Oakland teachers’ union president Sheila Quintana is about as homegrown a leader as they come. Raised in Oakland, a graduate of McClymonds High School, Quintana has twenty years of experience teaching American Government, fourteen of them spent before Oakland students. During the 1996 teachers’ strike, her marathon organizing schedule paved the way for her to assume the presidency of the Oakland Education Association (OEA), and as an African American, she was able to bridge the gruesome racial politics that pitted black parents against the white teachers who comprise the majority of the district’s faculty. Last summer, Quintana and her union’s bargaining team won a new contract that gave her members an unprecedented 21 percent salary increase. It was the largest pay raise for teachers in any public school district in California, in a year marked by surplus-driven pay hikes across the state. The rank and file overwhelmingly ratified the contract, and for the first time since 1977, no one was talking strike. With all this to boast about, you’d think Quintana’s position would be secure.
But as she strode down the hallway at Piedmont Avenue Middle School on the afternoon of April 3, Quintana worried that in less than a week she would lose control of the union altogether. A meeting of union representatives from each of the district’s schools was about to convene in the school’s cafeteria, and as Quintana joined the line of people walking through the doors,
three union members stood to one side, stuffing campaign fliers into the teachers’ arms. Substitute teacher Yvette Felarca, Special Education teacher Mark Airgood, and Oakland Tech English teacher Tania Kappner waved fliers in the air, stumping for votes in the upcoming election for the union’s executive board.
These three are more than politically active teachers–they also happen to be members of a group that goes by the rather turgid name of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). For years, this organization has been an amusing footnote in the annals of affirmative-action fights; allegedly a front group for an obscure Detroit-based Trotskyist political party called the Revolutionary Workers League, BAMN, born in 1995, quickly established a reputation at UC Berkeley as a collection of wild-eyed sectarian extremists. They long ago lost any credibility on the UC campus; eventually they were consigned to the very margins of university life. Almost everyone regarded them as amusing caricatures, forever wailing from loudspeakers at indifferent students walking through Sproul Plaza.
But over the course of the last few years, many of BAMN’s members have gotten jobs as teachers in Oakland–and have begun meddling in the affairs of the union. Now, Quintana worried that this group was on the verge of taking over the union’s leadership. During the first week of April, all 3,700 OEA members were asked to vote for candidates for the union’s executive board, the body that sets the direction for future relations with the district and controls hundreds of thousands of dollars. Members of BAMN were running for three seats, and a number of other candidates, including teachers Craig Gordon and Bob Mandel, shared many of BAMN’s radical politics. If BAMN’s candidates were to win, they and their allies could capture a nine-member coalition majority on the sixteen-member board.
As Quintana put it, if the election swung BAMN’s way, the group would be in a position to craft union policy. For example, the executive board is charged with approving Quintana’s appointments to the union’s bargaining team, the group that negotiates the next teachers’ contract with the district. A bargaining team that shares BAMN’s penchant for vitriolic confrontation is more likely to engage in screaming matches than constructive negotiation–BAMN members even tried to fire last year’s entire bargaining team right in the middle of contract talks, and school board members worry that effective communication between the union and the district could collapse. In addition, BAMN members have already managed to get the union to donate money to finance the group’s March 8 Sproul Plaza rally in support of affirmative action–a rally that resulted in a riot and the looting of several stores. If BAMN’s influence over the union’s leadership continued to grow, the union–which controls roughly $300,000 in membership dues–could find itself funding similarly embarrassing events. As it is, the constant squabbling among the leadership occasioned by the rise of BAMN is having a disastrous impact on teacher morale.
That the three BAMN members have created such havoc says less about their own political skills than it does about the profound disengagement of the OEA’s rank-and-file. What is happening among the teachers of Oakland that their union could be so vulnerable? Are they so disillusioned with the school board, the crumbling facilities, and all the thousand pinpricks of the Oakland educational experience that they would simply cease to care who speaks for them?
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I am hardly a dispassionate observer of BAMN’s activities. In a previous life, I was a UC Berkeley student activist, and back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the issue du jour was abortion. Not coincidentally, most of the people who would later found BAMN were members of an organization called the National Women’s Rights Organizing Coalition (NWROC), and it was an open secret that this ostensibly single-issue group was in fact a way to hide its members’ affiliation with the Revolutionary Workers League. Members of NWROC periodically tried to join other leftist groups and insinuate a broader agenda calling for a workers’ revolution, mostly by stacking meetings and, when most people had gotten tired and gone home, trying to get the few who were left to approve resolutions filled with angry, combative language, endorsing this or that revolutionary struggle. Those who just wanted the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue to leave women’s health clinics alone were dubbed “bourgeois white feminists” and misleaders of the people.
