Why did the UTLA dues increase fail?

June 27, 2008

LOS ANGELES--At the same time as they were building for the smashingly successful one-hour June 6 job action that brought 40,000 teachers onto the streets of LA to protest budget cuts, UTLA leaders were also pushing for a referendum of the membership to increase our dues by about $22 a month. The referendum fell to a landslide defeat just days after our one-hour strike.

UTLA has one of the lowest dues rates among teacher unions in California, and the union has started running at a deficit, thanks partly to massive amounts of dues money automatically sucked out of our treasury by our statewide affiliate, the California Teachers Association (CTA), whose record in representing California's teachers is disastrous.

But the financial situation at UTLA only became acute as the reform United Action leadership launched a variety of organizing projects that the previously sleepy UTLA wasn't used to.

Most of UTLA's leading officers and activists want a fighting union, but the organization's initiatives are somewhat constrained by a relatively shoestring staff for a union of 48,000 people. UTLA has one staff organizer for every 4,000 members, about twice as high as the corresponding ratios in other teachers' locals in California.

Students came out on picket lines to support the UTLA's one-hour job action June 6 to protest billions of dollars in planned budget cuts
Students came out on picket lines to support the UTLA's one-hour job action June 6 to protest billions of dollars in planned budget cuts (Sarah Knopp | SW)

So there were very good reasons for the UTLA leadership to propose what was a fairly modest dues increase proposal. The overwhelming rejection by those members who voted shows how poorly the argument for the increase was made.

Some UTLA activists had very positive experiences, convincing initially skeptical teachers to support the dues increase. They patiently explained the conditions faced by the union and the fights before us. But the vast majority of schools in LA did not have such discussions, and the dues increase was defeated by a two-to-one margin--11,413 "no" votes versus only 5,713 "yes" votes.

However, the rejection of the dues increase is more likely to demoralize UTLA activists far more than it will the bulk of the rank and file. By taking even the LA Unified School District's (LAUSD) conservative estimates, about 36,000 UTLA members participated in our one-hour strike action on June 6. Therefore, the majority of teachers who sacrificed "one hour's pay for the kids of LA" did not vote at all on the dues proposal the following week.

Activists should be understanding of this abstention on the vote by the mass of our co-workers. At the end of a school year, facing terrifying budget cuts, the UTLA called on its members to take a serious step towards fighting back on June 6, and they responded. They ignored the threats and pleas of LAUSD Superintendent David Brewer, who tried and failed to stop the one-hour action with legal challenges and recorded "phone blast" messages to every UTLA member.

It was an inspiring success, but big questions loom. What do we do next? Did we have any effect? How far can we go? Can we win? This debate came in the hectic end-of-the-year rush that included grading, overseeing final projects, graduations, scheduling kids into classes next year, etc. Also, teachers are worried about LAUSD threats to cut our salaries next year as well as rising food and gas prices, unaffordable mortgages and a generally sour economy.

In this context, it's not surprising that a "dues restructuring" proposal escaped the notice of many of our colleagues, and that many voted "no."

At this point, only a minority of UTLA members has a solid grasp of the potential power and importance of the union. UTLA is starting to make a good case for itself, especially with the June 6 one-hour strike. But it's going to take more than just one great action to get the members to feel like the union is an important part of their lives.

A lot of UTLA members have a lot of good ideas about "next step" types of actions. UTLA needs to pick some and run with them. We're likely to have some successes and some disappointments, but more people will have a chance to understand what it's like to be part of a real campaign for justice. This will strengthen the union, both in the short and long terms. Groups of activists and even individuals also need to take some of these good ideas and start trying to organize around them locally.

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