalf of the contract it was not teachers who presented the new contract exclusive of some of the supporters. Teachers were excited, many of them didn't read the contract thoroughly, and issues were overlooked because they were buried in contract chicanery. Therefore, it is not surprising that the teachers overlooked any details that were not completely obvious. Union leaders, however, knew exactly what the contract said and did not say. They were well aware of its problems and unfairness but uncritically presented it anyway. This reflects the level of concern high paid union leaders have for their workers, as well as the union's ability to effectively negotiate with employers. It may have been, however, the result of union leaders, aware of upcoming union elections, attempting to please the greatest body of workers quickly in order to receive support from the greatest number of voters in the near future. Whatever the reasons for the outcome of the contract, however, the real question which must be asked is Why did the OEA take so long to deal with the fact that the teachers' were working without a contract for a year and a half? Why wasn't this issue addressed in 1994 when the contract expired?
While there's room to criticize both the union and the union members, no one can take full blame for the problems of the contract. However, everyone can certainly take full credit for the victories achieved. Even the losers are responsible for the victors. When outcomes like this emerge, where many workers are pleased but many others are devastated, it reminds us that it is important to read things carefully. It is important to closely look at what is being said, and who does and does not benefit. When a contract is signed the workers are signing an agreement which will affect them for years to come. Careful reading ensures quality benefits for all sectors fought for.
While it is safe, I think, to be relatively pleased with at least a large body victory for the Oakland teachers we must remain critical of its ironies. Upon final analysis, in weighing the good and the bad, it should be taken into account that the very motto of the strike was that classrooms should be first. While teachers in the classrooms were actually first, the issues of class size were the one inclusive part of the contract which was without guarantees. Higher grade levels, as explained, were excluded, and lower grades were not ensured the needed reductions. So while a victory was won (and this indeed significant and good), ironically its main objective was pushed aside. I think, perhaps, it was put best by a Free Radio Berkeley DJ when he stated, "Classrooms First - It's a simple idea but too difficult to implement. It's a shame. It's probably gonna take a damn revolution to make it happen."
Footnotes 66 - 67
66. See The New York Times, February, 1996, "Strikes Decrease To A 50-Year Low," written by Steven Greenhouse. This information is accompanied by charts showing the decline in strikes up until present day in the United States.
67. As stated on Free Radio Berkeley, "Slave Revolt Radio," May 10, 1996.