This came to a head in the summer of 1992, when Operation Rescue announced that it was assembling two thousand people to lay siege to a small clinic in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Like many Bay Area organizers, I soon found myself in New Orleans, getting ready to rumble with fundamentalists who looked like linebackers. Members of NWROC arrived as well, and pro-choice activists–most of whom were Louisiana housewives who just wanted an option if they got pregnant–assembled in a Unitarian church to plot strategy. In no time, everyone was screaming at one another over NWROC’s attempts to get the group to endorse a workers’ party and approve slogans like “We fuck to come, not to conceive.” The ladies of Louisiana started heading for the door, and the minister threatened to kick us all out of his church if we didn’t start acting like adults. You know you’ve crossed the line, I thought, when you try the patience of a Unitarian.
In 1995, I watched the NWROC members–few of whom were actually students–form BAMN and jump on the affirmative-action bandwagon. Soon, UC Berkeley student activists started complaining that BAMN was co-opting student affirmative-action groups, with the noisy, chaotic meetings stretching long into the night. Dozens of students who supported affirmative-action but were not terribly political gave up activism, at least for a bit. After a few months of strife, BAMN was finally kicked out of the mainstream groups. But its members –led by Tania Kappner–found a way to compensate. Whenever mainstream groups organized rallies on Sproul Plaza, BAMN members would arrive with their own loudspeakers, claiming they had coincidentally scheduled a rally for the same time and place. Often they tried to lure students into occupying Sproul Hall or getting into confrontations with the police. One afternoon, I watched a BAMN member sneak up behind another organizer who was giving a speech and try to wrestle the microphone out of her hand, screaming that the time for militant action was at hand. As organizers got into a tug-of-war with the microphone cord, other students turned and walked away.
Soon, letters were pouring into the Daily Californian, complaining about BAMN’s confrontational approach. Campus fliers issued by progressive student groups began to contain the caveat “not affiliated with BAMN” at the bottom of the page. In October 1997, disgusted Daily Cal columnist Joe Eskenazi penned a piece titled “BAMN Be Gone.”
“It’s time for BAMN to call it a foamy-mouthed, race-baiting day,” wrote Eskenazi. “Whether or not they know it, they are nothing more than the tools of the right wing they supposedly so deplore. Through their actions they have completely delegitimized the fight for affirmative action on this campus. Now, no one on the campus can say ‘I’m for affirmative action’ without being lumped in with these idiots.” The day Eskenazi’s column ran, thousands of papers were stolen from the racks.
“The first time I ever got in touch with BAMN was in the fall of ’96,” says Paul Hogarth, a former student activist who is now a member of the Berkeley Rent Board. “I was briefly involved with a rally put on by Students Against [Proposition] 209, and they basically came with their own megaphone and tried to drown out everyone else. And in the fall of 1997, Jesse Jackson came to Sproul Plaza and made a big speech to push his affirmative-action march on the Golden Gate Bridge. They kept interrupting his speech, saying, ‘Let’s take it to the chancellor, take it to the chancellor.’ Jackson finally broke off from his speech, turned to them, and said, ‘Do you mind?’ It’s pretty obvious that they will disrupt anybody to get this kind of attention.”
According to Hogarth, members of BAMN began expanding to address other progressive causes. “I was also involved in the movement to stop the anti-gay marriage initiative. There was a group called SAFE–Student Alliance for Fairness and Equality–which was set up by a couple of gay Boalt College law students. BAMN members started showing up to some of the meetings. I was uncomfortable seeing them there, but they were openly gay and against Proposition 22, so are you really going to exclude them? Before you knew it, they had taken over the organization, and the two founding members had gotten so disgusted by it that they dropped out. [The organization] starts passing these resolutions about the revolutionary workers movement, and all these students who are just there to oppose the Knight Initiative are like, ‘What the hell is this?’ Not only do they discourage progressive students from being involved in issues, but they take apolitical, moderate students and turn them against affirmative action. I know some students who ended up voting in favor of 209 because BAMN kept on doing stuff. They’re just weird, like a cult.”
