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Articles Issue 6

From Gaza to Oakland: Grassroots Organizing for Palestine in the Oakland Education Association

A first-hand account of the Oakland Education Association’s mobilization after October 7th to educate students about Palestine, while facing workplace retaliation and intra-union conflict.

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On December 2nd, 2023, a video went out on the instagram page “oaked4palestine” calling upon teachers to participate in a “Palestine Teach-in.” The video, featuring rank-and-file teachers, implored Oakland educators to utilize their “unique way” to “show solidarity with the Palestinian people.” At this point, at least 27 educators’ unions have passed resolutions calling for a ceasefire, with some statements going as far as to label Israel as an apartheid state and an occupying force. Unions across industries have all participated in mass rallies, which for the first few weeks after October 7th seemed to only grow in size over time.

However, as Israel continues to escalate the conflict, forcing Gazans further and further south, while subjecting those who refuse  to be displaced to dehumanizing treatment, workers in the Oakland Education Association sought more everyday avenues of activism and solidarity. Unlike factory workers, teachers do not produce a concrete commodity, and thus their labor power has different implications and impacts than a dock worker who refuses to unload Israeli cargo, or a tech worker refusing to work on contracts with Israeli companies. Henceforth the idea for a district-wide teach-in, which was successfully pulled off on December 6th. The following is written from the perspective of one of the organizers for the teach-in. In doing so, we had to navigate the multiple contradictions in our union, including Zionism, depoliticization and disorganization.

From the Streets to the Classroom

All strata of the Oakland school communities went into motion after October 7th. People participated, individually or in their small circle of friends, in the mass rallies called by organizations such as AROC, Palestinian Youth Movement and Jewish Voice for Peace.  Bolstered by calls for walkouts and general strikes by these same organizations, students throughout the district participated in walkouts in an attempt to make their voices heard.

Many of these walkouts were organized by Arab and Muslim students, and the participants were attempting to find their own genuine political voice amidst the crisis in Gaza. However, teachers also observed that the large majority of the student population were not informed about the issue. Among teachers at my school site, we joked that we would only let students participate in the walkouts if they could point to Israel on a map, because so many took these actions more or less as an opportunity to skip class. 

In response to these observations about students, teachers took it upon themselves as educators to take action at the level of their daily work-lives. Many autonomously began integrating Palestinian history and perspectives into their lessons. While this was most naturally incorporated into classes for Art, History or English, teachers of all subjects, from Biology to Computer Science, devised ways of articulating the relevance of their subject matter to the situation in Gaza. Teachers also began to face increased pressures in their workplace, especially those in the wealthier Oakland hills, where Zionist families organized to report teachers who taught about Palestine to their administrators. At other schools, calls by AROC and other organizations to “general strike” in some cases led to almost half of teachers at a school site being absent.

Anti-Bureaucracy versus Organization

With the sudden wave of mobilization from students, calls for a collective and organized response from the Oakland Education Association (OEA) emerged. Executive board (eboard) members reached out to rank-and-file members to write a ceasefire resolution for the eboard, which they passed on October 27th. Despite their prompt action in this situation, they were unprepared for the amount backlash that this action would receive: OUSD publicly denounced the union’s statement, comms from the union were inconsistent (e.g. the email which went out to members was different from the statement posted on instagram), a handful of members stopped paying dues, and Zionist teachers threatened to organize a campaign to convince more to quit if the union did not rescind their statement.

Not all the backlash came from a Zionist position, though. The statement was written and passed without consultation with the wider membership, and union leadership acted with no plan to consult membership on this issue, nor to defend teachers’ rights to publicly take a pro-ceasefire position at their sites. Especially at sites with Zionist strongholds among either the families or the teachers, anti-Zionist members and member site reps (OEA’s term for stewards) felt even more pressured and surveilled in their workplace.

For many, the bureaucratic process of this resolution revived feelings from the most recent contract campaign which, while resulting in a highly inspiring strike, also was marred and limited by lack of transparency from some in leadership of the union. A focus wholly on anti-bureaucracy would have put workers in the same position as those Zionist teachers who were petitioning to remove the current leadership. Instead, workers pushed for a reaffirmation of the union’s position for a ceasefire at the next rep council meeting.

