Behind the startling reversal at Portland Public Schools: Looking back at the almost-strike

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

On Feb. 18 — two days before a strike by the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) was to begin — 10 months worth of concessionary demands by Portland Public Schools (PPS) melted away. Though teachers made one significant concession, it was the district’s position that wavered in the final hours, and teachers are calling the resulting contract an unmistakable union win. To assess how that happened, the Labor Press talked in the weeks following the settlement with Gwen Sullivan, PAT president; Adam Sanchez, Madison High School social studies teacher and PAT’s lead external organizer; and Steve Buel, PAT’s one consistent ally on the PPS school board.

Portland Public Schools — Oregon’s largest school district — took a hard line in bargaining from the very beginning. Starting April 2013, the district demanded concessions, and offered no improvements in exchange. The district insisted on eliminating the previous contract’s workload provision, which limited high school teachers to 180 students. It proposed to eliminate step pay scales that rewarded additional training. It proposed to require teachers to pay 100 percent of health insurance premium increases above a certain cap. And it offered a wage increase of 1 percent (well below inflation), increasing its offer to 1.5 percent after six months of bargaining. Meanwhile, PPS refused to consider proposals to reduce class size, which PAT members considered their top priority. PAT proposed that the district reduce class size by 5 to 10 percent, which would require 175 additional teachers be hired. PPS said it didn’t have to negotiate about class size, under Oregon law, and even threatened legal action when teachers would bring it up at the bargaining table.

And yet 48 hours before 2,900 teachers were to walk out, the district dropped all those demands.

Instead, PPS committed to hire at least 150 new teachers (50 in high school, 70 in the lower grades, and 30 in special education). It agreed to increase prep time for elementary school teachers from 185 minutes to 260 minutes per week — which also means additional librarians and other support staff will be hired. It committed to consult teachers first before adopting new textbooks, and to give teachers greater academic freedom to determine which support materials and methods to use in day-to-day instruction. Rejecting the methods of corporate-styled education “reform,” PPS agreed that student scores on standardized tests will not be considered in transfer, layoff, salary or discipline decisions. The district will continue to pay 93 percent of health insurance premiums. And keeping up with inflation, it agreed to three annual raises of 2.3 percent, retroactive to July 2013.

“These are really significant victories,” said Sanchez, the Madison High School teacher. “And I don’t think they would have been won without us preparing to go on strike and without immense community and student support.”

Teachers did make a couple of concessions. They’ll have a little less discretion in transferring to different schools — one round of internal hiring, compared with two in the past. And more dearly felt, teachers with less than 15 years in the district will give up an early retirement incentive after September 2016, in which the district pays up to five years of health insurance before retirees become eligible for Medicare at age 65.

“Our membership knows loss of the early retirement incentive is a significant concession,” Sanchez said, “and I don’t think anyone in PAT is tiptoeing around that.”

And yet, Sanchez and Sullivan say, the contract in its entirety is a significant win for teachers, at a time of few union victories.

“The district asked for 75 concessions, and wanted to erase 30 pages of our contract,” Sanchez said. “That strategy totally and utterly failed.”

“They underestimated the unity of our teachers coming together,” said PAT president Sullivan. Sullivan said the union wouldn’t have taken a strike vote unless its leaders knew there was broad support, but the actual event — close to 3,000 teachers assembled Feb. 5 in the Schnitzer Auditorium — exceeded all expectations. After discussion, members started chanting demanding a vote, and only a small handful said they did not want to strike.

Then, a week before the strike, the district directed teachers to remove their belongings from the classroom. But if that was intended to frighten or demoralize, it had the opposite effect. Teachers made a collective show of walking out together with boxes full of their belongings.

Meanwhile, public support for teachers was massive and growing by the day as the strike neared.

We were ready to go out and run a Chicago-style strike. I think that’s what ultimately the district feared the most.” — Madison High School teacher Adam Sanchez

A group of state legislators wrote a letter to the district, saying they’d voted to give the district additional funds to hire more teachers, not put the money in reserve as the district was planning to do.

