Teachers’ protests send a message in LA

December 16, 2008

David Rapkin, a high school teacher and member of the UTLA board of directors, explains the high stakes in the union's contract battle.

ONE WEEK after the Los Angeles Unified School District slapped teachers in the face with an insulting "last, best and final offer" that would have cut our health benefits, over 10,000 teachers across LA rallied in protest.

Members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) demonstrated at seven Local District offices, hated symbols of bureaucracy, top-down mandates and egregious waste.

From the San Fernando Valley, where thousands of furious teachers slowed traffic on Lankershim Boulevard, to the Harbor, where over a thousand participated, teachers, some students and other union allies sent the school chiefs a clear message: "We're fighting back!"

One of the issues that angers teachers most is that the district, while cutting into benefits for everyone, is trying to take away lifetime health benefits only from new hires, in the hope that active-duty teachers will look the other way and breathe a sigh of relief.

But this transparent attempt at divide and rule isn't working. C.C. Love, a high school teacher from Central Area, is one of many who isn't taking the bait. "We refuse to be bamboozled by a contract that pits us against one another," she said. "If you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us."

More than 10,000 Los Angeles teachers rallied against the school district's insulting "final offer"
More than 10,000 Los Angeles teachers rallied against the school district's insulting "final offer" (Gillian Russom | SW)

C.C., one of the loudest and most determined people at the Local District 7 rally, expressed the mood perfectly: "As my students say, we gotta do what we gotta do. We're fired up."

These days, in LA, when teachers talk about what we may "have to do," most of them mean they're ready to strike. Alvaro Jackson, a teacher at Youth Opportunities Unlimited Alternative High School (YOUAHS) spoke for many when he said, "I'd be ready to strike at the cling of a bell."

"They say they're broke, but they found over half a million dollars to give [David] Brewer on his way out the door," he said, referring to the golden parachute the district just gave to the outgoing failed superintendent, while classrooms starve.

When Mat Taylor, the elected leader of the union's South Area, told 1,000 teachers at his rally that the union is preparing to strike, "people went nuts," he said. "I couldn't believe the spirit yesterday. Those few in our leadership who are afraid teachers aren't ready--well, teachers are more than ready."

Voices like Mat's are very much in synch with the mainstream of the UTLA from top to bottom. The official union talking points for Wednesday's rallies perfectly articulate what many are already saying. "We are here to say NO WAY to health care cuts," read the talking points, "and that UTLA is ready to strike if the District continues to treat our members with disrespect."

BUT WHILE anger and a willingness to fight prevail in schools around LA, many teachers also fear the growing budget crisis will make our demands harder to win.

While teachers won a 6 percent raise in the 2006-07 negotiations, the re-opener rounds in years two and three of our three-year contract have so far yielded nothing but district stonewalling--offers of zero and zero from management. At these negotiations, we are at a formal impasse.

Our health care negotiations represent a separate front in the contract fight, since they are on a different time schedule and are negotiated between the district and all eight school employee unions, with UTLA being the strongest partner. These negotiations have gone on for months, but recently bogged down because of the district's bad-faith offer.

Now, however, with negotiations stalled on both fronts, all the issues on the table are coming together in a way that benefits the teachers' fight.

The budget crisis has meant that the district is slashing away at everything from classroom supplies to after-school programs, while leaving the bloated bureaucracy intact. At the same time, it has been ignoring our demands for safer and healthier schools, and threatening class-size increases that would hurt kids and force teacher layoffs.

This confluence of issues makes it easier for the union to raise broader demands that get to the heart of the fight for quality public education in the face of what have been, in reality, years of cuts. Increasingly, the UTLA sees itself in a position to lead a broad fight for public and social services, with the demand that state and local governments not balance their budgets on our backs.

"Everyone knows that this isn't the teachers' fight alone--it belongs to the whole community," said C.C. Love.

Tyrone Scott, a teacher at YOUAHS and long-time resident of South Central LA, said times were tough for everyone he knows. But "the people I know aren't just going to lay down," Scott said. Any fight we had for resources right now would be tough to win, he said--but added, "I think at this point, people feel like they're ready to take the risk."

A full-time teacher and devoted foster parent, Tyrone is waiting to get two teeth fixed "because it's going to cost me $5,000--and I have insurance. Striking or fighting could cost me a lot, but we all stand to lose much, much more if we don't fight."

UTLA's current contract expires at the end of June, at which point California and LA are going to be deep in the midst of a staggering budget shortfall. Already, the threat of mass layoffs and deep new cuts loom.

And while the money we need for schools and social services will still certainly be out there, it will take a relentless fight to get the wealthy and powerful to prioritize our health and our classrooms over bailouts for banks and billions for war.

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