Photo: Andrew Reed/EdSource
Parents and students at a "solidarity school" protest in downtown Oakland on Feb. 27, 2019 during the Oakland teacher's strike.
This story was updated on April 9, 2019 to indicate that the dispute in San Ramon Unified has been settled.

After two teachers’ strikes in as many months in California, it is too soon to tell whether the labor disputes in Oakland and Los Angeles presage a new era of school-based activism.

But regardless of what comes next, this year’s strikes had much in common, and yielded valuable lessons and insights for other districts where labor troubles may also be brewing.

  • Both strikes were relatively short, lasting about a week. The timeline was shaped by the troubled finances of both districts that couldn’t afford to lose excessive amounts of state funds they receive based on student attendance.  Teachers also couldn’t afford to lose excessive wages by being out on strike for a lengthy period, or to take money off the bargaining table that could have been used to meet some of their demands. So there was pressure on both sides to resolve the strike within a reasonable amount of time.
  • In both cases, teachers appeared to come out ahead, achieving gains they might not have won without a strike. In Oakland’s case, teachers earned a gradual salary increase of 11 percent  — more than double the 5 percent the district offered before the strike began — although most of the gains will only come in three or four years.  In the case of Los Angeles, on the salary front teachers got less than what they demanded initially, and settled for the 6 percent over two years that the district had already offered. But they did get commitments from the district to reduce class sizes and significantly increase support staff like counselors.
  • In both strikes, demands went beyond those more typical of labor strikes which tend to focus on wages and benefits. Those were on the table, but equally important were a range of other issues , including lowering class sizes, providing more counselors, psychologists, nurses and other support staff, limiting school closures in Oakland and creating community schools in Los Angeles.  Both contracts also included provisions tied to regulating charter schools.re
  • In both Oakland and Los Angeles there remains a great deal of uncertainty about how the districts will pay for what they agreed to. In Los Angeles, Debra Duardo, the county superintendent of schools, said that the district has yet to address a projected $500 million operating deficit in 2021-22, and that the bargaining agreement “continues to move the district to insolvency.” In Oakland, Najeeb Khoury, in his official fact-finding report issued before the strike, doubted that the district could afford anywhere near a 12 percent salary increase.  Chris Learned, the state trustee appointed to approve budget expenditures, also suggested before the strike that such an increase ran the risk of putting “the district in financial distress.”
  • In both Oakland and Los Angeles, the strikes demonstrated deep public support for the teachers. It suggests that the days when teachers were held solely responsible for seemingly every shortcoming in the state’s public schools, along with the success or failure of their students, are over, at least for now.
  • In both conflicts, the teachers unions and their allies are looking to Sacramento, as well as voters, to approve more funds as a key element in making the agreements enforceable. But it is not clear where those funds would come from. Neither Gov. Gavin Newsom nor the Legislature has made any commitments beyond the funding increases that Newsom requested in his proposed budget in January.  In Los Angeles the strike did push the school board to place a long-delayed tax on real estate parcels on a June 4 special election ballot.  If approved, it would help erase the district’s projected $500 million shortfall. Whether it will pass is another matter:  it will require voters to approve it by a two-thirds margin, which the last parcel tax measure nearly a decade ago failed to get.

Unaddressed in both Oakland and Los Angeles are deeper structural issues, such as the impact of declining enrollments, the crushing costs of meeting pension obligations, and stratospheric housing costs.

Whether these underlying forces will trigger further strikes — still a relatively rare event in California — is hard to predict. In only one other California district — San Ramon Valley Unified centered in Danville, a wealthy suburban community to Oakland’s east — have teachers actually authorized their union to call a strike if contract negotiations break down, although labor conflicts are brewing in other districts like Sacramento City Unified and Fremont Unified just south of Oakland.

Update:  On March 14, teachers ratified a new contract without going out o strike.  Teachers in Sacramento Unified have called a one day strike for April 11 over a dispute on clause in their contract. 

