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Los Angeles teachers chase out old-guard union leaders
Reformers win UTLA vote

By Randy Childs, UTLA | March 11, 2005 | Page 11

LOS ANGELES--Members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the union representing over 40,000 teachers at the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), made history by throwing out most of their current union leadership in citywide elections. UTLA President John Perez and his Leadership slate were ousted by wide margins in favor of the militant United Action slate--the first time in the UTLA's 35-year history that an incumbent president and his slate were defeated.

How did UTLA leaders lose teachers' confidence? We haven't had a raise since 2002, and current contract negotiations have dragged on for 20 months with no real effort by the union to mobilize the membership to fight for a decent contract. Perez's strategy of closed-door negotiations and supporting "teacher-friendly" members of the school board has gone nowhere.

In February, LAUSD offered a paltry 1.5 percent raise offset by $10 million in proposed health benefit cuts. Meanwhile, UTLA has offered little resistance to overcrowding, standardized testing, budget cuts and the union-busting No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

By contrast, United Action candidates argued for an aggressive mobilization strategy to fight back. Most of the United Action slate consists of members of Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC), a rank-and-file dissident group within UTLA. PEAC organized resistance to the district's threats to slash our health benefits last year, while Perez temporized.

Those of us in PEAC believed that thousands of teachers in LA are not only angry about worsening working conditions and the attacks on public education, but are also looking for a way to fight back. The many enthusiastic responses to United Action's massive outreach campaign, plus the election results, proved that this was true.

United Action either ran or endorsed 31 candidates--all of whom won their races. Perez lost his re-election bid by nearly 20 percent to A. J. Duffy. Although Duffy didn't run on the United Action platform, the group endorsed his candidacy because he criticized Perez's conservative strategies and called for mobilizing the membership.

Julie Washington, a kindergarten teacher in South Central Los Angeles, was elected Elementary [School] Vice President by a 23 percent margin. "This is a victory for the children; all of the teachers serving the interests of the community will finally have a voice," she told Socialist Worker. "It's important not just for us but for labor as well, to show that opposition forces can win."

David Goldberg, who won the race for UTLA treasurer by a 2-to-1 ratio, added, "We won because we spoke to the dreams and aspirations of our members. This election is exciting because it has tapped into the unmet needs of teachers and has become a movement. We must remember that our goals cannot be met by us, the elected leaders, but only by collective efforts."

How do we rebuild UTLA power?

THE UNITED Action slate won this election primarily by promising a more aggressive, fighting approach to contract negotiations and against budget cuts and NCLB. But once in office, these activists will be under intense pressure to change their tune. They will have to deal with administrators and politicians who believe that their job as union leaders is to convince UTLA members that it's not "realistic" to fight back against the attacks on teachers and students.

"Given the political climate, militancy alone won't do it," counseled the Los Angeles Times in a March 5 editorial, "UTLA has floundered--and teachers have suffered--in recent years because its leadership has been so resistant to change."

Nonsense! The problem with UTLA is that the previous leadership wasn't resistant enough to the union-busting "innovations" like merit pay, scripted teaching programs, and school reconstitution advocated by the Times and by LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer.

While voter turnout was up from the last UTLA election, only 27 percent of members turned in ballots. Many activists may conclude from this that most of our coworkers are apathetic about the union or "just don't get it." This would be a mistake. Most teachers are fed up with the attack on public education but have very little confidence that we can do anything about it.

This election shows the depth of anger that exists among teachers. If the new leadership sticks with its program of militancy and mobilization, it will find enthusiastic support from thousands of UTLA members.

But the new United Action leadership won't be able to take on LAUSD, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and NCLB by themselves. The more that we build PEAC and the power of the rank and file of UTLA, the more our union will be able to implement the progressive, fighting agenda that the membership voted for.

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