Two points of division made themselves very clear at the November 4th rep council. The first, clearly detailed above, was Zionism in the union. They came out forcefully with the usual slander of anti-semitism and pro-terrorism and equations of  Zionism and the Jewish community. The second was a question of union politics, a line which some Zionist members at the meeting used to almost great effect. The eboard statement and subsequent debate brought out many members’ feeling that unions should not be taking political stances, especially in issues of international solidarity. A particularly memorable comment during the debate stated: “We are the Oakland Education Association. We are experts in Oakland, Education and Labor.”

While a few bureaucratic moves were made to attempt to reconcile the text of the resolution with the concerns of particular sections of membership—to make it condemn Hamas more or less, to make it apologetic about the process of the original resolution more or less—the debate in the meeting was remarkable for the focused and sustained engagement by members; the longest debate ever witnessed at rep council by one veteran teacher. Members understood that the real stakes of this debate were not a statement per se, but a recommitment towards rank-and-file, internationalist-oriented organizing. Debate points were rarely about the amendments themselves, and focused mostly on the issue of giving space to labor militants who wanted to continue pushing for a unionism which understands its connections to global political issues. Members during the debate made reference to several of OEA’s long-standing and self-stated values:  police-free schools and black liberation; the mutual solidarity with other unions such as the ILWU (a union with a long history of anti-apartheid and anti-Zionist organizing); Oakland’s commitment as a sanctuary city, making Oakland Public Schools a destination for many students new to the country. And significantly, anti-Zionist Jewish teachers effectively fended off arguments which considered antisemitism both critiques of the Israeli government and calls for an end to the occupation of Palestine.

The renewal of the statement in solidarity with Palestine passed resoundingly, 2-to-1. But organizers understood that, to meet the moment, leadership and organization was required, not resolutions – and the “official” leadership so far had only been interested in resolutions. A small rank-and-file core of about 15 formed an ad hoc group called “OEA for Palestine” to gather energy from the passage of the resolution, and push for a stronger position of Palestinian solidarity on-within educators’ daily work-lives. Most importantly, we would work to devise means for teachers to utilize their labor power in support of liberation in Palestine.  Without an official organizing committee in the union, “OEA for Palestine” served as its effective replacement. Thus, the idea of a district-wide teach-in on December 6th came about. On this day, teachers would utilize their unique form of labor power to create “more than a statement… You can give kids an aha moment, or maybe even get one yourself… [and give] our students a chance to meaningfully interact with the world.”

Teach Palestine

The teach-in would be composed of two primary parts: firstly, to encourage teachers to teach about Palestine in their classrooms, regardless of subject matter or grade; and secondly, to encourage teachers to stream a live panel featuring on-the-ground activists who would bring further contemporary context of the current moment to students. We also collaborated with organizations which specialized in the teaching of Palestine and fuller ethnic studies curriculum on pre-made lessons that teachers could utilize day-of, to encourage participation. Oure relationships with organizations such as Palestinian Youth Movement and Jewish Voices for Peace gave us credibility, and built up excitement for the teach-in, but making the teach-in into a mass action still required the assembling of contact lists and Google forms to gather interest in workers for the teach-in, following-up with them, and encouraging them to organize their sites to participate as well. It was important that we struck a balance between working with outside organizations and actually organizing teachers to participate in the action.

While OEA for Palestine’s network had grown, teach-in organizers still mostly consisted of the original core. We viewed our goal not to get every teacher to participate, or even a majority, but to organize a critical capacity of participants to make this a widely felt event across the district that would also further the development of organizing and union culture at sites with deep enough participation. This would successfully translate our union’s commitment to international solidarity into practice. During our outreach efforts, we encouraged educators to attend “office hours’ held by OEA for Palestine, to canvass their co-workers, and to hold site meetings before the day of action to talk through curricular resources and other concerns. Through this action, we hoped to not only engage teachers in a labor action, but through labor action build stronger site organization via an intentionally everyday form of action that we could organize large amounts of teachers into.

Those who participated found it a valuable and powerful experience for themselves and their students. One participating teacher said of the “OEA for Palestine”  resources that they  “opened a really impactful discussion in 4th grade about injustice.” Another teacher noted that her students did not get to the art component of the lesson because students’ questions and conversation went on for so long. One school hosted the panel in its l auditorium, where about 100 students watched the panel discussion, with an additional 20 Spanish-speaking students watching a translated version in a nearby classroom. Students asked the panel questions about the nature of the conflict and the connection of Bay Area activism to the movement in Palestine. One of my own students wanted to know if this was a conflict between two nations or two ideologies.

