Oakland teachers walk off the job in latest teacher strife
By JOCELYN GECKER and OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ
Thursday, February 21
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Teachers in Oakland, California, went on strike Thursday, part of a national wave of discontent by educators over classroom conditions, pay and other issues. Recent walkouts have taken place in West Virginia, Los Angeles and Denver.
The city’s 3,000 teachers want a 12 percent retroactive raise covering 2017 to 2020 to compensate for what they say are the among the lowest salaries for public school teachers in the expensive San Francisco Bay Area. They also want the district to hire more counselors to support students and more full-time nurses.
Kindergarten teacher Kaki Blackburn, 30, was among dozens picketing outside Manzanita Community School with signs saying “On strike For a Living Wage.”
Blackburn, who has 29 kids in her class, said her main concerns were class size and wages. She said her salary makes it impossible to afford an apartment on her own.
“There’s no way I’d be able to live here without a roommate,” she said. “This is not what I went to Brown University to get a master’s for.”
The union leader said the educators were forced to strike because administrators did not listen to their demands for two years.
“For two years we have been negotiating with the Oakland Unified School District to make our students a priority over outside consultants and central office administrators,” said Oakland Education Association President Keith Brown.
The district initially offered a 5 percent raise covering 2017 to 2020, saying it is squeezed by rising costs and a budget crisis.
In negotiations Wednesday aimed at averting a strike, the district increased its proposal to a 7 percent raise over four years and a one-time 1.5 percent bonus. The offer went higher than the recommendation of an independent fact-finding report that suggested a compromise 6 percent retroactive raise.
But union officials rejected the offer.
Oakland Unified School District spokesman John Sasaki said school administrators hope to get a counter proposal from the union when negotiations resume Friday.
“We haven’t heard any proposal since last May so we’re hoping they have something for us when we meet tomorrow,” Sasaki said.
Teachers have been working without a contract since 2017 and have said their salaries have not kept up with the cost of living.
A starting salary in the district is $46,500 a year and the average salary is $63,000, according to the union. In neighboring Berkeley, a starting teacher makes $51,000 a year and the average salary is $75,000, the union said.
The walkout affects 36,000 students at 86 schools.
The district said schools would remain open, staffed by non-union employees and substitute teachers. However, parents should not expect teaching as usual, it said.
Manzanita Principal Eyana Spencer said 14 of the school’s 450 students turned up for school Thursday and were placed in one classroom to play games.
Thousands marched to city hall for a rally, chanting “We are Oakland!” Some held signs saying “Kids Deserve Better.”
“If teachers are worried about how to pay their bills how can they focus on a lesson plan?” said Viviana Rodriguez, whose fifth-grade son joined her at the protest.
Nearly 600 teachers left their jobs at Oakland public schools last year, according to the union, which has said the district cannot retain teachers or attract experienced new teachers.
The union has also called for the district to scrap plans to close as many as 24 schools that serve primarily African-American and Latino students. The union fears further students will be lost to charter schools that drain more than $57 million a year from the district.
Recent strikes across the nation have built on a wave of teacher activism that began last spring. Unions for West Virginia teachers, who staged a nine-day walkout last year, ended another two-day strike Wednesday. Last week, teachers in Denver ended a three-day walkout after reaching a tentative deal raising their wages.
Teachers in Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest school district, staged a six-day strike last month that ended when they settled on a 6-percent raise with promises of smaller class sizes and the addition of nurses and counselors.
Rodriguez reported from San Francisco.
What’s behind the teacher strikes: Unions focus on social justice, not just salaries
February 21, 2019
Author: Rebecca Tarlau, Assistant Professor of Education and of Labor and Employment Relations, Pennsylvania State University
Disclosure statement: Rebecca Tarlau receives funding from the National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship program.
Partners: Pennsylvania State University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
For the past few years I’ve been studying teacher unions and teachers strikes throughout the Americas. My research has taken me from the Mexican state of Oaxaca – where teacher protests in 2006 led to both violent repression and a broad-based social movement for direct democracy – to the streets of São Paulo, Brazil, to coal-mining towns in West Virginia.
I’ve learned that certain conditions prompt teacher unions to adopt new forms of activism and take up broader issues of social justice that go beyond how much teachers are paid.
Now is such a time in the United States.
Factors driving the strikes
The teacher strike that began Feb. 21 in Oakland, California, is just the latest example in a wave of teacher strikes that have swept the country over the past year.
In my view as a researcher who deals with issues of education and labor, the current teacher strike wave in the United States is the result of three factors.
