Strategy and Analysis to Defend and Transform Public Education

Why Teachers Should Care About the Contract: Aram Mendoza

This is a recent article from our newest newsletter analyzing the OEA contract struggle.  We post it here so you can access the citations and hyperlinks.  Here, Aram Mendoza analyzes the current contract negotiations of OEA and its importance for Oakland teachers and, more widely, the needs of Oakland students.  Aram also raises some very concrete tactics and next steps for individual teachers and teachers as a whole.

CTU FairContractNow

A Chicago teacher on strike last fall.

Why Teachers Should Care About the Contract

By Aram Mendoza

Oakland teachers, do we care about having a union?
Do we care about having a good contract?
What is an imposition and what should teachers do about it?

These are not rhetorical questions.

The reality is that we have been under an imposed “contract” since 2010.  What does this mean?  Simply put: Tony Smith and the OUSD school board have unilaterally, dictatorially, and undemocratically imposed terms of work upon education workers.  It means that the “last, best, and final” offer was put on the table by the OUSD district bargaining team and was NOT agreed to by the OEA bargaining team. Though this imposition was carried out in April of 2010 (which was why OEA’s last strike was in that same month), it was not the last time that Smith and the Board have imposed on education workers: last year’s “Accelerated TSA” campaign was imposed on Fremont, McClymonds, and Castlemont teachers without any public, democratic process.  More on this later.

Back to our current contract situation – we must ask: does our contract really matter?  As I’ve talked to co-workers and friends who are teachers in Oakland’s public schools I’ve come to see the total lack of information that we have in relation to our own contractual agreement with the district.

I spoke with one veteran teacher of 19 years at my school the other day about what it means for Oakland teachers to be under an imposed contract.  She told me, “I have no idea why we haven’t had a real raise in so many years . . . and it impacts us by creating a situation in which we are working under conditions of disrespect.  It’s no surprise that teachers like me – people who have been in this for over 15 years – are few and far between.  It’s much easier to transfer to another district and actually make decent money to support my family with.”

The lack of a strong contract that guarantees certain crucial working conditions for teachers leads to the high rate of teacher-turnover that we see year after year in Oakland. This, in turn, contributes to the continual destabilization of Oakland schools.

Being able to negotiate a contract is not just about raises. It is about having our union be able to negotiate for all of our rights as workers and also our vision for education. Our contract is the legal guarantee of our rights. The ability to negotiate a strong contract is the tangible representation of our power, as a voice for ourselves and for education in Oakland.

Without a contract we are at the whim of the districts short sighted plans of “improvement” (and the ways that teachers are displaced and disregarded in these plans). Last year, this looked like school closures (with over 100 teachers being displaced) and Accelerated TSA positions imposed on three high school staffs. The Accelerated TSA situation at Castlemont, Fremont, and McClymonds highlights the dictatorial nature of Smith and the Board’s decision making process, but it also highlights the contradictory nature of the current strategy employed by the OEA.  The reality is that the Accelerated TSA proposal was actually favored by many teachers at the aforementioned schools.  When I’ve spoken to teachers at all three schools, many have acknowledged the fact that A-TSA is a union-busting tactic, but at the same time they’ve expressed that they don’t feel much connection to the union and thereby aren’t convinced that an attack on the union is actually an attack on their working conditions!  Clearly work needs to be done to bring together school workers and the school community to have more comprehensive political discussion about our positions as workers and how to move forward (more on this below.)

Cartoon on Teacher and Social Problems

Regardless of our positions on whether or not these were the correct steps for Oakland schools, it is clear that OEA was in no position to actually fight back against these and propose something different.  Without an active base of teachers organized at the school-site level, it will be impossible to get a contract that will benefit our conditions as workers and the conditions of learning of our students. Without an active interrogation of OEA’s current strategy and slogans we will not be able to build the type of teacher base which can be an actual force fighting in the interests of ourselves as workers, for our students as learners, and for the communities we serve as a whole.  The situation at Fremont, Castlemont, and McClymonds reveals a schism that exists between an important section of teachers and our union.  Our next steps must include bridging this rift.

One of the OEA’s current slogans is that “teachers working conditions are students learning conditions.” This may be an oversimplification but there is deep truth to the fact that if teachers do not have job stability, if they are constantly pushed to have larger class sizes, and lack prep time, then students are faced with teachers who are not in very good shape to facilitate classroom learning.  We might just as well reverse the slogan and say that student’s learning conditions are determined by teacher’s working conditions (not to mention the conditions of the community), but the essence of the point is the same: we must fight as teachers for our interests as workers in order to fully fight for the whole community’s interests.

