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Back in 2003, the Portland Association of Teachers avoided a strike by agreeing to work for free. Their contract included ten days of unpaid work in order to help keep the school year at 171 days, as long as new taxes covered the other 14 officials wanted to cut.
This year, though details are not yet public, the 2,900-member Oregon teachers union appears to have brought about a much more favorable deal in its latest round of negotiations with Portland Public Schools, averting a planned strike just a day-and-a-half in advance.
A marathon mediation session — nearly 24 hours, according to reports—led to a tentative agreement on Tuesday between the union and the school district that averted Thursday morning’s walkout. Teachers and the school board still need to vote to ratify the agreement.
“I think teachers right now are feeling hopeful, but we don’t really know what we’re dealing with,” Portland teacher Elizabeth Thiel told In These Times on Tuesday, February 18, as news of the deal was breaking. “We trust our bargaining team wouldn’t agree to something unless it was good, but we haven’t seen any of the details.”
Thiel, who teaches 9th-grade English at Madison High School, explained that in the ten months of bargaining with the district, teachers have always placed reducing their workload and class size front and center in their demands, rather than pay. These are issues that resonate with parents and students as well — large classes mean less attention to each student, and a heavy teaching load left teachers unprepared for their classes. The union titled the preamble to its bargaining proposals “The Schools Portland’s Students Deserve,” echoing language used by the Chicago Teachers Union, which went on a historic 7‑day strike in September of 2012. The Portland teachers union proposed hiring additional special education teachers, school psychologists and counselors, as well as new classroom teachers who would help ease a workload that Thiel says has gotten increasingly intense.
In an effort to save money, over the past several years the district closed eight primary schools (particularly in low-income neighborhoods) and opened kindergarten-through-8th grade schools instead. Last year, Thiel taught in one of the new schools. She says she and the other middle-grade teachers were teaching four or five subjects a day: “sixth-grade social studies, seventh-grade social studies, eighth-grade social studies, a couple grades of English and maybe math support or creative writing.” Hiring more teachers would allow Thiel and her colleagues to shoulder fewer courses and have more time to prepare their classes.
Money was clearly not the only factor motivating the district in its bargaining demands, says Thiel, who reports that the district’s offers on pay were never very far from what the teachers asked. Moreover, Thiel notes that the district wanted to eliminate an early-retirement program for teachers that she says actually saves it money.
The district wanted to lift the cap on teachers’ workloads and tie evaluations directly to test results; in an op-ed, school board members blamed “union grievances” for keeping students from full course loads, and complain that teachers’ workload is stuck at 1998 levels. They also, according to Thiel, wanted “managerial rights” — meaning that administrators could assign teachers to different schools without the teachers having a say.
While the mayor and the school board, which is elected, have not attracted the kind of anger during the bargaining process that Rahm Emanuel and his appointed board in Chicago did during negotiations with the CTU, one city decision did arouse community ire. The district hired a consultant, Yvonne Deckard, as a union negotiator. Her controversial no-bid contract costs PPS $15,000 a month, and parent Siobhan Higgins Burke says, “Nobody ever sees her. She never goes to any meetings.”
As in many other districts around the country, the Portland teachers also pushed back against the spread of high-stakes standardized testing, where test scores are used to evaluate and sometimes fire teachers. State and federal law requires some degree of testing, Thiel points out, but, “what teachers are asking is that the test scores of our students is only one of a well-rounded look at what a teacher is doing.”
The union’s focus on issues like class size, which matter to parents and students, helped build community support for the union side. Although the district originally presented the union with a detailed list of issues they refused to bargain over, they have presumably relented on some.
Gwen Sullivan, the union president, took to the op-ed pages of The Oregonian to explain that despite the district’s claims of generosity in pay in this year’s contract offers, the teachers have faced years of cuts and unpaid work (including those ten days of free labor in 2003).
Sullivan’s op-ed also noted that as part of the hiring process, the union wants to recruit more teachers of color, as part of building “a more diverse and representative teaching corps.” Like many other school districts around the country, Portland is heavily segregated, and schools in communities of color have taken the brunt of cuts and closures during the last several years of recession-driven financial crisis for the school system.
Thiel points out that the use of test scores to evaluate teachers can actually discourage teachers from wanting to work in just those schools. “When teachers are scored and rated by their children’s test scores…it really puts teachers in a position of looking bad, when they’re serving the kids that need them the most,” she says.
Siobhan Higgins Burke moved to Portland from Aurora, Ill., last year; she was among the parents who supported the Chicago Teachers Union during its strike lasting seven school days, and she’s now part of a community-based solidarity effort supporting the Portland teachers. It’s newcomers like her, she says, that the district claims to want to attract by having good schools, but the people she speaks to are more inclined to agree with the teachers’ proposals than the district’s.
Students, too, came out in support of their teachers. They’ve been holding walkouts in protest of standardized testing and budget cuts, and they support the teachers’ call for smaller class sizes. Ian Jackson of the Portland Student Union, a group formed in October 2012 to advocate for youth issues, tells In These Times that the union was prepared to back teachers “every step of the way,” during a strike, including joining them on the picket lines. For students who didn’t want to cross the picket line, the PSU was ready to provide places to go, including food for those who rely on school meals. (The solidarity campaign also planned to help parents with childcare during the strike.)
Volunteers from Jobs with Justice, the Oregon Working Families Party, SEIU Local 503 and others have also been taking part in the campaign, distributing fliers outside of schools and talking to parents about their options.
As the teachers move to a vote on their new contract in the coming days, the country’s attention will likely move next to St. Paul, Minn., where a strike vote is scheduled for February 24. But what’s happened in Portland should be seen as another step forward for an embattled profession.
“I think that the Chicago strike was maybe a bit of a wake-up call to teachers that we can fight back, and also I think a wake-up call for how serious this is getting,” Thiel says. “I don’t think teachers came into this profession thinking it was ever going to need defending. … I think that the position we were in as teachers in Portland this year made that clear for a lot more people: teachers and parents and community members.”
Higgins Burke points out that there’s been “cross-fertilization” between PAT and other teachers around the country who’ve decided that the best defense is a good offense, such as the CTU and the Seattle teachers who took part in a test boycott last year. These teachers tend to agree that fixing public schools requires a broader campaign to end poverty. That will require creating coalitions that see issues of economic justice and class as central and are aimed at bringing more equality to society as a whole.
And the Portland teachers have come away from this fight feeling stronger than ever. “We know we could strike, and we know we would win if we did,” Thiel says. “I don’t think anyone wants to settle for less than a really good contract.”
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Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The New Republic and New Labor Forum. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous book is Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.