Oakland, CA — In the latest indication that public school teachers are leading a national labor movement, Oakland teachers ended a seven-day strike last week. Mayor Libby Schaaf called it a “historic day” for the city.
The teachers in Oakland Unified School District had been without a contract for over a year. With support from students, community advocates and fellow teachers from outside the district, they were able to secure an 11 percent salary increase over four years and one-time three percent bonus. The district also agreed to gradually reduce class sizes, starting with the most at-risk schools.
While the union endorsed the agreement, many Oakland teachers and students feel shortchanged, especially after the board of education cut more than 20 million dollars from next year's budget a few days after the strike ended. The cuts will affect social programs for restorative justice and foster youth.
Oakland’s controversial settlement begs the question: how does this deal compare to other strikes from across the country?
Almost half a million workers across industries went on strike last year, according to U.S. Labor Department data. 2018 saw the highest number of strikers in over 30 years, and teachers are prominent leaders of this new labor movement.
The wave of high-profile teacher strikes began in West Virginia just over a year ago. In February 2018, public school teachers from across the state took to the picket lines. West Virginia teachers had not received a raise since 2014 and were among the lowest paid in the country. After nine days on strike, teachers won a contentious battle, winning a 5 percent pay increase and a pause on increasing health insurance premiums. (Recently, West Virginia teachers voted to strike again if a new education bill in the state legislature becomes law.)
West Virginia teachers sparked strikes in several other states including Oklahoma, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Colorado.
The largest teacher strike came shortly after the 2018 West Virginia protests: in April of that same year, 81,000 Arizona teachers and school staff walked out for six days. While they didn’t meet all of their goals — such as an increase in counselors, nurses
The first wave of teacher strikes in 2018 were often referred to as “Red State Revolts.” Many took place in predominantly conservative states facing cuts to education spending. They hit before the midterm elections and served as major political talking points for candidates seeking office.
The latest round of strikes in 2019 are happening in a very different political climate and in places with progressive leadership, like Denver, Los Angeles, and Oakland. When I interviewed teachers in Oakland, they described downtrodden conditions in schools. “The students are not getting the things that they need, which is like paper, pencils, rulers, markers, basic necessities. We don’t have soap in our bathrooms,” said Elena Martyn, 30, a math teacher at Life Academy.
Until the mid-90s, teacher pay was comparable to that of other educated workers, according to a study from the Economic Policy Institute. Over the past 20 years, teacher pay has sharply eroded. As of 2017, teachers were paid more than 18 percent less than comparably educated workers.
Other teachers described the difficulties of surviving in the Bay Area on teachers’ wages. “Our two teacher salaries are not enough for daycare and preschool for two children, rent for a two bedroom apartment. We just can’t make ends meet in the city that we teach in,” said Mitch Singsheim, 35, a science teacher at Castlemont High School who is married to a fellow Oakland educator. His family plans to leave the Bay Area this summer.