On Monday, December 10, roughly 75 of the 90 educators at Oakland High School (OHS) gathered outside City Hall to protest their low wages. The teachers on strike were joined by 30 educators from Oakland’s Madison Park Academy and Fremont High School, as well as roughly 30 OHS students.
The strike was brought on by a dispute between the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and its teachers about wage increases. OUSD has mandated a five percent wage increase over the next five years. However, the teachers are arguing for a 12 percent increase over three years. In addition to higher wages, Oakland teachers are also asking for smaller class sizes and improved student support, such as the hiring of additional counselors and nurses. Many of the participating teachers also voiced their frustrations with the Oakland Teachers Union, saying they believe the union’s tactics have been ineffective in bringing meaningful changes, and they believe the union is moving at too slow a pace for real change to happen soon. The Oakland Education Association (OEA), an organization committed to improving wages and working conditions for teachers in Oakland, supported the strike, although the teacher’s union did not.
OHS stayed open despite the strike, hiring substitutes and condensing classes. Teachers who participated in the strike called in sick and notified the district in advance. The consequences, if any, faced by the teachers are still unclear. However, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) district officials announced that educators who called in sick as part of the strike may be subject to disciplinary action and a possible loss of pay. The aim of the strike was to put pressure on the district to increase wages at higher rates; however, Christopher Johnston, a teacher at OHS who participated in the strike, said that “a legal and potentially prolonged strike will most likely occur this spring, if a contract [with higher increases] is not signed by the end of February.”
The strike led to the creation of a student-led initiative, called “Oakland Students Rising.” The group, started by OHS senior Kimberly Wong, aims to assist their teachers as they fight for higher wages. Wong said the group was created after the strike to show that “this was not just a one time event, we are here to support our teachers.” Wong also mentioned how much she appreciates her teachers and the hard work that they do to teach her. “I admire my teachers so much, especially when I see them so motivated to make a difference,” Wong said.
As the cost of living in the Bay Area has seen a dramatic increase in the last decade, the low salaries of teachers have made it difficult for them to make ends meet. Due to high rents, many teachers cannot afford to live near their jobs, causing large turnover rates in many Bay Area schools that hurt both the teachers and their students. This is the case at OHS, where Wong recounted how one of her teachers left the school recently. “He had to leave to find a better opportunity somewhere else,” said Wong. “I understand why he didn’t want to get stuck in a job somewhere that does not pay enough.”
A recent report by EdSource for the 2016-2017 school year highlights these low wages. The report shows that OUSD teachers earned a starting salary of $46,411 that year. More experienced teachers earned $63,904, and the most experienced teachers made $83,437. Low salaries are not just a problem in Oakland. The same report shows that teachers with the least experience working in the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) made $43,336 a year, with salaries for the most experienced teacher stopping at $90,000.
Johnston also thinks part of the problem lies in the growing number of Oakland charter schools. “The district has closed traditional public schools and opened charter schools which then take away students and funds from the rest of the district,” he said.
OUSD’s response to the teachers’ strike in the coming weeks will determine whether the teachers will consider additional action this spring. OUSD teachers have been working without a contract since July 2017.