In Nick of Time, Portland Teachers Make Deal to Avert Strike

Sarah Jaffe February 20, 2014

The Portland Association of Teachers and Portland Public Schools negotiated a tentative agreement on Tuesday, avoiding a strike planned for Thursday morning.

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.” 

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of 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.
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