Friday, November 26, 2010

Oakland Educators Association Earns an F in Organizing

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
On November 16, the Oakland Educators Association (OEA) voted to reauthorize a strike. The problem is that only 15% of the union’s membership participated in the vote, thus seriously undermining its credibility and calling into question whether anyone will even show up for the job action. 

There is no question that Oakland teachers are getting screwed. They have one of the lowest pay scales in the entire state. Oakland Unified is still paying back an enormous debt from their bail-out and they won’t be getting any help from residents, due to the failure of Measure L, a parcel tax that would have generated $20 million per year for the next ten years for teacher salaries.

Union President, Betty Olson-Jones, blamed the low turnout on the “digital divide,” or the generation gap. “A lot of our younger teachers — they just don’t do meetings.”

Could it be that the union just doesn’t do organizing?

Numerous members complained that they didn’t hear about the vote until the day before. The vote was a reauthorization of a strike vote that had won overwhelming support in April. Many members didn’t understand why a reauthorization vote was occurring, or trusted that their peers would do the “right thing,” or assumed that the reauthorization was a “done deal.” 

For a job action to be effective, organizers should shoot for a minimum of 80% support by the membership; not 80% of the 15% who voted, but 80% of ALL members. 90% is an even better goal. The reasons are straight forward. Some teachers may chicken out at the last minute. Others may give in if the strike drags on too long. The most important reason is that the goal of a job action is to make the bosses feel the pain. With 80-90% of teachers on the picket line, it is virtually impossible to find replacements. With only 50% on the picket line, the district has a much better chance of securing enough scabs.

The only way to get 80-90% of any group to participate in a collective action, particularly a strike, where people are being asked to temporarily abandon their clients and risk their livelihoods, is through relational organizing. This type of organizing is best done through on-going one on one and small group meetings, where organizers develop special relationships with a few colleagues. Every school site should have several trained organizers so that they can meet regularly with 8-10 peers. Face to face meetings allow organizers to get a much more accurate sense of where the membership is at on an issue. People who are usually quiet at meetings are more likely to share their views with a trusted colleague in a face to face meeting. Organizers can quickly get the word out and ensure that all members get the message in one on one meetings. This is in contrast to emails, which many people ignore or delay reading, and union meetings, which many members blow off.

Here is what some OEA members had to say:

Tara Wolf said, “I did not find out about the meeting until the day before. There was little information released to teachers or our union rep about the issue we were considering. I was told I would not be able to vote until 5:30, after already working since 6:30. I have lost faith in the union’s negotiating ability.”

An anonymous teacher said, “I am disgusted that so few people showed. There were entire schools with no one there. If people don’t want to strike, they need to come and say so. Otherwise, we need to get behind our bargaining team.While mention has been made of an “age gap”, I want to say that my school has many veteran teachers, and not one of them was there.”

Another anonymous teacher said, “One very small piece of the puzzle: Oakland historically has an issue with teacher attrition, which it has worked to fill with teaching interns–who take classes at night in order to keep their credentials. Tuesday night is one of the main class nights.”

Another anonymous teacher said, “The lack of turnout could also be an indication of the large disconnect between our union leadership and its constituents, technology or otherwise. The union has done a horrible job of disseminating and updating information. As a result people feel disconnected and disempowered by the very people who are supposed to be supporting them.” 

Another anonymous teacher said, “Publicity was very low for this vote, that’s the truth, but that in itself is a sign of “apathy,” since most of this communication has to be carried by individuals and site reps.”

Another anonymous teacher said, “In my 8 years in OUSD (thankfully, not there anymore), each time there was an “important” meeting, I found out the day before. That can make it just logistically impossible to get there. Not a sign of not caring. A sign of poor planning.”

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