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Teachers' unions battle cutbacks across the U.S.

September 12, 2003 | Page 11

TEACHERS IN the country's three largest school districts--New York, Los Angeles and Chicago--began the school year without union contracts. In smaller districts, school boards are moving to impose wage cuts, increase class size in a drive to balance budget at the expense of public education. Here, teachers from around the U.S. report on the battle for our schools--and the effort to rebuild fighting teachers' unions.

REPORTS BELOW: Los Angeles | Washington, D.C. | Oakland, Calif. | New York City | Chicago

Los Angeles
By Gillian Russom, UTLA

THE CONTRACT between the 48,000 teachers of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and the Los Angeles Unified School District expired June 30--and the school district is playing hardball. Blaming state budget cuts, the school district is demanding a 20 percent increase in premiums on health benefits, a two-tier system with fewer health benefits for new teachers and a 1.5 percent pay cut in the form of a two-day "furlough."

Yet the union has yet to organize any protests or rallies to mobilize the membership. Even at an August 26 school board meeting where the furloughs and cuts were to be discussed, the union asked each school to send just three teachers--who were told to sit quietly inside the board meeting.

In July, rank-and-file activists frustrated with the union's lack of action formed Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC). Around 60 chapter chairs (stewards) attended PEAC's meeting at the UTLA leadership conference August 23.

PEAC is demanding a contract that puts students and teachers first; cuts administrator salaries, bureaucracy and waste; and reduces class sizes. The group is pushing for school-site and area mobilizations by early October.

The union leadership is starting to shift its rhetoric to respond to members' anger. In his "State of the Union" speech at the leadership conference, President John Perez said that UTLA will "lead the charge to defend medical benefits" and said that "areas are organizing demonstrations and I plan to be at each and every one of them."

Nevertheless, Perez's strategy is still focused on cultivating friends at the top, instead of mobilizing the union from below. His speech at the annual Labor Day parade, as well as the new issue of the union newspaper, focused on the need to back Gov. Gray Davis in the recall election, even though Davis' budget cuts $2 billion from California schools.

UTLA members should get involved in PEAC and help build the area mobilizations as large as possible to show the district--and our union leaders--that we won't settle for concessions.

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Washington, D.C.
By Jeff Bale, WTU Building Rep.

ENSION BETWEEN the school board and the 5,000 members of the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) has come to a head. In May, after imposing longer work hours, the board cut teachers' annual step increase in wages. They followed that in July by cutting teachers' 9 percent raise, reneging on a central part of the contract.

A well-attended June rally of teachers turned the heat up when hundreds of teachers stormed the mayor's office chanting "No 9 percent October 1, no work October 2!" A committee of union activists spent the summer strategizing on the best way to respond to these blatant attacks on the union.

While there is widespread sentiment for some sort of job action, including a strike, current union leadership has moved with less urgency around the issue. After a scandal in which the former president stole $5 million from the budget, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) earlier this year imposed a trustee, George Springer.

After years of inaction, the WTU is struggling just to get back on its feet. Nevertheless, the school board's shameless cuts have angered every teacher in the system--and are providing a critical opportunity to turn the union around.

As teachers returned to school, a judge ordered the school board to pay the annual step increase, giving the union a boost. And an unexpected disbursement of federal money has added $94 million to D.C.'s coffers, so there's more than enough money to settle the issue.

Of course, with Congress, the mayor and much of the city council gunning for school vouchers in D.C., it is clear that they have no intention of settling this issue the easy--and right--way. The WTU is planning a rally at the next school board meeting September 17, which promises to turn out thousands of teachers.

But we're going to have to continue planning for a job action. Teachers in D.C. have a golden opportunity not only to win our long overdue money, but also to help spark a larger struggle for social justice in D.C.

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Oakland, Calif.
By Jessie Muldoon, OEA Site Rep

TEACHERS HERE last month voted 600 to 480 to accept a 4 percent pay cut, increased health care costs and heavier work loads. The contract comes in the context of a state takeover of the Oakland Unified School District, a massive budget crisis and hundreds of layoffs.

