Teachers in Portland, Oregon begin strike due to concerns regarding class sizes, pay, and resources

In Portland, Oregon, teachers went on strike on Wednesday, causing schools to close and impacting around 45,000 students in the city.

The strike was prompted by concerns over large class sizes, stagnant salaries compared to inflation, and insufficient resources. It is part of the growing organized labor movement in the U.S., which has witnessed numerous workers across various sectors taking part in strikes this year.

“Our kids deserve more than teachers that are absolutely exhausted and at the end of their ropes,” said Sarah Trapido, a special education teacher at Kellogg Middle School.

The Portland Association of Teachers, representing over 4,000 educators, stated that this was the first-ever teachers strike in the school district. The union has been negotiating with the district for a new contract since their previous one expired in June.

Portland Public Schools cited a lack of funding to meet the union’s demands. Although Oregon lawmakers approved a record $10.2 billion K-12 budget for the next two years in June, the school district representatives argue that it is insufficient.

“Funding has not kept pace with the needs of our students, nor our educators,” said Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero. “We strive to offer compensation that attracts and retains talent. But unlike a private organization, we don’t have record profits we can tap into.”

During the strike, there will be no classroom or online instruction. On Friday, the district is scheduled to meet with the union and a state mediator to discuss the ongoing issues.

Teachers gathered outside of Kellogg Middle School, holding signs and rallying the crowd with bullhorns. They expressed feeling overwhelmed by their workload and lack of support in the classroom.

Trapido shared that she often works through her lunch break and continues working until late in the evening. She relies on a volunteer to assist her with students.

“She walks in and I’m just like, ‘Thank goodness,’” Trapido said. “With the volunteer’s help, she can attend to her students’ needs and have some time for herself.”

Katarina Juarez, an eighth-grade language arts teacher, stays at school until 7 p.m. to complete her work. She mentioned that doctors have advised her to quit due to the toll her job has taken on her physical health.

“I feel like I’m failing them if I’m not putting that time in,” Juarez said. “But I’m really harming myself and my family in the process.”

Mike Bauer, a union representative and special education teacher, emphasized that smaller class sizes would not only reduce the workload but also allow teachers to provide more individualized attention to struggling students.

Bauer also highlighted the issue of pay, particularly for new teachers, as the cost of living continues to rise in Portland. The district’s annual base salary starts at around $50,000.

“I’ve seen many people quit within their first five years,” said Bauer. “At the end of the day, we need teachers.”

The union has proposed a roughly 20% salary increase over three years, while the district has suggested around half of that.

In addition to salary, the union is seeking more planning time for teachers to prepare lessons, especially for elementary school teachers, and wants to cap class sizes at lower thresholds than what the district has proposed.

The district raised concerns about the potential increase in spending and potential staffing cuts resulting from the union’s demands. The district also mentioned the financial impact of declining enrollment, as it has lost nearly 3,000 students since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two weeks prior to the strike, the union announced that 99% of teachers voted in favor of the labor action, with 93% of members participating in the ballot.

Following the union’s authorization of the strike, the district expressed its desire for a fair settlement.

Oregon Governor Tina Kotek urged both the union and the school district to reach an agreement and avoid the strike.

High-profile strikes have been observed in public education throughout the year. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, workers, including teachers’ aides and cafeteria workers, went on a three-day strike in March, impacting half a million students. In Oakland, the union representing teachers, counselors, and other workers staged a strike for over a week in May, advocating for higher salaries and “common good” changes.