When someone called me a few weeks back and claimed that members of BAMN were about to cobble together a majority coalition on the executive board of the OEA, I figured it had to be a joke. Squabbling among twenty-year-old student activists is kids’ stuff, but this is the Oakland teachers’ union. And when I called Sheila Quintana, she said that by the end of the executive board elections, she fully expected to be working for them. I poked around, trying to get the history of BAMN’s involvement with the union, to see if Quintana’s worries were justified–and I had to do it without the help of BAMN members, who refused to talk to me. Here’s what I found out.
By all accounts, BAMN first got involved in Oakland school politics during the calamitous teachers’ strike of February 1996. Union leaders were agitating for their “Three R’s” platform–a raise in teacher salaries, reallocating resources away from central administration and back to classrooms, and a reduction in class size. The school board and then-superintendent Carolyn Getridge demanded an end to the teacher prep program, refused to budge on class-size reduction, and as a cost-cutting move, wanted the district’s abnormally good counselor-to-student ratio reduced to the state standard. Negotiations had been going on for two years, but it all started to fall apart in the fall of ’95, and teachers started calling in with the Blue Flu to pressure the board. Finally in January, roughly 1,500 teachers assembled at the Calvin Simmons Theatre and voted to walk out.
The strike lasted 26 hard days, during which teachers took no pay and walked the picket line, and those kids who weren’t attending the “strike schools” at Mosswood Park sat idly at home. Union members, led by co-executive director Peter Haberfeld, organized “flying squads” to picket the homes of school board members. Quintana’s daily strike schedule stretched into eighteen stressful hours. “We had mass rallies at Lake Merritt; we were inundating the board meetings every week,” she says. “Every morning at 6:30, I would go to the picket lines in front of Skyline High; then I would go to [schools with predominantly black teachers], where a lot of the teachers were still in, and do picket lines there. Then I would come back and run strike schools, ’cause I was the strike school administrator, and then we’d do the rallies and the school board meetings in the evening, waiting outside [district headquarters] till one in the morning.”
Tania Kappner and Yvette Felarca first showed up at this time, but no one remembers them doing any actual organizing. Instead, teachers recall them lugging around their own loudspeakers and giving fiery speeches at the edge of the crowd. At this point, Kappner and possibly Felarca were employed in the district as substitute teachers; Kappner hadn’t yet gotten her teaching credential. “They weren’t really involved with the union yet; that was the interesting part,” says Mike Bradley, who during the strike sat on the union’s bargaining team and tried to drum up support from elected officials like Ron Dellums. “They never really had a prominent role. Nobody had identified them as a consistent problem back then. They didn’t really emerge until the next year. I remember sitting next to Tania during one [union] meeting at the Hilton, and she was just frantic, constantly running at the mouth, going on and on. She was totally obsessed about some question she had, and it was less a question than a chance to roll out some rhetoric. Nobody really paid attention to her.”
Other teachers say that one reason BAMN members didn’t stand out from the crowd is that the rank-and-file were so tense that BAMN’s characteristically combative manner blended right in. “We would go downtown and have rallies, and they would be ready to jump out and speak,” says Barbara Traylor, a teacher who would later emerge as one of BAMN’s more active critics. “At that time, everyone was hyped up, and it seemed fine to have these high-energy young people ready to go out and speak.”
Others were uncomfortable with BAMN’s tactics. Laura Zucker is a teacher at Lincoln Elementary; she coordinated the school’s picket line during the strike. A sign had been posted at the OEA’s headquarters calling for people to beef up the line at Lincoln, and Zucker says Felarca responded. “Yvette [Felarca] showed up with four or five high school students,” recalls Zucker, who is careful to say that Felarca has matured over the years. “At that point, I had been treating the strikebreakers courteously, and handing out fliers urging them not to go back to work. It was very civil. When these people came, they took over, and they stopped the cars and hassled people. They were very aggressive. One woman was afraid to drive back to work.”