Faith leaders from 20 denominations wrote a letter to the district, pledging to open their facilities and congregations so that primary schoolchildren would have a place to go during the strike.

Plans were in the works for unionized teachers elsewhere — from North Clackamas and David Douglas school districts to Los Angeles and Chicago — to “adopt” striking schools and deliver messages of solidarity, as well as food and beverages to the picket line.

A rally in support of Portland teachersby the Cleveland High School chapter of the Portland Student Union.
A rally in support of Portland teachersby the Cleveland High School chapter of the Portland Student Union.

As many as 2,000 high school students took part in protests to demand the district settle — even walking out of school at Cleveland, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Wilson, and other high schools. A high school student group called Portland Student Union formed to organize student support, declaring “if teachers strike, we strike too.” And some high school students were getting ready to coordinate baby-sitting for younger students, to help them stay out of struck schools.

“It made it very difficult for the district to claim they were doing this in the interest of students,” Sanchez said, “when you had actual real living students telling them that our working conditions are their learning conditions.”

Sullivan said the student walkouts also emboldened the teachers, who had no experience of striking. And they solidified the notion that teachers wouldn’t be abandoning their students by walking out; students were actually counting on them to take a risk in order to deliver good schools.

Entirely outside of the teachers union, solidarity groups of parents and activists were forming, organizing public demonstrations, and making private plans to share daycare in the event of a strike. Parent groups across the city created Facebook pages and message boards to connect families with babysitters, tutors and community organizations. And parents got very vocal with the district. Buel, the PPS Board member, said he got maybe 200 emails from teachers and parents in the months leading up to the showdown, but as many as 800 in the final three or four days — an avalanche of public reaction saying “stop this strike from happening.”

“[The district] had spent so much money and energy trying to attack us,” Sullivan said, “and they saw they were no longer winning.”

The strike was to begin Thursday, Feb. 20. The district’s plan was to close schools early on Wednesday, and stay closed Thursday and Friday while it trained replacements for a Monday reopening. But union leaders got wind of a scab training planned at mothballed Marshall High School and made plans for teachers to picket, joined by student and community supporters, before heading downtown for a mass rally at Pioneer Courthouse Square.

“We were ready to go out and run a Chicago-style strike,” Sanchez said. “I think that’s what ultimately the district feared the most.”

Sullivan and Sanchez say PAT is indebted to the example of Chicago teachers, who waged a carefully prepared and largely successful strike in September 2012. Chicago teachers prioritized class size, and demonstrated the link between teachers and students interests, making it harder for detractors to spin a narrative about greedy teachers. Portland teachers’ “Schools Portland Students Deserve” campaign was lifted right out of “Schools Chicago Students Deserve.”

“It’s not enough to give people something to fight against,” Sanchez said. “They have to have something to fight for.”

This was a step forward. We have a marathon in front of us.”— PAT president Gwen Sullivan

But just because PAT got a favorable settlement doesn’t mean it’s ready to demobilize, Sullivan said: There are bigger fights ahead.

Sullivan said Portland teachers are ready to join a national movement pushing back against increased emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing. One idea is for the union to organize a series of forums on “the schools our students deserve.”

PAT members also plan to show up during upcoming district budget hearings. Sullivan said during contract negotiations the administration would often tell the union, “this is an important conversation, but it’s a budget conversation.” “150 teachers? That’s easy for them,” Sullivan said. “There should be 300 more teachers. If you saw the budget, they could easily have that many.”

The union would also be in a much better position if it had a supportive school board that it could unite with to press the Oregon Legislature for better funding and to reject corporate-style reforms. Most of the current school board members had PAT’s endorsement, and yet they stood by as the administration paid an anti-union consultant $15,000 a month and pursued a strategy of public shaming, provocation, intimidation and demands for concessions. Sullivan wouldn’t discuss specific plans, but it’s clear PAT will be interested in the 2015 school board elections.

“This was a step forward,” Sullivan said. “We have a marathon in front of us.”

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