Medford, OR teachers end strike, Portland teachers’ strike averted

Six hundred teachers in Medford, Oregon returned to work after what appears to be a successful 16-day strike for better public education.

In Portland, Oregon, a’ teachers strike scheduled to begin on February 20 was called off after the teachers’ union and the Portland School System (PSS) reached a last-minute tentative agreement.

In both cases, the school districts tried to impose a long list of concessions on their teachers.

And in both cases, the teachers  made improving public education the main goal of their new contracts, which won them crucial community support.

Members of the Medford Teachers Association (MTA) began striking on February 6 after 10 months of negotiations.

During negotiations, the Medford School District proposed a list of 118 concessions that it wanted from the teachers.

According to the Oregon Strike Insider, the school district showed little interest in negotiating a fair contract and took every opportunity to escalate tensions. The school district declared an end to direct bargaining, demanded a mediator, declared an impasse, and prepared to submit a final best offer.

The teachers were prepared to continue negotiations, but when it became clear that management and the school board had their own private agenda, the teachers struck.

MEA reported that 96 percent of the teachers walked off the job and stayed united throughout the strike.

The school district hoped that pressure from parents and the community would stampede teachers back to work.

But the teachers conducted an outreach effort to the community prior to the strike, and many parents and students sided with the teachers.

The school district tried to keep the schools open by using substitutes and probationary teachers, but that effort seemed to backfire.

“I don’t think that the quality is in the classroom right now,” said one parent as she walked with teachers on a picket line outside a school where replacement teachers were holding class.

That sentiment seemed to be shared by many others. School board members were bombarded with phone calls and emails urging the school district to return to the bargaining table and settle the strike. The district superintendent turned away parents who showed up at his office to demand an end to the strike.

Near the end of the strike, the school district negotiators tried to meet secretly at a local motel to discuss their next move.

But hundreds of demonstrators including teachers and parents gathered outside and told district negotiators to stop hiding and settle the strike.

“We’re here because basically at this point the district has closed their doors to parents,” said Kristen Robinson, a parent at the demonstrations. “They won’t give us any information. They’re not answering phone calls (or) emails.”

When negotiations resumed, the two reached a tentative agreement that union negotiators thought was fair.

The two sides agreed not to release details until the teachers and school board have a chance to review it.

On Sunday, February 22, the union held a meeting to discuss the agreement. The Medford Mail Tribune reported that it was well received by members and that schools would reopen on the 23rd.

“There was some give and take from both sides, and we were able to come to what (the union negotiating) team feels really good about (and) that our members will accept, not just that they’ve settled for something,” said Cheryl Lashley, MEA president to the Mail Tribune.

In Portland, the Portland Association of Teachers and Portland Public Schools (PSS) reached an agreement hours before the teachers were to go on strike.

PSS, which sought 78 givebacks from the teachers, pursued a strategy similar to the one used in Medford: drag out the negotiations, call in a mediator, declare an impasse, and ram through a final offer.

But while the teachers were negotiating with PSS, they were also organizing internally and reaching out to the public.

The union began its negotiations by including a preamble to its contract proposals.

The preamble, entitled The Schools Portland Students Deserve, laid out a list of objectives that the union hoped to achieve during negotiations–like smaller class sizes, a well rounded education that includes art, music, world languages, PE, library science, and electives for all children regardless of their parents’ income, education for the whole child that includes wrap around services such as counselling, less focus on standardized testing and more focus on letting teachers have more control over curriculum and instruction, and holding everyone in the education system accountable for providing a quality education.

The union then held a series of public forums to publicize these objectives.

The outreach work worked. The union had the strong backing of many parents and students.

When the union met to take a s strike authorization vote on February 7, hundreds of community supporters rallied outside of the meeting.

The Portland Student Union announced that if the teachers struck, members of the student union would walk the picket line with them.

The final agreement achieved many of the union’s objectives. Foremost, PSS agreed to hire 150 new teachers to reduce class sizes.

The teachers wanted to include language in the contract about the new teacher hires, but settled for a memorandum of understanding that put the number and hiring schedule in writing.

Teachers will begin voting on the tentative agreement on Tuesday, February 25, and votes will be tallied on Friday, February 28.