A teachers' strike in LA?

Randy Childs of United Teachers Los Angeles reports on preparations for a possible strike by the second-largest teachers union in the U.S.

Students came out on picket lines to support the UTLA's one-hour job action in June (Sarah Knopp | SW)Students came out on picket lines to support the UTLA's one-hour job action in June (Sarah Knopp | SW)

LA QUINTA, Calif.--Over 800 leaders and activists in United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), meeting at the union's leadership conference, held annually in this desert resort town, began preparations for a possible strike this school year.

UTLA, the second-largest local teachers union in the U.S., represents 48,000 teachers and health and human service professionals employed by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

"Our strategic organizing task force is putting together a timeline of escalating actions that will include the word 'strike,'" announced UTLA President A. J. Duffy in his "State of the Union" address at the conference. "LAUSD needs to know that if they don't hear us, they are facing the prospect of massive job actions."

Duffy's announcement is no idle threat, given that over 40,000 UTLA members took part in a one-hour work stoppage on June 6 to protest Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposals to slash billions from education, health care and other social services in response to California's (still unresolved) state budget crisis.

But this time around, it's LAUSD stonewalling contract negotiations, as opposed to the state budget, that would formally trigger LA teachers to walk the picket lines. Despite receiving a 4.5 percent "cost-of-living" increase in state funding last year (before the crisis hit), district officials have not budged from their demand for a salary freeze for the 2007-08 school year.

Moreover, LAUSD has responded to the state fiscal crisis with a raft of cuts that left the district's notorious bureaucracy untouched while laying off hundreds of school employees. The district has also announced a plan to eliminate several paid non-instructional days from teachers' work calendars, which would amount to a backdoor pay cut of as much as 3.5 percent, according to UTLA's calculations.

And on top of that, LAUSD is calling for its employees to chip in $40 million this year to maintain health benefits that are currently offered free of charge. This threat to health benefits provides a basis for UTLA to coordinate a united response to the district's attacks with other school employees, most of whom (including teaching assistants, cafeteria workers and custodians) are represented by SEIU Local 99.

"The state budget crisis has given the district an opportunity to attack our wages and benefits," Duffy continued in his speech. "But all the school unions can now strike together on health benefits. The combined power of SEIU's 36,000 members and our 48,000 members could rock the tables of power at [LAUSD headquarters] and in Sacramento. We know that they won't do the right thing unless we force them to."

Unfortunately, SEIU Local 99 ordered its members not to participate in the June 6 job action--whereas over 20,000 parents, students and other supporters joined teachers on the picket lines in an important show of solidarity.

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THE CENTERPIECE of the leadership conference was "core training" breakout sessions, in which chapter chairs (elected UTLA representatives at different LAUSD school sites) shared experiences and lessons from the June 6 action and discussed the union's campaign for "strike readiness" at all of our schools. At these sessions, chapter chairs also received buttons that say "Willing to Strike for What's Right" to distribute among coworkers when they go back to school.

Getting ready to strike will also include significant changes in how UTLA works, another important point made by Duffy at the conference:

It can't be business as usual in our union. We need a paradigm shift in UTLA culture, from a service model to an organizing model. We must finally put to rest the service model that deactivates our members.

Because of California's restrictive laws governing public employee contract negotiations, UTLA will have to go through various bureaucratic stages (impasse, arbitration, etc.) before being free to legally wage an all-out strike. This might take several months.

In the meantime, UTLA members will need to prepare for battle. We should do so with a great deal of confidence that if we hit the streets once again, our struggle for more resources for our desperately underfunded public schools holds the potential to galvanize not only teachers and other school employees, but also masses of working people across the city who are fed up with the attacks on our living standards and public services.

Gillian Russom contributed to this article.