“One hour’s pay for the kids of LA”

August 6, 2008

Julie Washington is the elementary vice president of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). She spoke to Jesse Sharkey, a member of the Chicago Teachers Union, about the challenges facing UTLA's reform leadership, which was recently re-elected.

WHERE IN LA did you teach prior to being elected to union office?

I TAUGHT at Normandie Avenue, which I call on the front line. It's on the corner of Normandie and Vernon, which is nestled within the two highest crime rates in the city. It has more foster care homes within its boundary than any other place in the city, more halfway homes, more drugs, more violence.

HOW DID you come to be involved in the union?

THROUGH MY commitment to social justice and through my profession, which I think is the most valuable profession in the world--serving children and communities and helping them reach their dreams and desires. Working in the public schools for a long period of time, I wasn't making a dent in the problems. So I saw my union as a platform with which to speak out about the injustices and political disempowerment of my community.

ONE OF the things I've noticed about Chicago is that the schools that face the most challenges also face the most experiments--"reconstitution," "transformation," etc.--and become a testing ground for "reforms." Is that the case in LA?

Julie Washington
Julie Washington

I DON'T know if I would say experiments. I would say they're unwilling to do the work that it takes to cause real improvement. Therefore, they're always looking for a quick fix. They just want to be able to check off the box that says they are doing something. They don't really care about the results.

DO YOU see charter schools as being part of that category of quick fixes, or is it more complicated than that?

WELL OF course it's much more complicated than that. I had an experience in the past couple of weeks that really evolved my thinking about charter schools. I used to think charters were the epitome of all evil, and just created solely to bring down public schools. After my experience, I find I need to alter that view a lot.

The people I met at this charter conference, I must say, are just like me, just like you. People who were simply fed up with the status quo and were tired of hitting their head against a system that will not change. They see charter schools as a way to cause some change, if only for a small group of children. But hiding behind them are [companies like] Edison [Schools] and the Knowledge Is Power Program, which are obviously directed toward privatization and siphoning dollars from public education. Fueling the fire are the people who see it as the opening toward busting unions.

WHAT'S GOING on with charters in LA?

WE'RE BEING hit from all sides by charters. Our school board, it seems, never saw a charter application they didn't like. So they are granting these charter applicants at an outrageous pace. I can't quote the exact figure for LA, but 700,000 children in California are in charters, and a big percentage of those are in Los Angeles. We are losing not only our ADA [average daily attendance] because of charters, but also we're losing union membership. So besides the fact of whether or not there is any value to charters, I think our union has to take some practical look at the fact that we are losing membership, which will undermine our base and our stability.

As a matter of fact, one of the staunchest supporters of the charter movement is Colorado State Senator Peter Groff, who was at the National Charter Schools Conference that I went to. He was touting to charter advocates how to influence legislators, and he laced his stuff with the most vicious union-bashing that I have ever sat through. And that's part of the plan. It's setting the unions up, and repeating over and over that unions are the problem. And lo and behold, the public has finally caught on, and they're agreeing.

AS A union activist, how were you received at the conference?

THERE I was in the belly of the beast. No one personally attacked me, but unions were not embraced with open arms. The American Federation of Teachers brought 30 or 40 teachers who belong to the AFT who are working in charters. I was in that delegation. And we infiltrated, plain and simple.

We confronted them at every turn. They were defensive. To their national chair, I asked very plainly, "Why do I feel so much hostility toward unions here?" And he tried to play off of it, and said because unions have been so hostile toward charters and blah, blah, blah. I thought it was good that we put them on notice that unions would not be ignoring this movement.

I spoke to Senator Groff in one particular workshop because I just couldn't take it anymore. I told him that as a union leader, teachers were concerned, and we're on the front line. We are fighting for the students, so how could we be the problem? We're the solution. We're not the problem.

After the workshop there were a couple of young teachers who came to me and said, "When I heard you speak I had to turn around, and look and see who you were because I have never heard a union leader saying anything like that." So it was an opportunity, particularly for those young teachers who were there, and for some of those veteran teachers who have sold themselves out to charters because, I believe, they didn't have any hope within the public system.

I don't think we've done ourselves any favors by being narrowly focused on certain issues--damn what the kids need and damn what's going on in the total system--just speaking only to very narrow union ideology and not really opening it up. [We need to do a better job] of defining who we are for ourselves, and not allowing the media or union busters to define who we are.

YOU'RE SAYING that unions have to address social justice, or else we're never going to organize the charters?

IT GOES beyond the charters. If unions don't wake up and begin to connect to the community by standing with them and addressing all the social ills that are befalling everyone in this world--poor health care, inadequate wages, inadequate housing, the prison pipeline. If we don't begin speaking to power, then we're going to lose the whole thing. Because even our own members are no longer engaged.

HOW ARE you trying to do this in LA?

WE ARE definitely trying to reconnect with the community--for instance, in our negotiations. I'm the chair of our negotiations team, and I have made it a top priority that in every negotiation put something on the table that connects us to the students and to the communities that we serve.

Last year it was class size reduction. We put it on the table, and we could have had another percentage or a percentage and a half raise. But we didn't go for that, which put us on the map. The media couldn't believe that we actually did that. It gave us credibility.

This year it's safety. Obviously, we're not just talking about our members' working environment. We're also talking about our students' learning environment: drinking water, air quality, termites, you name it. We're trying to address it and really unite with the public.

Los Angeles Unified teachers just had a one-hour walkout in June. We called it "one hour's pay for the kids of LA," and even the district estimated that there was a 75 percent participation rate. For us, we think it was more like 82 percent, and one school called in and reported to me that there were 600 parents on the line as well as teachers.

That's something that we've never experienced in Los Angeles. We're going to continue with that push, so that our school board members know that they cannot continue to turn their back on students, teachers and the community's needs.

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