Organizing to Stop Oakland School Closures — a perspective from an Oakland, CA elementary school teacher

Oakland school teachers, students, parents and community members gather during a rally at Lake Merritt Amphitheater in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, April 29, 2022. The rally was part of several protests during a one-day strike over Oakland Unified School District's plan to close several schools starting at the end of the school year. {Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group}

On April 29, Oakland public school teachers went on a one-day Unfair Labor Practice strike against school closures in Oakland. This action followed months of organizing against the announcement by the Oakland School Board of the closure of up to 18 Oakland schools. At an Oakland School Board meeting on January 31, 2022 over 2,000 teachers, staff, parents, students, and community members —from kindergarteners to grandparents — spoke out against the school closures. The meeting lasted for hours, running into the early hours of the morning. Despite extraordinary community turnout to these meetings and unanimous community opposition, only two out of the seven School Board members voted against the closures.

On February 1, two staff members from Westlake Middle School, one of the schools threatened with closure, announced the beginning of a hunger strike which ultimately lasted 20 days. Their action sparked a flurry of media coverage and community support. The Westlake school Hunger Strikers held weekly community gatherings called “Freedom Fridays,” with music and food. This activity showed the potential to organize an opposition to the school closures.

Teachers and parents at other threatened school sites stepped up and led active and engaged organizing efforts at their campuses. Some of these schools organized one-day strikes led by parents and teachers, and at other campuses students walked out. On February 8, the School Board revised their initial plan, reducing the number of closures from 18 to 11, including taking Westlake off the list. While this was aimed at dividing the forces of those organizing to stop the closures, and it did remove some of the activists from the organizing as their schools were taken off the list, efforts to resist the closures continued, including at Westlake. There were weekly school site meetings and in-person community Town Halls in East Oakland, where most of the schools targeted for closing are. There were also weekly zoom community meetings, which brought together 60 to 100 teachers, families, staff, community members and students. At these meetings, participants could report on their individual school’s organizing and discuss, and propose and coordinate wider protest activities. This resulted in the holding of several larger rallies and marches over the next few months.

It was challenging to try to involve more teachers and parents across the Oakland School District. This was a difficult task because the organizers at the affected sites were new at this kind of organizing, somewhat isolated, and acting in a period where the pandemic was still a big factor. And complicating things even further was the refusal of the officials of the teachers union Oakland Education Association (OEA) to make use of their means of communication to the membership and to activate the union structures to mobilize the broader membership against the closures. Neither did they use their connections to notify the media.

Furthermore, although school closures are happening in many school districts across California, OEA’s parent union, the California Teachers Association (CTA), made no effort to cohere a broader fight and link these school districts together. Instead, each local union was left to fight in isolation. So while parents, school staff, and community members at the affected sites did their best to organize from the ground up, the lack of coordination meant that the closures were not widely known or discussed across the district, and that the OEA general membership was not very involved, and links were not made with other affected school districts.

Starting in March, several Oakland teachers, some ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) officials, a few longshore workers, and community members began meeting to plan joint actions against privatization. The Longshore union got involved because billionaire John Fisher, owner of the Oakland A’s baseball team, and son of the owners of the Gap, wants to build a new A’s Stadium in the center of the Port of Oakland. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff and many City Council members support his plan, which threatens longshore jobs and would probably lead to the privatization of the publicly owned Port. A coalition was formed called SLAP (Schools and Labor Against Privatization). Teachers involved in the SLAP coalition pushed for a one-day strike of the Oakland schools and to shut down the port the same day – April 29. On April 11, the OEA Representative Council passed a motion to call for a membership vote for a one day strike. While 71% of members who voted did so in favor of the strike, only about half of the OEA membership (2700 people) participated in the vote.

With just a week’s notice, parents and teachers created flyers, audio messages, and videos to share with families. Their hope was to inform families about the school closures, and to give them time to arrange childcare so they could keep their students home. On the day of the strike, 94% of the teachers respected the picket lines, but only about 40% participated in the day’s actions. Teachers and supporters picketed from 6:30-10:00 am. They shared food, made signs, listened to music, and chanted. Some schools held discussion circles to talk about the causes and effects of public school closures, and to share why they were participating in the strike. My school picket line included teachers, parents, and students. At my school, only 4 students out of 406 were on campus.

In the afternoon, 1000 teachers and community members gathered at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater for an OEA sponsored Block Party with food, live music, children’s activities and speeches. It was also an opportunity for members from the disparate sites to connect with each other.

Two other activities were also called for later in the day by SLAP. These two actions were not officially supported by OEA officials. They proposed a rally and a picket at the Oakland Port on the day of the strike. There was a 2:00 pm rally at Oscar Grant Plaza that I went to that included speeches from parents, students, teachers, community activists and left activists, followed by a march on the School Board building. Some of the demonstrators then went to the Port to set up picket lines at the gates where longshoremen go into work. At the gate I went to, there were only two other teachers, and they were from my school site. When longshore workers arrived for the evening shift, at my gate, most had no knowledge about why we were picketing. When the ILWU officials who were there informed the workers about the protest, most of them did not cross the picket line to go to work.

The families and teachers I talked to on the 29th and after, saw the one-day strike in a positive light, a chance to get the word out about school closures, especially as we received favorable news coverage in the local and even national media. They saw this as another step in organizing against the closures. However, no one I spoke with, was under the illusion that a one-day strike would stop the closures. We are up against powerful enemies — privatizers, real estate developers, and corporations, often supported by Democratic Party politicians who have a lot to gain from the privatization of public education and the gentrification of Oakland. To win against these forces, there needs to be a much broader, stronger, more organized, and militant fight.

The idea of a joint mobilization and fight by teachers, students, families and longshore workers is a good one — but it has to be rooted in real on-the-ground organizing. The activity against the school closures over the last few months has produced a new group of activist teachers, parents, staff, and students who have developed the skills and experience needed to wage an effective struggle. Site meetings, Town Halls, and weekly community meetings gave structures and opportunities for these activists to link together and to function and act collaboratively. Future organizing against school closures can develop from this base, as well as organizing around other important issues. This experience demonstrates that parents, students, teachers and staff must look to ourselves, and to other workers and other community members. If we organize together in the future, we can make the changes we want and need.