State labor board sides with Oakland teachers union, finds controversial strike was legal

State labor board sides with Oakland teachers union, finds controversial strike was legal

OAKLAND — The Oakland teachers union, one of the city’s most powerful political forces, has won a significant battle against the Oakland school district after a state labor board found that the union’s 2022 labor strike was legal.

Members of the Oakland Education Association went on strike in April of that year after the Oakland Unified School District’s board decided to close several campuses to save money. The impasse led both sides to file claims of unfair labor practices with the Public Employment Relations Board.

In a finding last week, the labor board determined that the district’s decision to close schools went against its obligations to first bargain with the union — validating the ensuing strike.

The board’s finding bolstered resolve in the teachers union, which in recent years has pursued strong political objectives and tested the legal bounds for what can justify a labor strike besides salary negotiations alone.

“Our students, especially students of color, deserve to have strong and equitable schools that are fully supported,” union President Ismael Armendariz said in a statement after the board’s finding was released.

“(Oakland Unified) should have followed the policy to engage with the community, have an opportunity for conversation, and most of all trust educators,” Armendariz added. “We are still reeling from the effects of their actions.”

Oakland Education Association president Ismael Armendariz speaks before Oakland Unified School District teachers, students and parents during a rally outside La Escuelita Elementary School where a school board meeting was supposed to take place on their fifth day on strike in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

Separately, the district and the union settled another claim of unfair labor practice over a second faculty strike last May that involved the union’s push for social justice measures — such as reparations for Black students — to be included in its labor contract.

The terms of that settlement are still undisclosed, but the state board’s finding on the 2022 strike is clear that the union was legally justified in declaring a strike amid the district’s widely controversial decision to close some campuses.

“School closures are a great concern to certificated employees as they provide the possibility of greatly disrupting the personal lives and working conditions of those certificated employees working at those schools which will be closed,” the finding states.

The 2022 decision to close several of the district’s small community campuses, which the district said were suffering from low enrollment, sparked widespread backlash in the community and even hunger strikes from two Oakland educators.

The school board underwent an overhaul in the aftermath, with one director resigning and two others deciding not to seek re-election. Early last year, the new board rescinded the remaining planned closures.

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The teachers union has emerged as a vocal political force in Oakland — embodying the city’s progressive politics, especially after the pandemic nudged public education further into the foreground of debates over policy and social values. The organization’s activism is part of a nascent trend of labor movements in California angling toward political goals rather than simply bargaining for better contracts

Late last year, the union became the first entity in Oakland to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, siding against Israel’s assault in the region after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

The statement caused rifts within the union’s membership and public condemnations from pro-Israel groups. More recently, a number of Jewish families said they would transfer their students out of Oakland Unified.

The union’s activism is part of a nascent trend of labor movements in California angling toward political goals rather than simply bargaining for better contracts. The district’s school board has found itself divided over the union’s politics, with Director Mike Hutchinson — the board’s former president and one of its most outspoken members — often promising that the union’s antics would bring strong repercussions.

Still, the labor board’s finding cites Supreme Court guidance that says strikes by public workers are “not unlawful” unless “it is clearly demonstrated that such a strike creates a substantial and imminent threat to the health or safety of the public.”