That woman was Eva Lung, who has taught bilingual education at Lincoln for ten years. “On the day I went in, I did it because a friend of mine really needed to go back to work,” Lung says. “She was in the stage of having a mental breakdown. She was very weak, and she had the stress of having physical problems, problems at home with her husband, and being the only provider for the two children. So she asked me to drive her to work, and I decided I would do that out of friendship…. I normally drive a van, but on that day I drove my husband’s car, a BMW. When I pulled up, they said, ‘You took my money; no wonder you have this car!’ They stopped the car, surrounded it, and they rocked it. They were yelling and shouting and screaming–I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t go forward or backward, because they were all around the car. I didn’t recognize any of them. They were not our staff. My friend was really scared. Afterwards, I went out and drove on the freeway and found that one of my tires was flat. I don’t know what caused it.”
Eventually, the strike concluded with a nine percent salary raise and a lot of anger spilled around town. The fallout included the rise of a group of union members known as the “activist set,” which would go on to dominate union politics for the next few years and which included Traylor, teacher Muriel Templeton, and Bradley, who would serve as president. But BAMN members were just beginning to dabble in OEA affairs, and over the next few years, Kappner and Airgood would land permanent teaching gigs and take seats on the union’s Rep Council. In theory, each school is supposed to have a union field representative who collects grievances about workplace conditions and advocates for the school at the council. Teachers at each school pick their representative on the Council, but the job is generally considered a big headache, and when BAMN volunteered, other teachers were happy to let them serve. But according to BAMN’s critics, Kappner, Airgood, and Felarca were using the council to introduce resolutions that amounted to strident, doctrinaire stands on affirmative action and other, larger issues that had little to do with bread-and-butter concerns of the rank-and-file. The meetings soon stretched into three-hour epics as the BAMN representatives fought pitched battles with union leadership, while bystanders gave up on anything getting accomplished.
“With them, everything is confrontational,” says Harriet Hutchinson, a Piedmont Avenue teacher and vice-president of the OEA. “Tania’s rapid-fire delivery on everything is tiresome, and you have to sit through all of that stuff before getting around to issues that affect teachers. When people say they don’t really want to hear this, they say this is a democracy, so you have to hear it. There’s affirmative action, there’s stuff about the utilities, and they always want to march around and hold press conferences. Maybe I’m just an old lady, but I don’t care for that constantly combative approach. When I marched from Selma to Montgomery, I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be sitting here and making these comments.”
Mike Bradley is even more blunt. “The problem is that teachers simply don’t have the time to run their own organization,” he says. “They want an analysis of what’s happening in the schools; they want to vote on an item and move on. But then all these assholes are introducing new items that have nothing to do with working conditions, and then fighting over Robert’s Rules [of parliamentary procedure] to push it, and before you know it an hour has passed, and these adventurist individuals are still trying to push some purist agenda. You got teachers who bust their asses all day, and they show up and deal with this bullshit? Teaching is not some frivolous game to them. It’s a livelihood, but then these people get up and run their mouths off for hours. They’ve made those meetings hell, all in the guise of having a democratic voice.”
But the issue is actually more complicated; many observers claim that excessive, ego-driven factionalism has plagued the union for years, long before BAMN arrived, and the rank-and-file membership has been embittered by ongoing squabbles. Some critics claim that even Quintana succumbs; when she first became president, many complained that she took pains to criticize the outgoing Bradley administration. The OEA’s dynamics rival the court intrigues of Louis XIV; there’s a group that advocates an alliance with the OEA’s rival union, the Oakland chapter of the AFL-CIO’s American Federation of Teachers. And there are a number of people who subscribe to no faction, but who sometimes lend their support to BAMN or Quintana, depending on the issue. Most rank-and-file members are baffled–and bored–by all this.
“That speaks to how frustrated teachers have become with the entire district,” says school board member Bruce Kariya. “It’s also their experience with their union. There are more factions than you’re suggesting, which really makes it difficult for us to work with them. There are a lot of teachers who used to be involved [with the union] but who don’t feel that getting involved is worthwhile anymore, that union leadership is as frustrating as the board leadership. My wife was on the executive board, and that’s what I’ve heard. Typically the veteran teachers say that they’d just as soon spend the time in the classroom dealing with the students as dealing with union politics.”
At the heart of the fighting is an interesting issue: In an age when no real national progressive movement exists, should a union restrict its concerns to salaries and working conditions, or should it take a broader view and tackle national and global issues, as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union did when it refused to unload goods shipped from South Africa in the ’80s?
