Portland Teachers Threaten School Shutdown if Their District Declines To Provide Subsidized Housing

Local union pursues left-wing priorities in collective bargaining showdown

(Jackie Butler/Getty Images)
September 6, 2023

Teachers in Portland, Ore., are on track to strike if their school district refuses to provide subsidized housing for poor public school students and lobby for expanded rent control, an approach that has led to school shutdowns in other liberal cities as powerful teachers' unions pursue left-wing priorities.

After months of negotiations with Portland Public Schools, the Portland Association of Teachers on August 22 warned its members they "may be heading towards a strike," citing the district's failure to agree on a "transformative contract." Included in the impasse is a union proposal to create a district-led subsidized housing initiative, which would see the district identify land it owns that it could "convert" into Section 8 housing for local families. The union is also pushing its district to "actively lobby and advocate for" expanded rent control laws in Portland, union documents reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon show.

The union's effort to secure such policies through its labor contract reflects a broader push from teachers' unions across the country to use their power to enact left-wing initiatives. In 2019, unionized teachers in Chicago closed schools to achieve so-called common good measures, including subsidized housing. Then-mayor Lori Lightfoot, a progressive Democrat, blasted the move, arguing that the union's collective bargaining agreement "is not the appropriate place for the city to legislate its affordable housing policy." Unionized teachers in Oakland, Calif., followed suit earlier this summer, and after initial pushback, the Oakland Unified School District agreed to pursue district-led subsidized housing and other liberal policies.

Neither Portland Public Schools nor the Portland Association of Teachers returned requests for comment.

The union has negotiated a new contract with its district for nearly a year, but the two sides remain deadlocked, and Portland's school year could come to a screeching halt as a result. District teachers went back to school earlier this week, but their arrival coincided with an August 29 message from union president Angela Bonilla to "prepare for a strike." Two days later, the union announced that a "potential strike" remains on the table.

"We will not accept the status quo," Bonilla said in her message. "There are and will be a ton of rumors floating around about a possible strike and other topics concerning our bargaining timelines. ... You will all be the first to know if we are going on strike."

Should the union succeed in its push for subsidized housing, the district would have six months to identify and approve 10 vacant or unused district-owned "land parcels" that could be converted into subsidized housing. The district would also be required to create a "Community Housing Task Force" filled with union representatives to facilitate the housing initiative.

In addition to the housing proposal, Portland teachers are seeking to expand climate justice education for students and make it harder to unassign transgender teachers, which typically occurs due to incompetence, disciplinary issues, or school closures. The agreement also pushes to end all standardized testing not required by the state and seeks to exert more union control over the teacher evaluation process.

State law prohibits a formal strike from taking place until October, but teachers already began protesting at the end of the 2022-23 school year through organized walkouts. "Our students can’t wait," Bonilla told local outlet KOIN News in June after the last collective bargaining agreement ended. "We have had immense need for our communities since before COVID, closures and distance learning."