Sunday, January 15, 2006

Teachers' Strike Looming In Oakland?

Things aren't looking too good for students or teachers in the Oakland, California:
The discovery of a multimillion-dollar budget deficit. A state takeover. What can happen to the Oakland public schools next? A teachers strike?

A state-mandated fact-finding report is expected in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, both sides of the teachers contract dispute have been ratcheting up the rhetoric. Union officials used the "S" word during a school board meeting last month. State Administrator Randolph Ward has shown little willingness to modify the contract rejected by 80 percent of the teachers in April.

They could be headed for a showdown.

Teachers I talked to are opposed to a strike. At the same time they feel undervalued, underpaid and frustrated by the system's increasing demands and shrinking resources. Many are angered by Ward's autocratic manner and decision-making, but they also don't have complete confidence in the union leadership, which they think is extreme.

"We're between a rock and a hard place," said one teacher, who didn't want to be identified. In fact, the situation is so strained, only one teacher would let me use his name, and only in association with some of his comments.

In March, the bargaining unit for the teachers union and the district agreed on a contract after months of negotiations; teachers rejected the contract by a 5-to-1 margin. According to state law, the sides have entered into a mandated fact-finding process.

Teachers were unhappy with several aspects of the proposed contract, including provisions that made it easier to transfer them. However, the main sticking point was a new requirement that teachers covered by one of the two health plans make a monthly contribution; teachers with Kaiser wouldn't have had to make a contribution.

"We seem to be stuck on health care," said Michael Jackson, teacher and director of the Media Academy at the Fremont Federation (the former Fremont High School). "I'm sorry. I have Kaiser and that's good enough for me. I'm driving a VW, Kaiser. If I want to drive a Cadillac (HealthNet), I have to pay more."

Another high school teacher doesn't see it that way. Because of a bad experience at Kaiser, she will not enroll in the HMO.

"I want to be able to pick my doctor," she said. "There has been a lot of confusion about what more we would have to pay (under the HealthNet plan). I've heard $20 a month, I've heard $300. I voted against the contract because at that time we were hearing it would be a lot more money."
It's been my observation that a strike can be a highly-effective strategy for a union to adopt in its efforts to reach a contractual agreement. But this success is predicated on broad-based support at the grass-roots level for the union's leadership and the support of the larger community. According to the Tribune, that support is lacking at the current time.

On the other hand, when the district says and does things like this:
Recent audits of the district's payroll and benefits have identified improper payments to former employees and to ineligible dependents. Ward said that those have been cleaned up but that he still needs to cut more. He said he needs to minimize salary increases and benefits to restore the district's financial health.

Union representatives disagree.

While funds for teacher salaries have declined, the district's budget for this year includes approximately 40 percent more money for administrators' and supervisors' salaries.

Ward said the increase was an error, caused by teachers' being mistakenly included in the administrators' category in the budget, and had been corrected.

Visnick, who led the union during a strike in 1996, said he believed the district could afford higher teacher salaries.

"They can manipulate their figures to boost their argument at the bargaining table," Visnick said. "The way Ward is acting, he's looking for a showdown."

School board member Dan Siegel questioned Ward's priorities, saying the district had hired new administrators and created smaller schools while cutting employee salaries.

"There's an effort to place the burden on teachers, and that's misguided," he said. "Support of new schools, central office redesign -- that's where the resources are going."
Community support for the teachers could quickly galvanize behind the union. And considering that Oakland's classroom teachers had already sustained a 4% pay cut two years ago, it is likely that the community may already feel sympathetic toward the teachers' cause.

Building teacher support for their own union is something different altogether.

If the Oakland teacher's union is anything like that of ours down here in California's "Imperial" Valley, not only does the leadership of the union not have widespread support, but many of its membership will be highly suspicious of their own leaders' motives.

This is because (rightly or wrongly) many of the rank-and-file believe that the union's leadership is dominated exclusively by rabid "administrator-haters." Others may think that the union's (appointed) negotiating team is merely bargaining for contract language that will be benificial for the leaders personally and not for the membership as a whole.

Some members may be alienated by a perception that the union's decision-making process in not transparent or democratic in nature.

In order to be effective, the union's leadership needs to overcome their "credibility problem" before they can successfully adopt a "prepare for a strike" strategem.

I believe that the leadership of the NEA/CTA affiliated Oakland Education Association is well aware of its organizational weakness and won't call for a strike in the near future.

Not only would a strike prove ineffective, but it would be disasterous for students, parents, and the teachers themselves.
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