Craig Gordon, a Fremont High teacher and longtime member of the executive board, clearly favors the latter approach and has issued a statement of support for BAMN members “despite [my] criticism of their often rhetorical and inflexible style.” In January 1999, Gordon and Bob Mandel (an Oakland teacher, executive board member, and son of former KPFA commentator Bill Mandel) organized a school teach-in about death-row inmate and progressive martyr-to-be Mumia Abu-Jamal. A well-publicized funeral for an Oakland cop killed in the line of duty happened to be scheduled for the same day. The timing was disastrous–after all, Abu-Jamal was convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer–and the subsequent furor embarrassed many teachers. But Gordon argues that unions have a responsibility to stand up for social justice.
“At their best, unions have played a very aggressive role in civil rights and other issues,” Gordon says. “I think there’s a false dichotomy that people make, that if we take issue on something that is not directly pertinent to our members, that it somehow dilutes our ability to represent our members’ other concerns. If you take a very short-term view, a lot of times it has the false appeal of seeming more realistic or practical, but if you take a closer view of how society actually works, you understand that you wind up hurting yourself by failing to take advantage of the larger power of unions and progressive organizations. We don’t have a good sense of that, because there aren’t enough examples of it in life. So it seems abstract and wrongheaded. Those of us who try to make connections on those issues that are artificially separated, I think we see that it’s not simply a matter of some abstract principle, but ultimately one in which we can make real gains. Just like everyone else, we need to make priorities in terms of our own time as human beings and the union’s resources. And it has to have something to do with the desires of our members. But I think there’s a lot more support for our members taking positions on things that seem more broadly political.”
Others believe the political faction’s proposals border on lunacy. “A year ago at the executive board, Bob Mandel made a motion to municipalize PG&E and take away the profits of the Shorenstein [real estate] company to finance the schools,” says Traylor. “We were supposed to march to Shorenstein’s office. We thought, ‘Why not throw in peace with Israel as well?'”
Steve Schiesser, who heads up a rival, much smaller union, believes the internecine struggles have polarized people into abandoning issues that are important to the rank-and-file members. He claims that the moderate faction has moved too far toward the center. “Sheila Quintana went with the whole ‘We’re middle-class, money-first people,'” he says. “The money thing is important, but so are working conditions and class size, and that fell into the province of the radical left. Fighting for class-size reduction and democracy in the OEA became theirs by default, and so is [opposition to] standardized testing. So we’ve got the lefties over here, the middle-class paycheck folks over there, and no one’s been able to chart a viable middle course.”
Although the philosophical issues are intriguing, how they play out in petty Rep Council squabbling could have disastrous consequences–and Airgood, Felarca, and Kappner have almost always been at the center of these fights. Last April, for example, the union had been negotiating its next contract with the district for almost two years. The union’s side was represented by nine people who sat on its “bargaining team,” and these members had to be familiar with a dizzying array of issues, from fiscal and budgetary questions to transfer rights for teachers, accountability measures, and new breakthroughs in pedagogical theory. In addition, they had to be familiar with both their members’ concerns and the current balance of power on the City Council and the school board, in order to know when to push the district, and when to give ground. That kind of strategizing demands a delicate combination of qualities and expertise; think diplomats and hostage negotiators.
But at a Rep Council meeting on April 3, 2000–in the final months of confidential contract bargaining–Mark Airgood and Yvette Felarca suddenly tried to dismiss the council’s entire bargaining team by passing a motion that “the OEA Rep Council demands the immediate replacement of the bargaining team with a team who will advance the demands of the OEA membership.” The motion failed, but Quintana claims that such mischief undermined the union’s negotiating position.
“In order for a bargaining team to be in place, the president has to appoint, the executive board has to concur, and the Representative Council has to approve,” she says. “It’s very complicated to find people who can faithfully represent the views of our members, and the training is extensive; members of the bargaining team have to know a lot. What this does is cause the district to see our internal division, and that prolongs the negotiating process.”
The BAMN members may have been trying to play to a larger crowd. During this period, Kappner was running for a variety of political offices; in the March elections, for example, she challenged Kerry Hamill, a longtime ally of Don Perata and a big supporter of Jerry Brown’s plans for the district, for a seat on the Oakland school board. Kappner secured the Rep Council’s endorsement, but Quintana had endorsed Hamill much earlier. At a Feb. 7 Rep Council meeting, Yvette Felarca seconded a motion that would have effectively fired Quintana for this endorsement; the motion read “that the Rep Council instructs Sheila Quintana and all subsequent OEA presidents to not take public positions which contradict positions taken by the Rep Council, and that if they do they should be removed from office.” The motion was tabled, and essentially withered on the vine.
