After more than a year of contract negotiations in which the Oakland Unified School District has not met teachers’ demands, the Oakland Education Association, or OEA, announced that it would go on strike this Thursday. The OEA, which represents almost 3,000 public school teachers in the school district, supports teachers who are fighting for common good demands such as smaller class sizes, more school nurses and counselors, more funding for classroom supplies, higher wages and better work conditions for teachers. These demands are designed to improve students’ educational experience and ensure teacher retention, combatting the extremely high teacher turnover that has plagued the district. Oakland teachers have been working closely with students and their families to include their needs and desires in their demands and thus have achieved strong community support. This was made clear Feb. 8, when high school student activists demonstrated their support for their teachers by initiating a mass “sick-out.”
These teachers are also standing with community members against the stated intention of the school board to close 24 of the city’s 87 public schools, most of which are located in predominantly low-income Black and Latinx neighborhoods. This effort follows a broader trend of elites and their school boards closing public schools, only to replace them with charter schools. The California public school system is being dismantled at an increasing rate, despite the clear evidence that charter schools consistently underperform compared to public schools, as demonstrated by a 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Education. This push for charter schools is being driven by the wealthy, who directly gain from the de-unionization of teachers and the creation of a market for management subcontracting, which charter schools often entail.
Oakland teachers are not only fighting for their own basic economic security but are at the forefront of the struggle to save public education from the ruling elites who would rather cut funding to public education than pay higher taxes. This enforced austerity can be understood as part of the broader neoliberal project to privatize and restructure the public sphere — a project that has benefited the narrow interests of the few at the expense of the many.
Students at UC Berkeley should support the struggle of the Oakland community to save public education. Not only is their struggle just — and imminently possible in a state that has the fifth-largest economy in the world — but also, our own difficulties and struggles as students at a public university are inherently tied to the struggle of the Oakland community. The same elite forces that have pushed budget cuts onto lower-level public education institutions have also transformed four-year higher education institutions in California from being completely free in the 1960s to costing more than $14,000 in 2019. Tuition fees often take many students decades of debt to pay back. UC Berkeley graduate student instructor Robbie Nelson has described the situation in the newspaper Majority, detailing the similarities between the pressures put on students and workers both at UC Berkeley and in the Oakland Unified school district because of such budget cuts imposed from above:
“Worker wages have been flat and failing to keep up with the rising cost of housing. Students are more stressed than ever before, paying higher tuition and facing homelessness, food insecurity, bad job prospects, and mental health crises.”
Meanwhile, administrative salaries grow at the top. Oakland and Berkeley students deserve better learning conditions, and the attainment of such conditions is feasible, given the immense wealth surrounding us. Take, for example, the $532.4 billion that the 124 billionaires in California alone possess. This fight is not just a local issue either — the majority of Americans support free college for all and student debt cancellation, and they are ready to organize to accomplish these goals.
Our struggle to defend public higher education will only succeed if we also join with those fighting for public education at the elementary and high school levels. We can succeed by uniting around the aims we share with the vast majority of working-class people in this country and by defending the needs of our communities against a common privatizing enemy whose strength relies on our division.
This means students need to stand in solidarity with Oakland teachers and students who are at the forefront of this struggle as they go on strike.
You can directly help support their fight by joining other Berkeley students on the picket lines or by donating to Bread for Ed, which will help feed the 36,000 students who will be out of school during the strike, 73 percent of whom rely on free or reduced-price lunches. Helping feed the children who go to Oakland public schools is morally imperative and one of the most crucial ways that sympathetic community members can support the strike. Family and community support for the strike will largely hinge on the comfort and security of their children. Furthermore, because this is a public sector strike, the district’s acceptance of teachers’ demands will depend largely on public support for the teachers — as demonstrated by the massively successful teachers strike in Los Angeles. UC Berkeley students will be hosting a rally next Tuesday on Sproul Plaza at 2 p.m. before going over to the school picket lines to show Oakland teachers and students our support.
Elliot Lewis and Matthew Fernandes are seniors and Iris Morrell is a junior at UC Berkeley. They are members of UC Berkeley Young Democratic Socialists of America and participants in a broad student coalition to organize support for the OEA strike.