Berkeley teachers support Oakland strikers: ‘We have their backs’

Teacher dressed all in red holds red umbrella that says, "Red 4 Ed!" Other people rally behind him.
Teachers and students rallied outside Willard Middle School, and most other Berkeley schools, Tuesday morning to support Oakland teachers. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

If you walked past a Berkeley public school Tuesday morning, you might have thought it was Berkeley teachers who were striking.

Instead, the educators standing under umbrellas, holding protest signs in front of nearly every Berkeley campus, had gathered to show their support for the Oakland Education Association, whose members have been on strike since Thursday. Many of the Berkeley teachers, joined by students and parents, drew parallels between the working conditions in the two districts.

“Teaching is such a hard profession,” said Nancy Silver, who’s taught at Malcolm X Elementary since 1978. “We work so much and get paid so little. I’m like a pediatrician — I take care of your kids.”

Silver was wearing a bright pink raincoat — “the closest thing I have to red” — but others who joined her in front of the South Berkeley school, soliciting honks from cars driving up Ashby Avenue, were wearing the color that’s become representative of teachers movements nationally. About a mile away, a teacher at Willard Middle School came prepared with a big red umbrella, decorated with the words “Red 4 Ed!”


Oakland teachers are asking for raises and smaller class sizes, and protesting OUSD’s plans to close up to two dozen schools to cut costs. Teachers at Berkeley schools have “adopted” individual Oakland schools, trucking coffee, bananas and rain ponchos over to educators at those sites each morning, often joining them on the picket line.

Students, parents and teachers hold a long yellow banner that says, "Together we can" at teacher rally.
The Malcolm X rally Tuesday drew teachers, parents and students out to the streets before class started, at 7:30 a.m. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Woman in red poncho stands on side of Ashby Avenue holding a sign that says, "Honk if u support public schools!"
Malcolm X teachers solicited many supportive honks from passing cars. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“We want to show them that we have their backs, because we might need theirs,” said Sharon Arthur.

Arthur has taught at Willard — currently math, science and P.E. — for 20 years, and said she’s “seen a huge decline in the financial ability of teachers to live in the community they work in.” Arthur took the job after student-teaching at Willard while in graduate school at UC Berkeley. She was excited to get a job in the city where she lived. Years later, she feels lucky to still be renting in Berkeley, but said she could never afford to buy a home here.

A group of protesters walks into Willard middle school. Two young female students are in front, holding up signs that say, "Berkeley teachers and staff stand with Oakland teachers"
Willard students lead the “walk-in” to school. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Rachel Curtin, an English language development teacher at Malcolm X, shared a similar story. Curtin has taught at the elementary school for seven years.

“Seven years ago I could have afforded a house. I can’t now,” said Curtin, who brought her two-year-old daughter to the rally.

Curtin was wearing a sign she had made calling for “caseload caps” for special-education teachers.

“We desperately need more supports for our most vulnerable students,” she said.

The Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) is headed into contract negations with BUSD beginning in March, and lower special-ed caseloads will be among the union’s demands, along with higher compensation.

“With the cost of living in Berkeley, we’ve effectively taken a budget cut,” said Malcolm X drama teacher Mariah Castle, standing under a canopy protecting the protesters from the rain.

Many of the people who came out to rally Tuesday said Oakland and Berkeley teachers are in the same boat as educators across the state. California has constantly ranked in the bottom third nationally for per-pupil funding. District leaders in Berkeley, Oakland and beyond say they have no choice but to slash their budgets significantly next year. Earlier this month the Berkeley School Board passed a resolution supporting the 2020 Proposition 13 reform ballot measure, which would undo some of the caps on commercial property taxes and bring in more funds for public education.

“One of the messages we’re trying to get out is these are local entities trying to attack a statewide problem,” said BFT President Cathy Campbell in a phone interview Monday.”We need to be active on both levels. In Oakland, there’s fiscal mismanagement — that seems clear. But there’s also the fact that what they’re receiving from the state isn’t adequate.”

Two female middle school students stand under a shared umbrella holding signs in support of Oakland teachers
Willard students rally to support teachers. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The rallies Tuesday wrapped up quickly, with teachers and their students filing into school together for their morning classes, holding their signs aloft as they entered the gates. Many Berkeley teachers will return to Oakland picket lines in the coming mornings, if negotiations there continue to stretch on. State Superintendent of Public Education Tony Thurmond has arrived in town to try to hep the bargaining teams reach an agreement.

“We want to provide a little boost and say, ‘We’re with you, we’re out here in the rain too,'” Campbell said.