When Kappner lost to Hamill, she immediately challenged Quintana for the union presidency in the April 2000 elections, and Airgood and Felarca ran for seats on the executive board (they also came up with yet another name to call themselves–this time, they were “Teachers for Equal, Integrated, Quality Education”). The campaign was marked by vicious attacks on all sides. Airgood, Felarca, and Kappner began circulating a flier headlined, “Defend the Democratic and Fighting Traditions of the OEA! Reject Both the District’s and Quintana’s Union-Busting Proposals!”
“We the members must take the OEA back from Sheila Quintana, who has broken with and shown contempt for democratic tradition in order to subordinate the OEA to the corporate education schemes of Mayor Brown and other politicians,” the flier read. In fact, Quintana opposed Measure D, which empowered Jerry Brown to appoint three new school board members–but you wouldn’t know it by reading the BAMN flier, which continued, “In the March elections, Quintana backed the main pro-Measure D candidate in the school board race–Kerry Hamill in District 1. She sabotaged the OEA Rep Council policy of support for Kappner and consistent opposition to ‘D’ at a critical time in our fight for a strong contract and for public education in Oakland…. As a result of the confusion these treacherous acts caused among voters, the corporate, union-busting takeover narrowly passed, and the Brown-backed pro-mayoral takeover candidate Hamill was elected in District 1. Quintana even tried to defend her actions in front of the March Rep Council.”
Meanwhile, Quintana’s supporters were slinging their own mud. Union member Pamela Curtis-Horton wrote a broadside titled “The disturbing possibility of Tania Kappner as OEA President,” in which she went so far as to accuse BAMN members of leading a crew of teenagers into the district’s headquarters and breaking windows during the strike. “[Kappner’s] romantic notions of ‘strikes’ and ‘political prisoners’ have distracted her from the main work of OEA: to create teaching and learning conditions that will raise the achievement level of all students,” the letter concluded. “Her participation has been simply to try to maneuver OEA leadership bodies into following her political agenda, even though it is very different from the more mainstream views of the OEA membership. She has never tried to work for the true aspirations of Oakland teachers and students…. Our voices will be ignored, and we’ll be embarrassed, if we elect a president who is extreme, hostile, and provocative.”
In the end, Felarca won a seat on the executive board in a runoff election. But Kappner and Airgood went down to huge defeats, and Quintana went on to help secure the new contract that gave teachers a 21 percent raise. Although the union didn’t get everything it wanted–substitute teachers got nothing close to the raise that full-time teachers got, and middle-school teachers had to lose a prep period–rank-and-file members liked the deal enough to ratify it by a vote of more than one thousand to 281. “Not only did we not go out on strike, we got the money and measures of accountability,” Quintana says. “I never expected anything less than the overwhelming support we got. Because our members deserve to have competitive salaries, and I knew that it would stop the hemorrhaging of educators who come into Oakland, get no money and no support, and then leave, and then our kids have sub, sub, sub. This was the way to stop that; I still strongly believe that competitive salaries and measures of accountability–so that we can support our teachers to hone their skills–is the answer to turning Oakland around educationally.”
While it’s important not to exaggerate the importance of BAMN’s gradual influence over the OEA, it is likely that relations between the union and the district’s board of directors will suffer–and sooner or later the next round of contract negotiations will begin. “My experience with [BAMN] is primarily through the screaming and shouting they’ve done at school board meetings,” says district board member Bruce Kariya. “My impression of them is that they are as prone to playing to the crowd as any group that we see. They’re pretty much always trying to turn up the heat. My fear would be that they seem to thrive on conflict, and that is not a characteristic of the relationship that we need with the teachers’ union.”
In addition, occasional BAMN allies Bob Mandel and Craig Gordon, both of whom now sit on the executive board, have proposed “fishbowl” contract negotiations. Based on a model used by the ILWU in the ’30s, the district would rent a venue like the Calvin Simmons Theatre and put a table in the center of the stage. Union and district representatives would negotiate the contract in front of hundreds of members, assuming anyone would want to show up. Every district representative I talked to said the same thing–that there’s not a chance in hell they’d agree to such a scheme.
