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Portland Teacher Strike Is the Latest in Growing Wave of Labor Actions

Since fall 2020, West Coast inflation has risen nearly 18 percent, while Portland Public Schools’ funding has risen just 12 percent. About 70 school districts and teachers unions across the state will negotiate contracts this fall.

protesters rally for the Portland Public Schools teacher strike
Hundreds of teachers, parents, students and supporters gathered to rally and listen to nationally prominent labor leaders on the first day of the Portland Public Schools teacher strike at Roosevelt High School last Wednesday.
Mark Graves/TNS
On the sodden front lawn of Roosevelt High School, thousands of striking Portland, Ore., teachers sporting their union’s signature blue hats and sweatshirts gathered Wednesday to hear from two of the country’s most prominent union leaders.

First up, from Los Angeles was Cecily Myart-Cruz, who led the United Teachers of Los Angeles to a 2023 deal that increased teacher salaries by 21 percent over three years and reduced class sizes by at least two students.

“We know that our working conditions are our students’ learning and living conditions,” Myart-Cruz thundered, to full-throated cheers from the audience. “We gotta fight for that and so much more. We do that under the guise of bargaining for the common good … we raise up all the issues, because we know the rent is too damn high and the wages are too low.”

She was followed by National Education Association President Becky Pringle, who delivered a similarly rousing speech, exhorting teachers to hold the line and stick to their demands.

The Portland Public Schools strike is the latest in a wave of educator labor actions in progressive cities up and down the West Coast, including Seattle in September of 2022, support staff employees in Los Angeles in April 2023 and Oakland in May 2023.

And other Oregon school districts and teachers unions, about 70 of which are also negotiating contracts this fall, are watching the Portland drama closely: A protracted strike ending in huge financial wins for the teachers union or a quick settlement with relatively modest change to the current contract would each unfurl big implications for other districts and unions.

A National Wave

For decades, teacher strikes have been rare, in Oregon and nationwide. Until Wednesday, Portland Public Schools had never experienced one.

But strike activity ticked up across the nation in 2022, including among educator unions.

“You are seeing this all over the place, the sense that workers, whatever the industry or occupation, can strike and through collective action make some gains on issues that they haven’t been able to deal with successfully,” said Bob Bussel, former director of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon. “That snowball effect is really quite real.”

The change likely stems from workers gaining power in the post pandemic economy, national education news site Education Week has reported, with experts saying the trend might continue – especially as inflation continues to hit teachers’ wallets.

The Portland teacher union’s relative success could fuel or dampen that trend.

“Strikes are contagious,” said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University. Depending on the outcome, “teachers elsewhere will see that unfortunately a lot of these big improvements are only achieved by going on strike.”

Just this week, teachers in Fresno, California’s third largest school district with 74,000 students, were on the verge of striking. They settled after successfully negotiating for a 21 percent raise over three years.

The West Coast strikes so far have ended in big wins for labor, though it’s uncertain whether their districts will be able to avoid layoffs and other future cuts amid declining enrollment. In Seattle, for example, the district says it is facing a $233 million budget shortfall over the next two years and plans this month to unveil a list of schools slated for closure.

Follow The Money

In Portland, both district leaders and Gov. Tina Kotek have said there simply isn’t enough money available to grant the substantial, inflation-beating raises that the teachers union says are needed.

The tenor of negotiations has at times turned hostile, leaving a lack of trust between negotiating teams. Both sides openly accuse each other of skewed budget math and deceptive public messaging.

But Portland teachers and district leaders are united on one point: They both say the state has vastly underfunded schools.

State lawmakers — particularly Democrats from the Portland area, many of whom rely on money and get-out-the-vote assistance from labor unions to win office and stay there — bristled at taking the fall this week. In a tart letter addressed to the Portland school board, 16 of the Portland area’s 19 lawmakers wrote that they funded the state schools fund at $10.3 billion, exactly the number that schools advocates had sought.

They did not address the state’s own “quality education model” which pegs the cost of running fully-resourced schools in Oregon this school year and next at $13.2 billion. But they did make it clear that Portland should expect no state bailout, especially with 70 other districts around the state bargaining this year.

Since fall 2020, West Coast inflation is up nearly 18 percent, while Portland Public Schools’ general fund revenues have risen just 12 percent.

“Funding has not kept pace with the needs of our students or our educators,” Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said this week. “All we have is inadequate funding from the state while working to produce improved outcomes and opportunities for our students.”

Even without extra state funding, any eventual settlement in Portland will echo statewide, said Jim Green, the executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association. The district, the state’s largest, is “the tail that wags the dog,” he said.

And that in turn has made his organization more willing to at least entertain an effort by a legislative task force to study creating a statewide salary schedule for teachers, Green said. In the past, the school boards group has reflexively opposed any such effort, wary of reducing the ability of local communities to shape their own budgets, he said. Some school boards still feel that way.

But others are telling his advocacy group that having a set salary schedule could force the state to reckon with the true costs of education, eliminate the push-pull between state budget-writers and schools advocates that is a hallmark of any legislative session and reduce animosity between unions and districts, he said.

‘For The Common Good’

This year’s big city West Coast teacher strikes all featured the traditional sticking points, wages and working conditions, but also encompassed broader societal concerns. In Los Angeles, for example, union proposals included a request to fund legal assistance for students facing deportation. In Oakland, teachers negotiated for shared jurisdiction over “community schools” that offer services like food pantries and health clinics.

The Portland teachers union has raised similar concerns, many centered on students’ emotional well-being, though it’s unclear how many of them will wind up in the final negotiated agreement.

For example, the union sought to have every school employ a licensed school social worker, a school counselor and a psychologist, plus an additional mental health provider to work not only with students but with families more broadly.

“Teachers are pointing out the centrality of public education to democracy itself,” Givan said. “It’s a popular view. Parents don’t like it when the schools are closed, but safer schools, quality buildings, air conditioning — all of those issues resonate. Teachers taking a stand for those is becoming the norm.”

Bussel said he thinks that the pandemic and its aftermath super-charged the power of bargaining for the common good, by placing inequities in sharp relief during lockdown.

Bargaining over the common good can also help cement a union’s relationships with political and progressive allies, said Michael Hartney, a political science fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute who has charted the evolution of teacher unions.

“The problem is that there are some realities that, as their [common goods] agenda broadens, the reality of a district’s ability to deliver becomes fanciful,” Hartney said. “You have to give somewhere. If you really want low class sizes, then you have to hire more teachers and then there is less money to go around.”

Mediation In Salem

Union leaders in the Salem- Keizer district — where administrators called in a state mediator this fall, closing bargaining sessions to the 150 or so of teachers who had been attending them — said they too have eyes on Portland. Any strike in the state’s second largest school district wouldn’t begin until February, said Salem-Keizer Education Association President Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg.

The two sides have made some progress so far, she said, but remain especially far apart on compensation, with the union seeking a 26 percent raise over the next two years and the district countering with about 7 percent.

“Portland is paving a path,” Scialo-Lakeberg said. “Where they settle will definitely have an impact on us.”

She agrees with Guerrero that schools need more state funding, especially with students’ emotional and behavioral needs so heightened in the pandemic’s wake.

“The needs are so immense, we are barely scratching the surface and staying above water,” Scialo-Lakeberg. “But the other part of the story is too much spending on the district level. School offices grow and grow but we need those supports, those resources put into our schools for the people who work firsthand with students.

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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