From Oakland to Gaza

The teach-in organization of course had its limits. The action came up against the end of the semester, which meant we were asking educators to fit the teach-in within their already increased duties during end of semester – review, catch-up work, finals, and students cramming to finish the semester strong. Thus the suggestion to hold preparatory meetings for the teach-in at each site was not able to be taken in most cases. Many teachers who wanted to participate did not do so for lack of confidence in their ability to teach about the issue. Others who intended to simply got the date wrong. Despite the very powerful media and symbolic messaging of the teach-in, it is difficult to assess how widespread participation really was. Organizers estimate about 70-100 educators. While we were somewhat successful in consolidating a politicized layer of teachers, the larger aim of using this layer as a launching point to build militant organization at school sites has only partly been realized.

District retaliation against displays of Palestinian solidarity also increased due to the teach-in. One humorous anecdote involves a Palestinian flag having replaced an American flag for some time, ignored by school administration until it was covered by the media. Teachers have been asked to turn in their planned curriculum for teaching about the crisis in their classrooms, and some who have been teaching about the issue for years in their classes are now under scrutiny. It is important to note that, just like the taking down of the flag, this response from the district did not come until after the teach-in was publicly announced as an organized event. Organized or not, the district, just like Zionist organizers in Oakland, are treating the union as a complete unit for its attack – further evinced by the launching of a civil rights probe by the federal Department of Education against OUSD for the teach-in, specifically for the discrimination against Jewish students. 

Much of this critique was expressed within OEA for Palestine, but the development of the teach-in still had several successes. Our efforts of organizers to maintain the importance of politicization and internationalism in the union – against Zionists and liberals – were successful. Relations between union organizers and community and other social movement organizers have become so much stronger. Many regretted they could not participate in the teach-in, for one reason or another. And those teachers that did rise to the occasion and move closer to the core were to a high degree those teachers who are dedicated to not just symbolic statements by the top leadership but mass action arrived at through democratic union processes of deliberation and organization.

Shortly after the teach-in, another call to a “general global strike” by Palestinian journalists Bisan and Motaz moved a good 10% of teachers at my site to call out sick, with solidaristic support from nearly all other teachers. Some who participated in this strike included teachers who did not participate in the teach-in. Other school sites eluded organizers’ outreach efforts, yet have still developed their own robust attempts at standing in solidarity with Gaza. A simple postcard writing event attracted workers at my site who had henceforth not been heavily involved in politics. And with the continual escalation of the crisis in Palestine, it is crucial that we still discuss the issue in our workplaces, share our experience of the teach-in with other educators, and continue to hold presence and space for pro-Palestine action.

With the tragedy in Gaza, we as organizers must seize the opening we have made and continue to rearticulate how we as teachers relate to Palestinian liberation. Among OEA for Palestine organizers are veterans of social movement spaces, which proved to be useful for the teach-in coming together and for building a broad backbone of community support, especially parents, for the teach-in. Other experiences such as the Chicago Teachers’ Union seem to show the importance of these relations with social movement organizations. Organizers for OEA for Palestine are attempting to further this culture by collaborating on a mass meeting for labor militants across the bay area who have been organizing around Palestine in their unions. Workers often move faster than organizers have the capacity to respond to, but what we can do is try to influence these energies towards broader inclusion and participation in the building of a social movement culture within the union.

Because in the last instance, what will realize educators’ potential to push forward the movement for liberation in Palestine  will not be statements (as important as it may be to organize for them) nor their exactitude or correctness of their content (as important as it may be to ensure that they do not inadvertently undermine union work for Palestine), but rather the  slow spadework of talking to co-workers both at our school sites and throughout the district, moving skeptical workers closer towards solidarity, devising ways to cohere active workers’ energies into organization, and rebuilding organizing structures within the union, so that we may present an actionable militant unionism we know is necessary to jam the war machine and transform society.

Fan Yi is a rank-and-file member of the Oakland Education Association and a member of “OEA for Palestine”

Edit: go to the DSA forums to continue the discussion! https://discussion.dsausa.org/t/grassroots-organizing-for-palestine-in-the-oakland-education-association/32628

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