The greater BAMN’s influence grows, the more control they’ll be likely to have over the OEA’s $300,000 in union dues; in fact, the group has already managed to use union money to finance its own political rallies. On March 8, Kappner and her colleagues held a rally on Sproul Plaza to demand that the UC Regents rescind their abolition of affirmative action (a completely pointless gesture, since Proposition 209 overrules anything the regents might do). The OEA and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) gave BAMN almost $11,000 to fund the event. Harriet Hutchinson is both the vice-president of the OEA and a delegate to the CFT, and she abstained on both votes to fund the rally. “I think it’s actually un-American not to be in favor of affirmative action,” she says. “So on the surface, I’ve taken a lot of heat from both votes. My position is that after the union takes care of the teachers in Oakland, then we can go ahead and give support to issues that are outside what’s happening here. Some people have been very upset with me–how can you vote against affirmative action? But I won’t vote for anything that comes before our board and doesn’t have a direct impact on kids in Oakland.”
As anyone who was paying attention recalls, the March 8 event was marred by fistfights as well as the looting of several stores on Telegraph Avenue, which police eventually closed to traffic. Kappner took dozens of Oakland Tech students to the rally as a field trip, and according to her own campaign literature spent her time emceeing the rally on the steps of Sproul Plaza. “When I watched the news reports, every time I saw Tania on TV, she was up with the leaders [of the rally],” Hutchinson says. “But where were her students? I can only hope that it wasn’t her students who were doing the looting.”
According to Oakland Tech assistant principal Marty Price, one parent called the school and demanded to know how it came to pass that his son had come home that night with six pairs of new shoes. And the next day, another Oakland Tech student was caught selling a large number of new CDs on campus. But in fairness, Price says that at least Kappner is trying to do some good in an apathetic world. “Actually, I thought [the rally] was really good, given the civility of urban life these days,” Price says. “As an administrator, I can’t have an opinion, but as a citizen I’m proud of Tania Kappner for doing that. And I think she’s an excellent teacher. The times I’ve been in her classroom, she always teaches with love; she puts her heart into that class. I’d be proud to have her as my daughter.”
But the most likely outcome of BAMN’s growing influence is a corrosive effect on teacher morale, as Quintana and Kappner continue to butt heads every month. A year ago, the Rep Council’s atmosphere was already so poisoned that then-Second Vice President Trish Gorham was moved to publish a “personal statement.”
“I would like us to critically reflect on our methods of discourse,” she wrote. “If an answer is not satisfactory, ask it again or ask another question to help clarify the issue. If you disagree with the answer, then debate the issue, not the presumed motives or integrity of the person giving the answer…. Teachers have been accused and abused for so long that we have unconsciously internalized the attitudes of our abusers … rather than turn our anger on those who would abuse us, we turn our frustrations on those who are most willing to listen; we blame those who do not get results fast enough while battling an intractable system; we label mistakes as incompetence and omissions as conspiracies. We turn on ourselves.”
Last month, a disgusted Rep Council member submitted her letter of resignation to the union leadership. “In my opinion, the meetings are run by Sheila Quintana and the executive board in a most unprofessional, intimidating, and disrespectful manner,” the teacher wrote. “There also seemed to be a number of representatives who are constantly at odds with the board and, more specifically, Ms. Quintana. It is very disconcerting to sit in a professional meeting and be repeatedly subjected to the airing of personal conflicts in a very public arena. I am not willing to spend my already limited time in this way.” This teacher is hardly alone; some union officials estimate that at least thirty schools do not bother sending representatives to the council anymore.
It’s not that BAMN’s influence has produced a climate of despair and exhaustion; it’s that the rank-and-file’s exhaustion has given BAMN an opportunity to increase its influence. “There aren’t really that many teachers in Oakland who are confrontational like [BAMN],” Hutchinson says. “But they don’t have any idea who these people really are. Teachers are too busy to take the time to look over the candidates. They vote by name recognition.”
When the votes of the executive board elections were finally tallied, BAMN’s results were mixed. Yvette Felarca won reelection to the board (running unopposed certainly helped, and many union leaders privately fault Quintana for failing to find candidates to run against her), but Tania Kappner lost her bid to unseat Burbank elementary teacher Stephanie Allen. Mark Airgood faces a run-off against McClymonds teacher Jennifer Ough in May. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the election was this: out of 3,700 union members, fewer than nine hundred bothered to vote.
