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Antonucci: Oakland and Los Angeles — a tale of two teacher strikes

Mike Antonucci | February 5, 2019

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Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears weekly at LA School Report.

Members of the Oakland Education Association voted to authorize a strike by a margin of 2,206 to 105, the union announced Monday. A fact-finding report is not due to be issued until the middle of the month, so a potential strike probably cannot be launched until after President’s Day.

Coming so soon on the heels of the Los Angeles teacher strike, comparisons are inevitable. Similarities in bargaining issues and messaging will be obvious. But there are important differences too.

When you have 32,000 teachers on strike in the nation’s second-largest school district — and a media capital at that — it will draw massive attention. Oakland will also draw attention, but much of it as a byproduct of the Los Angeles teacher strike and the red state walkouts of 2018.

With 3,000 active members, OEA is less than one-tenth the size of United Teachers Los Angeles, and it’s not even the largest teacher union in the Bay Area. We can expect a greatly diminished media presence relative to L.A.

We will see familiar tactics. OEA distributed a strike readiness toolkit to members, just as UTLA did. Its statewide parent union, the California Teachers Association, will support solidarity actions on Feb. 15 across the state to draw attention to Oakland. There are also plans to stage informational picketing in other school districts on the second day of an Oakland strike.

Among the ranks of the OEA leadership are officers who are even more militant than those in UTLA. There will be lots of messaging about privatizers and corporations in one of the most politically liberal areas of the nation. However, Oakland lacks a convenient individual target for that messaging.

Where L.A. Unified was led by Austin Beutner, a white, male public education neophyte with a corporate background, Oakland Unified is led by Kyla Johnson-Trammell, an African-American female who attended Oakland public schools and has spent her entire career working for the district, first as a teacher. She has a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of California at Berkeley. She will not get the Beutner treatment from the union.

As negotiations developed in Los Angeles, class size reduction emerged as the primary issue and salary increases diminished in importance. Teacher pay lost during the strike amounted to more than half of the negotiated raise, which the district offered well before the strike was called.

In Oakland, these two issues are reversed. The union always wants to reduce class sizes, but the major sticking point is pay. According to OEA, the union wants a 12 percent increase over three years, while the district has offered 5 percent. That’s a tremendous gap to bridge. The district’s ability to do so is another bone of contention.

As in L.A., Oakland Unified is in danger of county or state takeover because of a structural deficit. And as in L.A., the union claims the district is mismanaging funds and hoarding reserves.

The difference is that Oakland Unified is suffering a hangover from a previous state takeover, which occurred in 2003 and lasted until 2009. The district is still repaying a $100 million loan from that period.

Despite the differences, the end of an Oakland teacher strike will look substantially the same as the end of the L.A. teacher strike. Whatever compromises are made will be paid for with “a leap of faith” — a phrase used by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti to describe putting obligations in the contract for which there are no funds currently available.

A strong economy may keep such commitments from biting us in the future, but it is always good advice to look before you leap.

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