Another way of framing this is that whether we are teachers or students, all of us have the same boss: the district and superintendent.


Where do we go from here?

The fact of the matter is that we’re dealing with an employer – the district and superintendent – who have no problem imposing work conditions on us and our students no matter how “collaborative” we wish to be at the bargaining table.  The policies that Smith and the Board are carrying out and imposing on us reflect the policies of budget cuts and privatization that have swept much of the world – from Chicago to Greece and beyond.

Smith and the Board have NOT put their jobs on the line to fight school budget cuts by sitting-in at the offices of their superiors and demanding more money from the state to fund education and job creation.  Rather they have accepted these cuts and to ease their impact have built partnerships with philanthropic corporate-backed foundations such as the Bechtel Foundation – the same people who are profiting from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Our employers will only respond to a show of force on our part, as teachers, and that force comes in the form of a community strike of teachers, parents, and students. The reality is that we’re nowhere near having the political will and organizational structure to build such a strike.  So we must start from where we’re at.

Currently, we (OEA) are in bargaining with these people.  This means that we’re not “strike legal” – meaning, we can’t legally organize a strike.  As of now, our relationships with parents are mixed: some of us have strong relations with parents and understand the material needs they have, while others of us are not in direct communication with many parents.  Our relationships with students are equally mixed.  There’s a long way to go to build the political relationships we need to fight for what Oakland’s youth deserve, and there’s no better time to start than now.

Ultimately, it will take embedding ourselves within the struggles of working parents and politicized students in order to maximize our own organizing efforts.  For now, I will focus on what we can do more narrowly as workers in order to build a base that can be supportive of our own direct struggles as well as those of the community.


In terms of what we can do within typical workplace-organizing framework we have few possible directions.  Under imposition, we have two main options: organizing a wildcat strike or organizing a work-to-rule campaign.  Briefly, a wildcat strike is an “illegal” strike by workers that is often not sanctioned by the union leadership and often targets both the employer and the union leadership.  Workers have historically organized wildcat strikes when the union leadership has not provided a way forward that actually confronts the employer directly, and where this same leadership is more interested in collaboration with the employer than with negotiating the best terms for their workers.  Teachers have organized wildcat strikes against high stakes testing and imposed contracts in places like Miami, Ottawa, and Virginia, among other places.

(Links to teacher wildcats )

Work-to-rule, on the other hand, is a set of actions that workers take where they do no more than the minimum required by the contract.  Teachers in both Hawaii and the UK recently organized work-to-rule actions where they took different approaches toward targeting their employers.  In the UK, workers specifically targeted their management by refusing to have more than one meeting with their administrators per week, refused to have more than the minimum number of observations in a given “performance management cycle,” and refused to hand in short-term curriculum planning documents.  On the other hand, the Hawaiian teachers employed work-to-rule tactics by coming to school right at the start of the school day, as opposed to coming in early to prepare for the days activities.  They also left right at 3pm, meaning that all after-school activities were effectively shut down.

(Links to Hawaii and UK work-to-rule:

Hawaii teachers during a work-to-rule action.

Hawaii teachers celebrate their work-to-rule campaign.

While these are two main ways that teachers have used to carry out the struggle for power at the workplace and for a strong contract with their employers, are they the only ways? Are they the best ways?

One of the challenges that we face as teachers is that we are care workers. As teachers (similarly to parents) we are charged with the double duty of caring for our students and children to help them develop socially, emotionally, and academically, while doing all of this in the context of capitalist society which requires us to train them to join a disciplined pool of workers.  We work for the positive and progressive development of our young people’s humanity, while also being charged by the state and capital with the duty of producing a docile workforce.  If we are honest with ourselves we may see how we do both, often contradictory, forms of work in the course of a given school day.

The reason that engaging in workplace and contractual struggles as care workers is challenging, is that we are ultimately responsible for the well-being of the young people.  That means if we strike, during the school day, where will the students go? Where will students spend their days? Who will be responsible for them if their parents are not available to care for them because they have to go to work themselves?  Equally pressing for care workers is: if we don’t go on strike, what is the future for our student’s education in Oakland? Fighting for our contract, makes us unable to fulfill our duties as care workers for a series of days or weeks but not fighting for our contract has contributed to a situation where on a daily basis we feel like we are failing our students.

The answer to this question is not to give up the strategy of workplace actions.  Rather, it presses us to consider the necessity of making our workplace actions ones in which there is active support and participation by parents and community. This will ensure that our struggle doesn’t destroy our caring relationships with young people, but rather reinforce the positive relationships we already have AND strengthens them by acting against the restraints of our employers which are seeking to impose harsher and harsher working conditions on us. These are the same working conditions that push high-stakes testing as the main way of evaluating us as teachers, and they are also the same conditions which put more and more students in our classrooms, which means less and less time that we have to individually support each young person who comes in through our classroom doors.