Time and again, teachers, administrators, and former union officials say the same thing: that teachers are simply too worn down by the weight of their jobs to care about the union’s future. They spoke of overcrowded classrooms, district and union dysfunctionality, an endless sea of impoverished, alienated children running amok in the halls, a barely extant discipline policy and system of resource allocation, and the sense that there is no future, no center, no one really running things. All teachers have to give is their time and energy, and they give it till they drop, every single day. Grading papers, calling parents, attending conferences–it all starts to wear you down after a while. Who has time to go to Rep Council meetings? Who has time to consider candidates for leadership positions, especially when so few teachers think anyone’s really leading in the first place?
“A lot of teachers are disheartened with the OEA,” says Ben Schmookler, a former teacher and union official who now works as an assistant principal at Fremont High. “They say it’s just not doing what they want it to, and they’d rather not pay their dues. One of the reasons I left the OEA is that they protect the teachers they shouldn’t. On a Friday, we can have up to sixteen teachers absent. We have to find other teachers for those classrooms, and that cuts into the prep periods for the good teachers who show up for work. We understand that teachers get sick, but when it’s always the same teachers, they show this pattern, and we have to write them up. Then the union comes in and says, ‘Why are you writing them up?’ But other teachers are like, ‘Yeah, write them up!'”
No one expressed this sense of quiet desperation more eloquently–and sadly–than Herb Wong, a counselor at Roosevelt Middle School and an executive board member. Close to the end of his career, Wong will leave the Oakland Unified School District without much in the way of hope for its future. “You’re in an urban school district where 85 percent of the students qualify for free lunch, ten percent qualify for reduced lunch, and the remaining five percent just couldn’t get the paperwork done,” he says. “Come in and watch these schools in action. When the temperature reaches 68 degrees, kids are really starting to come alive. When it goes higher, you start to see things happen. You can see it over and over; the schools are the most quiet on the first couple of days in the month, and then on the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth. But things get really rowdy in the days leading up to that, because when money gets tight, people get crazy. And they start doing all kinds of stuff.
“There’s a vast difference between teaching in an urban school and a suburban school, a huge difference. The parents’ phone numbers are often only working for a few days a month, because they can’t make the bills, and the first thing that goes is the phone. So you can’t talk to the parents if the student gets in trouble, because half the time the phone’s dead. And then there’s a student who comes in late because he got evicted and is living in a hotel somewhere across town. Or he’s tired because a lot of his neighborhood’s business transpires between nine at night and five in the morning, if you know what I mean.
“When you get in the urban schools, the game changes,” Wong says. “These students bring with them their life experiences, and the experiences of the adults that raise them. And in these neighborhoods, the law is that you take what you need. What do you mean, pay for it? Yes, you try to teach math and English, but your primary task is to change the outlook. Everyone loves their job, they’re all committed to it, they come in early and they leave late at night, and no one pays them for it. They spend their weekends doing it, and they never get compensated for it. But they don’t have the support they need to do this job.
“Part of it has to do with discipline, finding acceptable behavior and finding some way to enforce it. Take suspensions; we’re trying to reduce them, but what then is the consequence for the action? Does that now mean that it’s okay to brutally verbally assault a teacher? What is the consequence to that, if we’re not going to suspend? These kinds of questions go on and on, and it affects a teacher’s ability to develop an educational plan. So if a student throws a pencil at a teacher, and the principal just sends him to Saturday school, would you as a teacher feel that’s adequate? Would that make you want to come in the next morning? Or would you want to go work in Lafayette?
“The first loss of faith,” Wong explains, “occurs with the employer. The perception is that the employer does all this intentionally, and a lot of members like those in BAMN will tell you that it’s a money thing: the more the district saves by loading you up with kids, the more the district makes out. If you preach it long enough, people begin to believe it. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth with this particular administration. The administration has been very willing to negotiate [class sizes], but the fact is that this district is overcrowded, and it hasn’t built an additional school in thirty years. So the constant overcrowding grinds you down. That’s another pinprick.
“You come home from work, and you have three hours of paperwork to do. Papers to correct, parents to call, all sorts of stuff. How much enthusiasm would you have to say, ‘I’m going to put all that aside and go to a union meeting?’ All that does is push back your bedtime three more hours. It’s the people with the most amount of spare time–like substitutes–who have plenty of time to commit to pushing another agenda inside the union.”
As school board member Bruce Kariya put it, “[BAMN] sure picked the right place to come.”