The voting results reflect a lack of confidence on the part of teachers that we can do better--as well as threats made by the administration that even deeper cuts would be made if we didn't accept this contract. Unfortunately, the Oakland Education Association's (OEA) leadership and bargaining team not only refused to put up a fight, but employed shady tactics to get the vote through.

After promising in June to not hold a vote on any potential contract until teachers returned for the fall semester, OEA president Sheila Quintana ordered a ballot by mail during the middle weeks of August. This ballot was delivered with a misleading "summary" of the proposed deal, which papered over some of the worst aspects of the contract.

Site reps--as the shop stewards are called in the OEA--voted 48 to 2 to demand a delay in the balloting and to recommend that a special general membership meeting be called to decide whether or not to postpone counting the votes. After a sharp debate, rank-and-file teachers demanded and won a vote 150 to 30 to delay the balloting until school started.

Shamefully, Quintana announced the next day in the Oakland Tribune that teachers had narrowly accepted the contract, stating "teachers stepped up to the plate" to take their share of the cuts. Since school has started, many teachers are saying that they would have voted no if they had had the chance to study the contract and discuss it with other teachers.

Others accept the idea that by giving up pay, jobs and benefits now, we'll help the district get back on its feet and we'll get a better contract next time. The reality is that giving up concessions only encourages the district to cut more and demoralizes us.

Our contract is up in less than a year. We need to put all our energy into organizing school by school to build up a rank-and-file voice that can take action to overturn this year's lousy contract by winning a pay raise, better conditions and the rehiring of hundreds of laid off teachers in next year's contract.

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New York City
By Megan Behrent, UFT

AS SCHOOLS prepared to open in September, 100,000 New York City teachers, members of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), returned to work without a contract. The last contract expired May 30 and contained numerous concessions, including an extended work day.

Most teachers only received a copy of the contract in September, three months after it had already expired. Since the no-layoff agreement during the last contract is no longer in effect, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg--the man who campaigned as the "education mayor"--has ordered layoffs of hundreds of instructional paraprofessionals who play a crucial role in the classroom.

Bloomberg is also overhauling the city school system while refusing to consult teachers, creating chaos for school budgets and imposing standardized curriculums in the majority of schools. At the same time, he's made it clear that he won't provide wage increases in the next contract unless the union agrees to disastrous concessions in work rules and benefits.

Bloomberg is also seeking to cut costs by attacking the right of teachers to take much-needed sabbaticals. Despite these attacks, there has been no real fightback led by the union leadership.

UFT President Randi Weingarten did seek strike authorization in 2002 before the last contract, despite state laws that ban strikes by public sector workers. But as the New York Post said at the time, the threat was "all talk." Later that year, the UFT backed Republican New York Gov. George Pataki for re-election, despite his anti-union and anti-education record.

Teachers in New York City are already underpaid and overworked. We simply cannot afford to accept more concessions. Rank-and-file teachers need to organize against Bloomberg's attacks on unions and education and demand real raises and better working conditions.

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By Jesse Sharkey, CTU Delegate

AS CHICAGO teachers returned to work without a contract, no substantial word from the union leadership had emerged about the status of negotiations. Nearly one month ago, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) president Deborah Lynch told delegates that negotiations were "proceeding in a spirit of cooperation and joint problem-solving." Since that time, President Lynch has appeared twice in public with schools CEO Arne Duncan and Board President Michael Scott--but has kept a low profile in every other way.

The union kept quiet as the "school choice" component of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law created a media feeding frenzy against the public schools. Some 325 schools failed to meet NCLB requirements, and some 19,000 students applied for transfer.

Nor did the CTU protest the latest round of school closings--including all seven of the Academic Prep Centers--schools for at-risk eighth graders. Above all, the union has made no attempt to put its case forward in the media, nor has it appealed to the public for support.

The lack of an apparent plan has created frustration among rank-and-file teachers. But many of the union's most experienced militants find themselves tied to Lynch as a result of their electoral strategy to reform the union. Instead of organizing a fight for key contract demands, many of these activists are saying, "trust Lynch."

But if Lynch sells out and brings back a lousy contract, they will be in a weak position to organize for a "no" vote. What's needed is a rank-and-file strategy based on stronger shop-floor organization--and a militant fight for a good contract.

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