We interview Nick Palmquist, an Oakland teacher and longtime member of the union reform caucus, Classroom Struggle, who talks to us on how militant teachers took over their union and are now setting the ground for a strike this late February/March
LV: What is the history of Classroom Struggle, the reason it was formed, and how it has shaped OEA?
NP: The history of Classroom Struggle came out of Occupy Oakland. It was in a different iteration at that moment. It wasn’t union focused at all, it was much more anti-school closures because it was during the first wave of school closures in Oakland. Besides that, we were also focusing on community demands such as smaller class sizes. I think also some of us inside of it, speaking personally, were growing out of some of that early union skepticism, seeing that there could be some powerful movements from the unions.
So we started stepping into the union, trying to win our class size demands through the contract and that is what kicked off our current kind of strategy. For about four of those years (since 2012), we were definitely working against our president, who was Trish Gorman at that moment, and a lot of our organizing was trying to out organize her obstructionism because she was not organizing the rank and file, any of them. So it was a lot to step into power and hold back her worst parts. And then most recently with the election, which the Build Our Power (BOP) slate won, and that’s mostly a Classroom Struggle slate. Now we’re in this position of actually trying to really do organizing. So it’s a totally different world now. It’s really good. It’s a lot of work, but it’s overall really positive.
LV: What are the principles that Classroom Struggle is founded upon?
NP: A lot can be summarized by our slogan, “defend and transform public education”. A lot of times the Left doesn’t necessarily always acknowledge the need to “transform” public education. So we’re really about fighting for maintaining what we have but also actually transforming it, and so I would say that’s where our class size demands have come in. We really have a student orientation, a family orientation. But besides that, it’s about making sure our union functions well, is militant, is organizing, is democratic.
Just bringing a larger coalition of parents, students, and teachers together, and then besides that, I would say the good work we’re doing is like UCORE (United Caucus of Rank and File Educators) stuff, you know, just building up a larger regional struggle. And then we are also in touch with the national UCORE.
LV: What’s the relationship between Classroom Struggle and the Build Our Power slate, and how did it come into being?
NP: BOP was an ad hoc formation and honestly we did it pretty quickly. I would have gone back and done it with more intention and preparation. But a couple months leading up to the election in Spring 2018, we ran a slate and it’s a good slate with people we were in touch with before, a it’s a mix of Classroom Struggle people, though not all, noticeably, the president was not a member of Classroom Struggle before, but is very supportive.
So it was an election slate to get into power, and for the most part it was done really well. But it also raises big questions. And I think this is true for any kind of group that comes into power, any caucus that enters into power, what are you doing in the union spaces and what are you doing in the non-union, caucus spaces? Because you don’t want to be repetitive and waste people’s time. People don’t have time to waste. You’re so busy in these spaces. So we’re in the midst of trying to figure out what to do in there and what not to do. To me, the main thing we’ve done really well, and maybe the one thing that it has been a question mark going forward, has been, what is the role of the California Teachers Association (CTA) staff because they’ve done pretty well and they’ve been supportive of the strike. Historically, though, I’ve always heard that CTA has not supported our strikes and so that might be changing, but I think that would be one of the ways for having a separate space that’s not just the union space. CTA staff wouldn’t be allowed in the caucus space.
They (BOP) were folks who were around the union or around the district that we were trying to bring into Classroom Struggle more, even under the past president. And so they are folks who’ve been around. The (current) president was the vice president under the past (OEA) president. So it was like somebody who’s very much supportive and he was aligned with all our visions and the things that we want. So we’ve had relationships before.
LV: What is the current relationship between Classroom Struggle and Build Our Power and the President and leadership?
NP: Classroom Struggle is a more stable force. We’ve been around for seven years, BOP has only been around for a few months, formed right near the elections, it’s a way more tenuous space. Classroom Struggle is more solid, we’re still meeting. I think there are lessons there about how you form a caucus, just being more prepared and more in preparatory conversation. What is the nature of the caucus, in our solidarity with each other and in our commitments to meeting outside of the union spaces and recognizing the need for those kinds of spaces? For me as someone who is supportive of the BOP, it’s still challenging to imagine exactly what is this role once you’re in power.
I’ve seen challenges with Chicago (CTU) and Los Angeles (UTLA) also. LA’s caucus doesn’t meet that often now that they’re in power. Chicago’s caucus, CORE (Caucus Of Rank and File Educators), had tons of challenges even though they got Karen Lewis elected. But there are questions about whether she’s representing everything CORE is down for. So, I don’t know if there’s an answer to that yet.
We’re definitely trying to maintain Classroom Struggle. It’s a thinking space and we’re trying to make sure we’re on track. It’s a check for ourselves because we are part of the leadership. So in that sense, it’s really just checking ourselves. We’re maintaining our principles.
LV: Does OUSD have the money to fund all these demands? Do you think that they will concede to them? What are your expectations? What do you realistically expect with this?
NP: Yes, they have the money. I’m just looking at the way we’ve been able to break down how they’re overspending on consultants (and) administrators. I do believe those numbers. Now, I think there are real questions about how quickly they can extricate themselves from all the ways they’ve been privatizing the district. For instance, the consultant spending, a lot of that is a waste of money, but a lot of spending is useful. But they don’t know exactly how they’re spending it all. They’re super mismanaged, or they have admin-inflated contracts. So to say that they can defund all that stuff immediately is challenging, which is why we’re trying to push a phased-in model centered around class size and pay increase.
