First-Ever Strike for Portland Teachers Tackles Student Needs

The Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) walked out on strike on Nov. 1, closing 81 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 co-chairs 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—600 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 90 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 18 members in our building CAT. It’s self-propelling.”

This partial article originally appeared in full at Labor Notes on Nov. 1, 2023. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Barbara Madeloni is Education Coordinator at Labor Notes and a former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

Read about laws relating to unions at Workplace Fairness.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.