First is the acceleration of market-based education reforms, including the expansion of charter schools.
Second is networks of teacher activists organizing and transforming their unions to focus on broader social issues.
Third is the framing of teacher union action as part of the struggle for racial justice.
These factors have led teacher unions to form alliances with community organizations, enlist students and parents to join the activism, and speak out against efforts to expand charter schools and privatization.
Inspired by Occupy
Let’s look at how these three factors played out in Oakland, starting several years ago.
As I learned through interviews, teacher activists in Oakland drew inspiration from the Occupy movement in 2011. They helped occupy a local elementary school to protest its closing, and eventually created a union caucus called Classroom Struggle with a couple dozen teachers to promote more social justice issues. Then, last spring, these teacher activists created a slate, in alliance with African-American teacher and organizer Keith Brown, and won the leadership of the Oakland Education Association. Since taking office on July 1, 2018, this new union leadership – inspired by the successful strikes in West Virgina, Arizona and Los Angeles – have been preparing for a strike.
The conditions that led to the Oakland strike are similar to those that led to strikes in other cities earlier this year, such as Los Angeles.
For instance, public education in Oakland has been defunded and the city, much like Los Angeles, is experiencing charter school expansion that teachers say is taking money away from public schools. One recent report found that charter schools take US$57.3 million a year from public schools in Oakland.
Teacher union actions in Oakland also mirror tactics and strategies that unions have used in other cities. For instance, Oakland teacher union leaders have enlisted the help of student and community groups and focused on racial justice.
All these actions have transformed the Oakland Education Association – and many other teachers’ unions across the country – into leaders of a social movement that has the potential of redefining public education, the labor movement and American politics.
Much of the media attention on teacher strikes has focused on the economic reasons for the strikes, such as low teacher salaries, rising health care costs and aging textbooks. But there are important historical factors at play.
Historically, teachers’ unions have not led social, racial and economic justice movements. But there are some exceptions. Those exceptions include teacher unionists’ critique of authoritarianism in Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s; teachers’ participation in the movement for a return to democracy in Brazil in the late 1970s; and, in the United States, the participation of many teacher union leaders in the civil rights activism of the 1950s and 1960s.
However, it is also important to note that during the 1960s, many teachers in the United States also found themselves at odds with communities of color. Perhaps this is best exemplified by the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville Strike, when the United Federation of Teachers rallied against black community control of schools.
Today’s teacher activists have bridged the divide between teacher unions and communities of color. For instance, between 2010 and 2012, teacher activists from Chicago’s Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE, aligned with other community groups to organize against school closings in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. CORE also supported parents and students occupying an elementary school to prevent its closure. Their rallying call – “Schools that Chicago Students Deserve” – included demands for reduced class size and other things related to classroom conditions.
In Los Angeles, activists embraced this social movement approach to union activism, fighting for the “Schools that LA Students Deserve.” In 2014, the Los Angeles activists created a new caucus, Union Power, winning the elections and immediately hiring dozens of new organizers to help build towards a strike. They worked in alliance with dozens of community organizations.
The Black Lives Matter movement fueled energy into a new student movement, called Students Deserve, directly supported by the union leadership. The six-day LA strike in early 2019 represented, more than anything else, an explicit racial justice struggle. The LA strike also called into question claims by the charter and voucher movements that school choice policies represent the best path to social mobility for children from poor communities of color.
Teacher unions are not always – and not often – the leaders of broader social justice movements. Now that’s changing due to a new generation of union activists who see their struggle as part of the fight for equitable resources for the communities in which they teach.
Robots star in ads, but mislead viewers about technology
February 22, 2019
Author: Joelle Renstrom, Lecturer of Rhetoric, Boston University
Disclosure statement: Joelle Renstrom does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: Boston University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
Nowhere is the advance of technology more evident than in the rise of robots and artificial intelligence. From smart devices to self-checkout lanes to Netflix recommendations, robots (the hardware) and AI (the software) are everywhere inside the technology of modern society. They’re increasingly common in ads, too: During the 2019 Super Bowl alone, seven ads aired featuring either robots or AI.
Since I began studying human-robot interactions almost a decade ago, I’ve observed that in most ads, robots typically fall into one of three general categories: scary, sad or stupid. All three perpetuate common misconceptions about technologies that are already beginning to play a pivotal role in people’s lives.
The fear factor
“Scary robot” ads are inevitable, given the popularity of the sinister robot trope. Advertisers, like Hollywood, embrace scary robot narratives because they’re more dramatic than ones in which robots and humans get along.
