Lessons from the Los Angeles and Oakland teachers’ strikes

Teachers in the nation's second-largest school district will go on strike as soon as Jan. 10 if there's no settlement of its long-running contract dispute, union leaders said Wednesday, Dec. 19. The announcement by United Teachers Los Angeles threatens the first strike against the Los Angeles Unified School District in nearly 30 years and follows about 20 months of negotiations. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) ORG XMIT: CADD303

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 the 3rd year of the agreement. In the case of Los Angeles, on the salary front teachers got less than what they demanded initially, and settled for the 6 percent 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-delay 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.

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.

Louis Freedberg writes about education reforms in California and nationally, and is the executive director of EdSource.