When thousands of Oakland teachers voted in February 2019 to strike after nearly two years without a contract, they faced down a school board that refused to grant pay raises big enough to even keep up with the city’s skyrocketing cost of living. The school board — dominated by billionaire-funded supporters of charters and school privatization — also planned to cut already overburdened support staff, increase class sizes, and close schools, with the aim of shifting more students to charter schools.
But the Oakland Education Association (OEA), the teachers’ union, was ready to fight back. This was its first strike in more than 20 years, and 95% of the teachers went out for two weeks, as did 97% of the students. Although they did not win all of their demands, the teachers forced the district to make major concessions: an 11% percent raise, a slight reduction in class sizes, increased support staffing, and a five-month moratorium on school closures. And teachers built confidence, organization, and militancy for future battles.
The East Bay Democratic Socialists of America played a critical role in the strike’s success. OEA teachers in East Bay DSA began meeting as a group in August 2019, inspired by the historic West Virginia teachers’ strike and by conversations with teachers in New York City DSA’s Labor Branch. At the chapter’s October General Membership Meeting, the DSA teachers presented a resolution to support the Oakland teachers if and when they went on strike, and the chapter voted overwhelmingly in favor of the resolution.
Afterward, veteran Oakland teacher and East Bay DSA member Tim Marshall, a respected OEA militant with decades of experience as a socialist organizer, connected DSA teachers with the OEA executive board, and the two groups started collaborating to prepare Oakland for the strike. Several DSA teachers, in close communication with one another, planned and helped execute the strike through the union’s organizing committee, while two of the DSA teachers served as school site representatives and picket captains.
Marshall and newly energized DSA teachers organizing on the shop floor and working closely with a militant union leadership were able to make crucial interventions in the strike. And East Bay DSA mobilized over 150 members and 100 non-member volunteers behind them, who took on important roles outside of the union.
One of the chapter’s first strike support activities was sign-canvassing. In October, East Bay DSA members paired up with OEA teachers to canvass Oakland businesses, asking them to put “We Stand with Oakland Teachers” signs in their storefronts. This effort raised teacher morale and helped build a feeling of community support. In January and early February, DSA members helped to further build community support by organizing house parties with teachers and neighbors throughout the city. At these parties, teachers spoke about why they were striking and what they were up against, and neighbors signed up to volunteer during the strike.
Another critical contribution was Bread for Ed, a coalition effort to feed out-of-school children and teachers during the strike. In the Oakland Unified School District, more than 70% of students rely on free or reduced-price school lunches. Making sure children were fed during the strike was therefore crucial to maintaining community support for teachers. At the union’s request, East Bay DSA led Bread for Ed, raising over $170,000 and coordinating the purchase, preparation, and delivery of meals. Bread for Ed fed children and teachers throughout the strike, with money left over to donate to the union’s strike fund.
East Bay DSA also launched Majority, an online strike paper. One goal of Majority was to keep up the morale of striking teachers. Another goal was to clarify battle lines: to spread the message that teachers were fighting for fully funded public education against rapacious billionaires and their lackeys who wanted to privatize it.
Starting at the beginning of 2019, Majority ran a variety of stories: political analysis of the situation in OUSD; interviews with teachers, parents, and students about why they supported a strike; and coverage of grassroots teacher and student militancy beginning to erupt. Majority ran stories almost every day of the strike, while East Bay DSA also pumped out uplifting videos and photos from the picket lines through its social media accounts.
Through Majority and other interventions, East Bay DSA helped shape teacher consciousness and union messaging. A critical turning point was a DSA- and OEA-sponsored discussion panel held days before the strike featuring Marshall, OEA president Keith Brown, and Arlene Inouye of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). This was just after UTLA had concluded its the own massive and hugely successful strike. Inouye made clear that LA’s striking teachers had been fighting against billionaire school privatizers. Hearing Inouye convinced the OEA leadership to adopt similar class-struggle messaging.
DSA members also turned out to picket lines on every day of the strike. Inspired by the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike, East Bay DSA organized “flying squadrons,” groups of mobile picketers that would go to school sites where picket lines were thin or where a significant number of students were crossing the picket line. The flying squadrons helped keep union morale high throughout the strike. Members of the chapter’s Racial Solidarity Committee translated information about the strike for parents who didn’t speak English, helping to prevent possible fractures of community support along racial or cultural lines. Some DSA members also volunteered at “solidarity schools,” spaces where parents who wanted to respect the picket lines could leave their children for supervision.
East Bay DSA’s support of the Oakland teachers’ strike illustrates the importance of merging the socialist and labor movements. When connected with rank-and-file workers and union leadership, socialists can bring political clarity, organizational capacity, and militant enthusiasm to workplace struggles. In doing so, socialists can contribute to the success of those struggles, learn from them, and connect these fights with broader struggles against capital.