Pushed to the brink by the COVID-19 pandemic, public school teachers in Portland, Oregon, walked out for the first time ever yesterday, calling for better pay and improved student support.

Teachers in Portland, Oregon, on strike, November 1, 2023. (PAT)

The Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) walked out on strike yesterday, closing eighty-one schools. The 4,500-member union is demanding more counselors, more planning time for teachers, more support for special education students, smaller class sizes, and increased salaries and cost-of-living adjustments.

The union’s demands “are a paradigm shift for the state of Oregon,” said ninth-grade teacher Sarah Mykkanen. “We aren’t just reacting to something negative, we are demanding a whole new view of what schools do, of how schools give students what they need.”

The union represents classroom teachers in the Portland Public Schools. While the district’s teachers have authorized strikes in the past, they’ve never walked out, though they’ve worked for as long as two years without a contract. Members I spoke to say they’d felt demoralized and defeated.

But that shifted when they returned from the pandemic.

Like many districts across the country, since COVID Portland has seen an increase in the number of students who are disruptive, suicidal, or have multiple emotional needs. While teachers struggled to attend to these students, the district pressured them to focus on academics. “It was academics, academics, academics,” said Mykkanen. “Four new canned curriculums. Go. Go. Go. Just like a steam engine.”

“[We] reached a point where we realized, I cannot meet the needs of students alone,” said tenth-grade chemistry teacher Chris Schweizer. “The only way we can meet the students’ needs is to act collectively.”

Doing Union Work a New Way

The union’s leadership supported this collective approach. President Angela Bonilla brought a fighting spirit and a plan to win when she took office in 2022. The plan added cochairs to committees, which opened up more positions for members who wanted to lead.

The union also organized meetings for special education teachers and early childhood educators as their particular concerns could otherwise get lost in union planning. Building representatives were taught how to file grievances, and encouraged to file them rather than wait for union staff to do it.

The shift in how the union did its work became clearer as teachers prepared their contract campaign. Each school developed its own contract action team (CAT). While actions were suggested and led by the union-wide CAT, schools made their own plans and developed their own actions.

The union surveyed members and then, after mapping buildings, member-leaders went out to talk with members and to listen. “It was illuminating to have those conversations and find out what members care about,” said Schweizer. “Maybe not pay, but maybe special ed or mental health support. Those conversations have been a big difference in building up trust.” They also held regular happy hours and cookouts to bring staff together.

Walk-Ins and Walk-Outs

Over the course of the spring and into the fall, the CATs organized actions. Each building erected a large poster board with the contract demands for members to sign on to show their support. In April they held a week of actions that included packing the school board meeting, a day of displaying solidarity posters, and a rally.

As the school year came to an end, they held walk-ins and walk-outs: teachers entered the school together at the beginning of the day and left together at the end of day. Over the summer, PAT members showed up at community events to keep spreading the word about their demands.

Matt Reed, a high-school social studies teacher, said the turning point for him was a school committee meeting attended by so many members — six hundred by some counts — that it could not be held because it would violate the fire code.

This was followed by open bargaining sessions crowded with members. In one session, when the school district’s negotiating team came back from a caucus, union members lined up, all in their PAT blue. Management’s team had to walk a silent gauntlet, “a full ninety seconds of silence while they walked back,” said Mykkanen.

More and more members got active and took leadership roles. As I spoke with Mykkanen at the end of the school day just two days before the strike, she said, “There’s a stand-up meeting going on right now and I don’t have to be there. We have eighteen members in our building CAT. It’s self-propelling.”

Surprised Management

Meanwhile, the district seemed to think it was operating under the old rules of the game with a disengaged membership. “We’ve been bargaining since January,” Bonilla said. “It seems like we’ve provided a hundred different dates and times to bargain [but] they were never serious about getting to a settlement.

“We were clear that we are not doing this thing that we did before, where we bargained for two years without a contract.”

For Reed, a big difference is how the union talks about funding. He remembers talking with a member who said the district’s claim it has no funds can be compelling to teachers and the community. “But,” Reed said, “now when that happens, organizers have been given the analysis and the permission to push back. This is a fight about refusing austerity politics.”

These refusals seem to be spreading. Members of the Portland Federation of School Professionals, the union representing paraeducators and administrative assistants, voted down a tentative agreement in September. The support staff and teachers are in different unions, but teachers said members are in constant contact with each other.

The Parents Are With Us

Members I spoke to said that the district seemed to be counting on parent resentment about school closures during COVID to erode support for educators. “[But] during COVID, parents saw us doing our work,” Mykkanen said. “They know what we do and why it matters.”

In the fall of 2022, leading up to the contract campaign, the union held listening sessions with parents so their needs would be included in the contract demands. PAT obtained a grant from the Oregon Education Association and was able to hire a former teacher as a parent liaison.

Still, Langston Hamilton, a long-term substitute teaching elementary-age students, said he worries about the strike’s effect on families he works with. “Our school serves low-income families with parents working multiple jobs and large family units. I feel anxiety about the disruptive impact.

“Of course, disruption is the point of a strike. No matter how hard we prepare there are people who are struggling and suffering. But there are already people who are suffering systemically that this contract is intending to address.”

Hamilton has been preparing his young students by reading books about collective power and strikes including The Day the Crayons Quit and Click, Clack, Moo.

Celebrating Collective Power

Members authorized the strike October 19. Ninety-nine percent voted yes, with 90 percent turnout.

The district resorted to intimidation tactics. They sent out a notice for members to “register” if they were going to strike. They changed grade-reporting policies to make student work inaccessible to teachers after a strike.

The district even accused teachers of contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline if they struck. That accusation was designed to divide teachers from their community. It was unsuccessful.

Instead, the connections were growing. At an art-build organized by the union, families and teachers painted big banners to prepare for the strike.

Getting ready for the strike, members held a practice picket with the signs and banners they had created. On Saturday, three thousand marched through Portland accompanied by parents and students.

“Educators know that a better world is possible,” said Bonilla.

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