“Fear is Everywhere,” a paranoia-inducing 2019 commercial, advertises SimpliSafe home security systems, which use some of the same monitoring technology the ad demonizes. Rather than reminding viewers of their concerns about burglars or basement flooding, the ad highlights robots and AI as the omnipresent danger. A woman in an electronics store asks her friend if he’s listening, and a creepy computer voice issues forth from a speaker: “Always, Denise.”
SimpliSafe’s ‘Fear is Everywhere’ ad.
That same ad also highlights a second major type of fear – that robots will replace humans. A man watching a sporting event tells his friends, “in five years, robots will be able to do your job, and your job and your job,” while a robot sitting in the stands listens menacingly, as if affirming the assertion.
Halo Top suggests humans’ only need is ice cream.
Then, of course, there’s the third trope, of the evil robot intent on harming people. A 2017 Halo Top ice cream ad, for example, functions as a 90-second horror movie, in which a robot force-feeds a woman ice cream, and then casually mentions that everyone she knows is dead.
There are real threats to humans from robots and AI. Automation may eliminate millions of jobs – and it might create many others that don’t yet exist. Most likely, both will happen, as has happened throughout history: Elevator operators disappeared and social-media manager positions were created. The threat revolves around who will and who won’t be able to adjust or receive training to get the new jobs.
But the world is a long way off from robots that portray a version of the “Frankenstein Complex,” Isaac Asimov’s phrase for the human fear that poorly designed mechanical creations might turn against humanity. Robots have no intentions – only instructions. They can act as though they have feelings, but experience no actual emotion. No one knows if robot emotion or sentience are even possible.
Ads that instill fear of technology in humans can present an unrealistic and unhelpful mindset for adapting to the increasing presence of this technology in our lives – whether in criminal justice, health care or other areas. Fear can also distract people from properly understanding and planning for ways in which humans can continue to offer meaningful skills and insights beyond the abilities of any machine.
Doom and gloom
Pringles are for everyone – sort of.
“Sad robot” ads combat people’s fears about robots while simultaneously eliciting sympathy for them. In a 2019 Pringles ad, a smart device bemoans its lack of hands to stack chips or mouth to eat them. The robot’s physical limitations reassure viewers of human superiority, and yet the robot is advanced enough to have genuine feelings of sadness.
Could a child do your taxes?
Turbo Tax’s RoboChild perpetuated the myth of robot intelligence in two appearances during the 2019 Super Bowl. RoboChild, which looks like young Haley Joel Osment’s face stuck on a small robot body, wants to be an accountant, but encounters constant reminders that it’s in a human world. A person tells RoboChild it isn’t emotionally complex enough for the job, correctly distinguishing between the human and robot abilities to feel emotion – while sparking viewers’ sympathy for the robot.
However, emotion isn’t necessary to fulfill most accounting functions: Artificial intelligence already performs a number of financial tasks, many of which require human interaction.
Falling to pieces
Robots may not make great insurance agents.
The third category of advertising robots doesn’t evoke fear or sympathy, but rather ridicule. A 2018 State Farm ad, for instance, pokes fun at a rival agency that has begun using cheap robot agents instead of human ones. The employee robot is a mess, spurting both hydraulic fluid and gibberish. In “stupid robot” ads, robots have cognitive constraints, sometimes in addition to physical ones.
These ads are at least somewhat realistic, as robots and AI have fundamental limitations – even the system that can beat an international Go champion isn’t much good at anything else. Even so, portraying robots as a collection of laughable, malfunctioning parts undermines the seriousness of their implications. Humans who are laughing at dumb machines may not think clearly or prepare actively for a future in which even limited robots and AI are key players.
Amazon’s Super Bowl ad featuring Alexa fails initially seemed like a collection of “stupid robot” highlights. A collar that allows a dog to order an entire truckload of food reminds viewers of Alexas that interpreted TV news or casual conversations as directives to buy products.
It rightly makes the point that no product is perfect – but it subtly demonstrates the power of Amazon’s technologies, which in the ad shut down an entire continental power grid by accident. The technology itself is portrayed as dysfunctional – and something over which we can all have a laugh. However, the failures illustrate that the flaws lie in human efforts of concept, design or programming. Laughing at the machines can distract people from that deeper insight, or from considering who should be responsible when automation-enabled disaster strikes.
Commercials aren’t likely to encourage viewers to seek out legitimate information about new technologies. Their main job is to sell a product or service, not contribute to an informed society. But they need not perpetuate generalized and unrealistic fears. The more misdirection people absorb about robots and AI, the less capable they will be of understanding and managing the real implications of technological advances.
