Oakland recently became the latest in a growing list of American cities whose public school teachers have had enough. They’ve had enough of classroom austerity, substandard wages, under-resourced student services and privatization.
And this community had their back.
For seven days, tens of thousands of us took to the streets to demand better. And while we won important first steps enshrined in OEA’s new contract, the fight for Oakland’s future is far from over.
Look no further than our city government.
Like its school district, the City of Oakland’s work is vital to the future of our community. The City is tasked with Head Start programs and delivering vital services to at-risk neighborhoods and families. It must meet our community’s growing housing, transportation and public safety needs. And increasingly, it is falling short.
Recent reports have shown that despite a brightening five-year financial picture, hundreds of millions of dollars in accrued general fund surplus, and tens of millions of dollars in new revenue streams approved by taxpayers, the city is failing to invest in itself. More than 17 percent or 740 budgeted city jobs are unfilled. This not only undermines the mission of quality service delivery, but also leads to increased longer-term costs for already understaffed departments.
For example, the city’s paving program has 16 budgeted engineer positions, six of which are vacant. As more paving projects are deferred due to staffing shortages, streets only become more damaged and repairs more expensive.
Ultimately, at issue in Oakland is not some ideological divide between more government and less. In many cases, already budgeted resources are not being spent.
Yet as Oakland’s teachers were right to highlight, no community can attract the talent it needs if its pay is uncompetitive. We are living through a time of growing income inequality — especially in the Bay Area. And while no one enters public service to get rich, we are no different from other workers in that we hope for the chance to provide for our families and to earn enough to live in the communities we serve.
Like the City and County of San Francisco, the City of Oakland has immense capabilities in this area. It is our community’s fourth largest employer.
Yet the city’s own 2017 compensation study found that the salaries of its frontline public service professionals are as much as 10 percent lower than comparable jobs in neighboring jurisdictions, and the city’s cost of living is growing more than 8 percent faster than the wages of its employees.
Low wages make it harder for the city to recruit the staff it needs to perform basic functions, and ultimately leads to outsourcing that winds up costing the city far more.
For example, the Highway Safety Improvement Program awards Oakland federal grant money to make streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians. In order to meet deadlines for these grants, the department has been contracting out services at a cost of more than $100 an hour. In effect, they’ve chosen not to recruit and retain staff that could perform this service at lower cost.
The city of Oakland can choose to change course. But to do that, it must not only invest in the vital public services that are crucial to our economic success, but to compete for the next generation of qualified public service professionals.
Frontline City employees are leading the fight to make sure they do. Because just like Oakland’s teachers, we know the future of our community is at stake.
Debra Grabelle is a resident of Oakland and the Executive Director of IFPTE Local 21, which represents more than 11,000 public service workers in the cities of Oakland, San Francisco and across the Bay Area. Learn more at IFPTE21.org.