Thursday, April 20, 2006

Strikes in Paris, Strikes in Oakland

When we were in Paris, we stayed with very kind hosts, friends of a friend who hadn't even met us before they welcomed us into their home. They lived in a small, top-floor apartment in Belleville, a neighborhood-in-transition not entirely different than the Oakland neighborhood I live in here. Lots of immigrants, mostly Asian but also African and Middle Eastern, lived in the neighborhood, along with white Parisians. (Dat Lan, an amazing Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant, was a couple blocks away).

One of our hosts, a high school teacher in Paris, had been on strike as part of the city-wide general strike in, the day before we arrived. A GENERAL strike. The concept is virtually unheard-of here in the states, even in the progressive hotbed of the Bay Area. This is a strike when EVERYONE stays home and doesn't go to work. Where 'business as usual' stops for a day, a week, however long the unions, the student groups, whoever is organizing the people, decide. The Metro (subway) doesn't run, there are no schools open, the post office shuts down, etc. Everyday life comes to a standstill, and politicians and policy makers and corporate CEOs have no choice but to wring their hands, try to make backroom deals, and hope that the workers will come back soon. A general strike gives everyday, working people a huge amount of leverage in negotiations around things like the new labor law (CPE) that students and workers were protesting in France (the workers and students won, by the way).

Today, Oakland Unified School District teachers (of whom I count several close friends) had planned to go on strike, since the district (run by the bulldozer known as State Administrator Randolph Ward) had refused to give them a good deal on health care (a major issue that has come up in other labor struggles recently, such as the Safeway/VONS strike, etc.). And then, as reported to me by my downstairs neighbor, who teaches at an OUSD school, the district pulled a fast one at the last minute: ten minutes before school let out yesterday, the district sent notices to all students and parents, saying that the next day (the day teachers had planned to strike) would be a 'student free day' but a mandatory work day for teachers. A smooth, manipulative way to try to take the punch out of the teachers' strike. If no students show up to school at the district's behest, is it really a strike, after all?

But it seems that the teachers' union and the district have reached an agreement, in the end. Still no details on it yet in the news, but union reps seem to be happy with it. Of course, it's not over yet. Union members still have to vote to ratify the contract, and there's no telling what they may think of it. Is it a real, livable contract with good health care conditions for Oakland's overworked teachers? Or is it a last-minute ditch-out/sell-out compromise that will weaken teachers' positions (and slim down their pocketbooks)?

Unfortunately, this is not Paris, and although the teachers' union was possibly going to be joined in their strike by school staff (secretaries, janitors, and the like), I didn't hear of any AC Transit bus drivers or UPS workers in Oakland striking in solidarity. We are a long ways off from having the kinds of mass-scale social movement that exists in France and other more industrialized nations, that's for damn sure.

But it is beautiful to see community members band together in response to the 'free day' / strike whatever it is. Oakland recreation centers will be staying open later to help take care of children who have no where to go since school isn't in session. My friend M. reports that her son's school, a progressive charter school in the Fruitvale district, had a parents' meeting recently to notify them of the status of the possible strike and help them make alternative childcare arrangements. And my organization has offered students a place to hang out in our offices if they have no where to go so that they don't get targeted by cops for truancy.

At this point, it's a wait and see game. Wait and see. And hope that, no matter what, the students will be the ones to win out in the end.

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