Game Over? Report Card on Our Planet’s Environment
by Mel Gurtov
The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report for 2019 indicates that most experts point to environmental problems as being the most serious threats to global stability—just as they found in the previous two years. That report follows on one in October 2018 by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It said with “high confidence” that at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, “global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.” Avoiding the worst-case consequences would require measures that have “no documented historic precedent.”
As Americans see the evidence of climate-influenced destruction, they’re on edge: Seventy-two percent of those polled late last year considered climate change “important,” a 15-percentage point increase over 2015. Sixty-nine percent were “worried” about it.
So here we are again, facing another round of bad news on the environment. Actually, the news is worse this time around. 2018 was the fourth-hottest year on record; 2015-2017 are the other three. The Arctic experienced its second-warmest year ever. The head of the World Meteorological Organization said: “The 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22 years. The degree of warming during the past four years has been exceptional, both on land and in the ocean.”
Rising sea levels, according to the IPCC, “will continue beyond 2100 even if global warming is limited to 1.5°C in the 21st century (high confidence). Marine ice sheet instability in Antarctica and/or irreversible loss of the Greenland ice sheet could result in multi-metre rise in sea level over hundreds to thousands of years.” Greenland’s and Antarctica’s ice loss has recently received extensive media coverage as scientists have discovered just how far offtheir earlier predictions were. Antarctica’s enormous ice reserves are melting six times faster now than they were between 1979 and 1989. Glacier melting in the Himalayas, on which South Asian agriculture is heavily dependent, is proceeding at a very fast pace—so much so that by the end of this century, two-thirds of the glaciers may be gone at current climate change rates, and one-third under the most optimistic climate change scenarios.
Ocean temperatures are the warmest on record, and the warming is occurring at a terrifying pace: 40 to 50 percent faster than the United Nations had previously estimated. That could spell trouble for marine ecosystems, phytoplankton in particular. These basic food organisms sustain the underwater food chain. If they die off or shift, as is already detectable in changing ocean color, the impact on fisheries will be catastrophic.
Rising seas also threaten water supplies and US island-based military installations. No wonder the Pentagon, in its latest risk assessment, considers climate change a threat to national security. It can wipe countries off the map. Kiribati, the island group in the southwest Pacific, is a case in point. A nation disappearing due to climate change is something that’s never happened before and, so far, is something people seem unable to imagine.
Time for Mega-solutions
Several conclusions are readily apparent from this information. First, planet-wide environmental deterioration is happening faster—much faster—than scientists had anticipated. Second, the kind of deterioration now taking place, involving oceans and glaciers in particular, tell us that life itself is already endangered in many parts of the globe. Third, some consequences of climate change, such as rising seas, are irreversible. Fourth, resistance to scientific findings and their implications for political, economic, and social changes constitutes nothing short of criminal negligence. Fifth, people are more aware of and concerned about climate change than ever before, if the US poll mentioned above is accurate.
Sixth, solutions to the problem must be up to the scale of the problem. Tiny, personal steps to reduce carbon footprints feel good, but it’s panic time, folks. In the US, the renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben suggests two priority steps: switching immediately away from fossil fuels and protecting cities and coastal areas from ocean inundation. Strict efficiency standards for industry and autos, and a carbon tax such as has been enacted in Europe, would significantly reduce carbon emissions. Then there’s the Green New Deal resolution introduced in the US Congress by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey. The resolution calls for a “ten-year national mobilization” to bring carbon emissions down to zero via a combination of renewable energy, infrastructure repairs, and community-level projects.
The next Democratic president should declare a national emergency, identifying climate change as a top-priority national security matter and presenting the Congress with an agenda for climate-change legislation.
As the IPCC report makes clear, mitigating climate change requires across-the-board and multilevel changes, from sustained international cooperation, including funding the most affected developing countries, to addressing poverty and health care deficits. Political leaders, who always have excuses for ignoring problems that will outlive them, can point to other issues that require their immediate attention. Even the most liberal among them hesitate to embrace the up-front financial costs and social challenges of a serious climate change agenda, though they know full well that the benefits of a green economy—in jobs, energy, reduced waste, and public health, for instance—will outweigh the costs.
That leaves the fight up to this generation of ordinary citizens. How inspiring to learn that all across Europe, tens of thousands of young people are demanding action to save the planet. They are organizing a “global strike” on March 15. But if their elders won’t act, or even acknowledge the urgency of global warming, it is hard to imagine that all the wonderful grassroots environmental and energy initiatives underway around the world will be enough to save us and future generations.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.