Teachers in Oakland and San Francisco returned from their holiday break ready to step up sharp struggles for better teaching and learning conditions, wages and health benefits.

In both cities teachers have worked without a contract for 18 months. Their unions point out that the two school districts have recently received substantial additional funding and that both have greatly increased administrators’ pay while balking at teachers’ minimal salary demands.

While Oakland teachers await results of a fact finding process, the Oakland Education Association says State Administrator Randolph Ward, who has been in charge of the district since its bankruptcy in 2003, has begun hiring non-certified replacement workers in anticipation of a strike later this month.

“We don’t want a strike. We’ve said if we have to go out it will be defensive, and provoked by Ward,” said OEA President Ben Visnick, adding that the state administrator “is not so much interested in economizing, but in showing the union who’s boss.” Visnick warned that Ward’s union-busting actions will result in substantial harm to students.

The OEA seeks restoration of a 4 percent pay cut teachers took in 2003, no caps on health benefits, restoration of enrichment programs including foreign languages and the arts, decent pay for substitute teachers and an end to involuntary transfers. Copies of the petition it is circulating in the community can be obtained by calling (510) 763-4020.

Across the bay, United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) spokesperson Matthew Hardy said that while negotiations last month resulted in the district slightly increasing its salary offer, the new proposal would “still result in a potentially serious transfer of funding from teachers to the district.”

Hardy said the union is hopeful that that the impending departure of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and assumption of responsibility for the negotiations by her deputy, Gwen Chan, will result in more productive talks.

“Teachers are very angry and fed up at this point,” he added. “Before the holidays we warned everyone: ‘Don’t spend a lot of money — keep the possibility of a strike in mind.’”

He added, “There’s no good reason why San Francisco Unified School District couldn’t be a good example of how schools should function, rather than how they shouldn’t.”

UESF points out that the teachers it represents are among the very lowest paid in the country and have not had a cost of living increase for over three years. UESF said the average teacher’s salary ranks 10th out of California’s 13 largest districts although San Francisco is the state’s most expensive place to live.

The union added that a survey by the National Center for Policy Analysis ranked the teachers’ pay second lowest in the country when adjusted for cost of living. At the same time, the union said, departing Supt. Ackerman was one of the nation’s highest paid administrators, and received an unprecedented $375,000 severance package.