Oakland teachers walk out in latest educator strike to hit US

Teachers demand pay increase and want the California district to hire more counsellors and nurses to support students.

    Roxana De La O Cortez, teacher at Manzanita SEED Elementary School, marches with other teachers and supporters in Oakland, California [Jeff Chiu/AP Photo]
    Roxana De La O Cortez, teacher at Manzanita SEED Elementary School, marches with other teachers and supporters in Oakland, California [Jeff Chiu/AP Photo]

    Teachers strikes 2019

    • Los Angeles: Teachers staged six-day strike in January
    • Denver: Teachers went on strike for three days in February 
    • West Virginia: Teachers staged two-day walkout in February 

    Teachers in Oakland, California, walked out of their classrooms on Thursday in the latest strike by US educators over classroom conditions and pay.

    The city's 3,000 teachers are demanding a 12 percent retroactive raise covering 2017 to 2020 to compensate for what they say are the among the lowest salaries for public school teachers in the exorbitantly expensive San Francisco Bay Area. They also want the district to hire more counsellors to support students and more full-time nurses.

    The walkout affects 36,000 students at 86 schools.

    In a message to parents, the Oakland Unified School District said schools will remain open, staffed by non-union employees and substitute teachers. However, parents should not expect school as usual, it said.

    "We're hopeful that we can find a resolution as soon as possible," said district spokesman John Sasaki.

    Oakland teachers have been working without a contract since 2017 and say their salaries are not keeping up with the cost of living.

    A teacher's starting salary in the district is $46,500 a year and the average salary is $63,000, according to the union. By comparison, a starting teacher makes $51,000 a year in neighbouring Berkeley and the average salary is $75,000, the union said.

    Initially, the district offered a five percent raise covering 2017 to 2020, saying it is squeezed by rising costs and a budget crisis. 

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    In negotiations on Wednesday aimed at averting a strike, the district increased its proposal to a seven percent raise over four years and a one-time 1.5 percent bonus. The offer went higher than the recommendation of an independent fact-finding report that suggested the two sides agree to a compromise six percent retroactive raise.

    But union officials with the Oakland Education Association rejected the offer on Wednesday.

    600 teachers left last year

    Union president Keith Brown said the latest offer does not address the high cost of living that is driving educators out of Oakland.

    Nearly 600 teachers left their positions at Oakland public schools last year, according to the union, which says the district cannot retain teachers or attract experienced new teachers with such low wages.

    The talks have not centred on pension or healthcare benefits, which are free for full-time workers and their beneficiaries. The Oakland district spends an additional $13,487 per teacher annually for health benefits for educators and their families.

    The union has also called for the district to scrap a plan to close as many as 24 schools that serve primarily African American and Latino students. The union fears the move would likely lead to further losses of students to charter schools that drain more than $57m a year from Oakland public schools. 

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    Principals are not in the same union as the teachers and plan to be in schools on Thursday but have come out in support of teachers' demands.

    About 30 of Oakland's more than 80 school principals went to the state Capitol on Wednesday to call for better school funding in advance of the strike.

    "Pretty much every principal is in support of the teachers having higher pay," said Cliff Hong, an Oakland middle school principal.

    Recent strikes across the nation have built on a wave of teacher activism that began last spring. Unions for West Virginia teachers, who went on a nine-day walkout last year, ended a two-day strike on Wednesday night. Last week, teachers in Denver ended a three-day walkout after reaching a tentative deal raising their wages.

    Teachers in Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest school district, staged a six-day strike last month that ended when they settled on a six percent raise with promises of smaller class sizes and the addition of nurses and counsellors.

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    SOURCE: AP news agency