And I do think they can afford a phased-in kind of change. Whether they concede depends totally on our power, whether we have an organized strike that goes beyond just an organized membership in an organized community. So we have a lot of work to do. This is not even just about the demands, it’s also about politically winning solidarity and fighting for something and not being pushed around anymore, fighting for a transformed union and district. That’s another part which you can’t just capture in the demands.
LV: What are OEA’s non-negotiable demands for the contract campaign and how ready are the members to engage in a prolonged strike to win these demands?
NP: Going off of what I was saying before with Classroom Struggle specifically, we’ve always been interested in class size changes in addition to the compensation increase. Because this is something that I think most folks in the union will want, and we’ll try to get this amongst all the membership. When we’ve surveyed them, most of the membership do support a mix of class size reductions and compensation increases, so we want some combination of that. The specifics of it are more challenging, but Classroom Struggle’s whole idea is, class size is a community demand. We need to win something that we really think the community will feel. Most people would (also) say they support a compensation (increase). But (the) class size (issue) takes it more to the heart of where they’re at. I work at a school and we have a small class sizes and a community-based structure. The students are all like family and super appreciative.
LV: How does the statewide strategy of uniting around a fight for increased funding and more democratic control of our districts, i.e., stopping the spread charter schools or at least holding them to the same standards as we hold our publicly-run charter schools, fit into OEA’s contract struggle?
NP: This totally fits in with UTLA and Classroom Struggle, with UTLA, the largest teacher union in the state, really leading the way on this even more than us. OUSD and OEA, maybe more than some districts, have a local target that’s realistic. I think there’s maybe some districts where there isn’t as much wiggle room for the finances, to fund pay raises. OUSD and LAUSD mismanage their own funds, and with the charter issue, I think there are ways that we should be targeting our local district.
At the same time we need to target the state. The conservatives and the centrists, they try to push you, (they say), “well, it’s not our fault, it’s the state’s fault.” No. We reject that. But they’re not lying when they’re saying it’s about the state too. And so we just need to be able to target both and recognize and explain and patiently educate folks. We want redistribution of funds locally, and statewide we need a massive increase in funds, a moratorium on charter schools, and phasing of re-publicization of charter schools.
I think we’re in a situation right now with the UTLA strike going down and the Red for Ed movement across the country where we could really change some stuff. So statewide, I’m excited. And with the great work that folks are doing in California UCORE and California Educators Rising it’s opening up a lot of possibilities right now. It’s exciting.
LV: Are you seeing in general that different teachers are more optimistic, is there more of a positive feeling that they can actually have a successful strike? With everything that’s been going in the red state rebellion of the teachers, has that energy affected everyone?
NP: Yeah, definitely. I would say the red state stuff last year totally empowered us. The fact that we’re doing more organizing this year locally is also brought up a lot. It’s also brought challenges because with our district we have a lot of turnover and a lot of inequality. So you have some folks in schools where half of the teachers are new every year. And then some where there’s more longevity and there’s a mix of either jadedness or people are really pissed-off. I know with the new folks there’s just a lot of people who are not sure yet. And so there’s a lot of difference in our membership that we’re trying to navigate because some people have been ready to go on strike for years and some folks are like, What? We can go on strike? We have a union? And between those, we have a lot of organizing and do.
I mean that’s just the nature of austerity. There’s no way to wish that away. We’ve just got to organize. We’re trying to keep in mind and trying to figure out how to balance out, get as much as possible in this contract, but really convey that it’s also still a long-term struggle without taking away the urgency from today. And that’s a dance, you know, a challenging balance because we got the (California) Schools and (Local) Communities (First) Funding act on the 2020 ballot, and then we potentially have more strikes and contract campaigns coming up. So recognizing the importance of the statewide struggle without losing the urgency of now.
LV: What is the long-term vision for Classroom Struggle in the broader movement for liberating educators, students, and families from exploitation and oppression in Oakland and beyond?
NP: Obviously we need a larger socialist movement. So maybe the question is more, where does this movement fit into that one? I think that in general, my take on the Left in the working class and potentially revolutionary sectors in this country is that we’ve been beaten down so much that we’ve lost our own self-confidence and that you can’t have a revolutionary movement without at least a very strong reform movement, without losing sight of the revolution beyond reform. There’s not enough struggle. We’ve obviously seen with Trump that the Right Wing has been able to dominate in ways that the Left has not been able to withstand. And so we need much more militant, bottom-up, working-class organizing. And I think a lot of that we can see coming from sectors like education. I think it could also potentially come from healthcare, like some of these sectors that have not been decimated by economic shifts as much. Definitely other parts of the working class, immigrants, racial justice struggles, with #MeToo in gender movements. So I see teachers as one part of that. What is so hopeful with Red for Ed, is you had red states popping up and then pushing back on the anti-tax, anti-state mentality, which I think is really powerful. So my hope is that teachers in general can pop up like that in connection with students and families in schools, and that we have really a militant school-based movement the way that you might see in some other countries like Latin America where school occupations and student movements happen all the time. Like in Mexico with CNTE (Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación), very powerful but still limited. We’ve seen that in other places, so that’s my hope.
 United Caucus of Rank and File Educators is a network of social justice educators and union activists working together to advance economic and racial justice and democracy in our schools, workplaces and communities (http://www.ucore.org/)
 The act seeks to restore over $11 billion per year to California schools, community colleges, health clinics, and other public services by closing the 1978 Prop 13 loophole. See https://schoolsandcommunitiesfirst.org
Published in: https://lavozlit.com/interview-with-oakland-teacher-on-future-strike/