The fact is that even with gains at  the bargaining table like those made in Oakland and Los Angeles, most teachers — and certainly beginning teachers who rely on a single income — will not be able to afford to buy a house in many urban and suburban districts, or even cover rents there.  (In the current salary schedule, teachers in Oakland with a B.A. degree make $46,570, which in three years would rise to just over $50,000 under the new contract.)

Those realities will make recruiting teachers an ongoing challenge, even as districts struggle to find teachers in key areas like math and science and special education. And it will continue to create churn in the labor force, with some teachers being tempted to leave so they can live in districts where living costs are lower — or to leave the profession altogether.

That may help explain the surprisingly large proportion of teachers in Oakland — 42 percent — who voted against ratifying the agreement.  This is one area where the Oakland strike outcome differed from Los Angeles, where only 18 percent of teachers voted against the contract. While making some significant gains at the bargaining table, many Oakland teachers sent a message that they were hoping for more.

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  1. Joe Truss 9 months ago9 months ago

    I agree. We need to find education to truly close the opportunity gap. Pay teachers higher than the living wage, decrease class sizes by half, and add more arts/intervention classes. Check out more thoughts here: http://culturallyresponsiveleadership.com/equity-free/

  2. Dan Plonsey 10 months ago10 months ago

    I agree with Mr. Freedberg that the "wins" in LA and Oakland are far from sufficient. In both cities, teachers will almost certainly lose money, in constant dollars, over the course of their new contracts, as cost of living in both areas has been increasing at ~3%/year; over 4% in the Bay Area last year. Why is it not possible for California to fund at least cost of living? Because California's wealthiest are still … Read More

    I agree with Mr. Freedberg that the “wins” in LA and Oakland are far from sufficient. In both cities, teachers will almost certainly lose money, in constant dollars, over the course of their new contracts, as cost of living in both areas has been increasing at ~3%/year; over 4% in the Bay Area last year. Why is it not possible for California to fund at least cost of living? Because California’s wealthiest are still pocketing far, far more than their share of new wealth. How long will we teachers put up with that?
    Other lessons learned: 1) Oakland teachers were not united with their classified staff. We are all in this together, and if teachers’ paltry raise is paid in part by letting go SEIU workers, then shame on OEA! 2) Rank and file need to insist on being better informed of what the current status of bargaining is, because there is too much incentive for union leadership to end a strike early. In strike after strike, teachers are being betrayed by union leadership.

  3. Jennifer Bestor 10 months ago10 months ago

    Last week’s excellent Sacramento Bee infographic, “See Where California Teachers Have the Hardest Time Paying Rent/Mortgage,” may add perspective to this issue. In many counties, the cost of buying or renting is within the usual 33%-of-income range. In a quarter of our state, it is not. "In 15 California counties, … mortgage payments on a typical home would consume more than 45 percent of the average salary for a teacher in the … Read More

    Last week’s excellent Sacramento Bee infographic, “See Where California Teachers Have the Hardest Time Paying Rent/Mortgage,” may add perspective to this issue. In many counties, the cost of buying or renting is within the usual 33%-of-income range. In a quarter of our state, it is not.

    “In 15 California counties, … mortgage payments on a typical home would consume more than 45 percent of the average salary for a teacher in the county … In four California counties, all of them in the Bay Area, [a] two-bedroom rental would take more than 45 percent of the average salary for a teacher in the county.”

    Sadly, however, the LCFF-funded districts in five of these counties could have — but did not — receive almost $650 million of education-allocated property tax — because a regional cost supplement was omitted from the final 2013 LCFF funding scheme. Instead, this extraordinary windfall, fed by rising property prices and property taxes, was reallocated last year to county, city and other local governments as “excess ERAF” (Educational Revenue Augmentation Funding).

    How will we be able to raise any “new taxes for our schools” with a straight face, when we fail to claim ones already earmarked for education?