On Nov. 1, teachers made history in Portland, Oregon by walking out of their classrooms, closing down 81 schools and beginning the first ever strike in Portland Public Schools’ history. After nine months of PPS management rejecting proposals from the union, teachers were left with no other choice. The strike authorization passed with 93% of members participating in the vote, and 99% voting yes to strike. The demands of the Portland Association of Teachers are cost of living adjustments to match inflation, paid planning time, caps on class sizes, basic health and safety measures and increased mental health support and special education support.
“We’re asking for so many things because we know that we can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result, we need to change the course of our district,” says PAT president Angela Bonilla. Bonilla is also a 4th grade Spanish immersion teacher and one of the over 4,500 certified educators represented by PAT, the largest union of educators in the state of Oregon. Along with fellow teachers, Bonilla has been going without pay and getting out to the picket lines at 7:45 every morning as the strike and negotiations drag on. As Portlanders commute to work in the morning they pass families, teachers, and union supporters outside of every school, holding down individual picket lines. Midday rallies at the central administrative office draw crowds in the thousands.
While the local news focuses on the strain the strike puts on parents and kids, often faulting teachers for their “greediness,” the teachers say this is a do or die moment. For middle school Social Studies teacher Gretta DesCamp, her students are the reason she’s on strike:
“It’s not because we want to quit our jobs or just take a break; it’s because we have been put in a position where our jobs are not safe. We don’t have the resources we need to support our students and the students are losing out.”
Attacks on education are not unique to Portland
The frustration because students lack adequate support and resources is shared by teachers across the district. While PPS spends a lower percentage of its budget on direct classroom support than all the other large school districts in Oregon, across the board one thing is clear: educators and students are not getting what they deserve. It is not an issue of lack of funds as district management would like to portray. Cuts to public education spending are part of a larger war on working people and unions in this country. As money is siphoned away from teachers’ salaries and student resources, and instead spent on high salaried administrators and oversight teams, public education in this country is at a deadly juncture.
“Our kids cannot continue in schools the way that they are going. Our educators have already let us know they will not continue in this career if we continue down this path,” says Bonilla.
As the largest school district in the state, Portland teachers’ wins would mean improved outcomes for other districts too. Across all industries, strikes have the power to make major gains for the working class. When Portland teachers win, other districts across the state, and even nationally, will look to them as an example.
The teachers demand: COLA and reasonable workloads
When it comes to pay, Portland teacher’s demands are simple: cost of living adjustments. This would allow them to catch up with the skyrocketing cost of housing and inflation in Portland that is pushing teachers and students out of the district. So far, the best the district can offer is a 3.5% adjustment.
“That’s an insult,” says Bonilla.
Class sizes are at a breaking point when year after year the district makes deep cuts in the number of teachers at each school.
“We are asking for reasonable workloads, class sizes that are actually manageable and additional planning time so we can serve our students,” explains Bonilla. Many teachers describe classes with over 30 students and not enough desks, and DesCamp even talks about a coworker who has 45 students in his choir class.
The district neglects health and safety of classrooms
Another key demand of PAT: basic health and safety measures in classrooms such as temperature regulation, vermin control and mold remediation. The horror stories that PPS teachers have endured in their schools are almost incomprehensible. Many classrooms don’t even have working blinds which are a requirement of the active shooter protocol.
Elizabeth Maier, a middle school science teacher and union rep for her school says she’s had to regularly sweep rodent droppings off the floor of her classroom in the morning. In another common scenario, “sewage would back up into the classroom, students would have to grab their backpacks and jump onto their chairs and we would have to finish class in the library.”
Bonilla recalls, “I had a colleague who had an asbestos tile fall on her head and her table while she was pregnant.” In a demonstration of their lack of care for students and teachers health and safety, the district has rejected all proposed improvements.
Female dominated professions under capitalism are systematically underfunded. Teachers, nurses, and caregivers face unique scrutiny when asking for better pay as these jobs are seen as labors of love —driven by compassion rather than money.
“We know that women are the majority of workers in schools, and people of color are the majority of our lowest paid workers in our schools,” says Bonilla. But the high rates of women and people of color leading the charges lends strength to the labor movement.
“Women for thousands of years have been involved in the movement to support and protect the rights of workers against being taken advantage of,” says DesCamp, highlighting women’s experiences with harassment and exploitation as motivation to fight back.
“We have to win“
The message from PPS has been clear: students and teachers are not a priority. After letting the strike drag on for two whole weeks, PPS management finally put together a proposal, but the contents of it fell far short of what students and teachers need.
Additionally, the district is resorting to “using fear, uncertainty, and doubt tactics to try to break the union’s resolve and pit unions and families against each other,” explains Maier. “They are using taxpayer money to drag these negotiations on. They would rather hire lawyers and publicity firms. It shows exactly what their priorities are.”
For now, both teams will go back to bargaining. How long the strike will last remains uncertain, but what we do know is the results of it have the power to change the course of education in the city for teachers, students, and families. The community can show support for striking teachers by showing up at the picket lines and rallies, by sending letters to the PPS school board, and donating to the strike fund.
Bonilla and the bargaining team remain steadfast in their demands:
“We won’t stop fighting because we have no other choice: we have to win.”