In mid-January of this year, teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School publicly declared that they would boycott the imposition of district-mandated standardized testing of their students.  This effort sought to unite the interests of students and teachers in a common campaign of resistance: students are negatively affected by the whole tracking system that these tests reinforce, with all it’s racialized implications, while teachers are negatively affected by being evaluated on their work with students based on these tests.  The Seattle teacher’s heroic stand is a battle that they are in the midst of fighting, and is a model for all of us to consider as we seek a way forward for ourselves that brings together our interests as workers and the interests of working families and students that we serve.

Recently, special education classes at two different OUSD elementary schools have seen consolidations; in one case, a class that formerly had two teachers to serve a given amount of students was cut down to one teacher; in the other case, a special education teacher was serving students at two school sites with a student-to-teacher ratio of more than 40-1.  In both these instances, parents and teachers were quick to rally together and go to the school board to denounce the layoffs for BOTH the effects it would have on teachers AND the effects it would have in undermining the quality education of students.  At both schools, teachers began talking with parents, passing out flyers at the beginning of the school day, and mobilizing forces from the staff and school community to make public speeches at the school board.  As a result of this joint struggle, one of the teachers facing the imposition of an unmanageable teacher-student ratio was given a reduction in students to whom they were responsible for serving, while at the other campus the parents and teachers began a legal mediation procedure to determine what would happen.

Without going into the specificities of either case at this moment, we must see the potential for broader united action in these micro-examples of struggle.  The fact of the matter is that the consolidations of both these special education positions must be understood in relation to the objectively terrible position we are in as teachers – we are under an imposition by our employer.  Therefore all small struggles at local school sites are struggles against the conditions of imposition, even if they are not always directly understood as such.

CTU teachers on strike. Note their signs raising working class wide demands calling for unity between teachers, parents, and students.

Chicago teachers on strike demanding better conditions for their students.

What if we had a network of teachers, parents, and after-school workers who were ready and on-call to show up at a given school site to carry out direct protests and pass out flyers whenever there was the threat of increased class sizes?  What if this same network was ready to interrupt school board meetings and insist that the official proceedings be halted until our demands to rescind layoffs and consolidations were met?  What if our school sites became organizing hubs that transformed the established relationships between parents, students, and educators into political relationships formed through shared struggle? We can start building towards this by having parent meetings to discuss the connections between teacher working conditions and student learning conditions; staff meetings of all non-administrators to discuss the nexus between after-school and non-unionized staff working conditions with the working conditions of OEA members. To what extent are these types of political relationships being built already? To what extent are these relationships materializing through struggle against micro-examples of workplace exploitation such as those special education examples briefly illustrated above?

It is my belief that we must strengthen our base of support across all our co-workers, with students and with parents, by carrying out direct actions and political education at our workplaces.  This is the way in which we will best develop the active base that can play a role in fighting for a quality contract for teachers, and using the contractual struggle to fight for better conditions for all workers, parents, and students involved in OUSD.

Here are concrete things we can all do:

  1. Begin meeting with our co-workers – formally and informally.  Discuss the conditions of work and determine what are the major issues that are holding us back from working with our students in the ways that we deem appropriate.
  2. Attend all OEA events and network with teachers from across the district; discuss common areas of concern and begin developing the infrastructure needed to coordinate mutual aid and actions that can support struggles at individual schools when they arise.  Become an OEA site-rep if your school doesn’t have one; if you already have one, become an alternate.  Read all bargaining updates and discuss them with your coworkers.  What are their thoughts?  What should we advocate for in contract negotiations, and how?
  3. Discuss with parents the challenges they are facing in the community and in relation to raising their children.  What are their material needs that are not being met?  Think of resources to share with them that can support them in their struggles on the job, with housing, with immigration status, etc.  Ask them what resources they know about that you can share with other parents that may not have access.  Share with them your best understanding of the current situation that OUSD is in – talk about privatization, austerity, etc.  Read up on these topics to the extent that you’re not clear on them.
  4. Talk with your most politicized students about the issues that you both face as students and workers.  Where do your interests intersect?  Where are potential differences in interests?  What do they know about student movements in other parts of the world – Chile, Greece, Egypt, etc.?

One comment on “Why Teachers Should Care About the Contract: Aram Mendoza

  1. Pingback: Our Newest Newsletter! « Classroom Struggle

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