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?
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