Judge bars LA teachers' strike

Randy Childs, a member of United Teachers Los Angeles, reports on the teachers' response to a judge's threats to crush their union.

UTLA members rally against budget cuts in April (David Rapkin | SW)UTLA members rally against budget cuts in April (David Rapkin | SW)

A JUDGE has forced Los Angeles teachers to call off a planned one-day strike against layoffs by issuing an injunction that threatens vicious penalties against the union.

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) was preparing to walk out for a daylong action on May 15 when Los Angeles County Superior Judge James Chalfant issued a restraining order that would impose a fine of $1,000 on each teacher who participated and a loss of credentials.

The injunction also threatened UTLA with a separate fine of $1,000 per striker on the union itself--a figure that could range between $20 million and $40 million if most of the union's 47,000 members in the bargaining unit participated in the action.

This extraordinary attack on workers' democratic right to strike should be wake-up call to the entire labor movement--and unions everywhere should come to the support of the UTLA.

"We are not backing off on this fight," UTLA President A.J. Duffy said in a statement. "This is a situation we will not allow to stand."

In an emergency meeting May 12, UTLA officers voted to cancel the strike and shift gears toward protests to be held in place of a walkout. Teachers will picket outside their schools before classes begin, then converge for an afternoon protest outside LAUSD's downtown headquarters. Union officials are planning unspecified civil disobedience actions.

The union is also gearing up for a mass protest May 26 at the next meeting of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board.

A reform caucus, Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC), held a meeting on short notice May 13 to take stock of the situation and brainstorm about next steps. They plan to reach out to newer members of the union to beef up the May 15 actions. Some discussed plans for vigils and other protests at their schools.

PEAC members aren't starting from scratch. In recent weeks, rank-and-file members have been active on a variety of fronts, protesting individual school board members, organizing alongside parents and community groups, and more. Now they plan to respond to the injunction by taking their case against the layoffs to the public even more widely.

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SOME RANK-and-file activists were critical of the leadership for failing to have a contingency plan in case of such an action.

But teachers' anger was mostly directed at Judge Chalfant and LAUSD Superintendent Ray Cortines, who is determined to eliminate 2,500 teaching positions and 2,600 non-teaching jobs--even though federal stimulus money could easily cover the district's budget shortfall.

Meanwhile, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa--who once worked as a staffer for UTLA--has tried to play the soft cop. He has floated a proposal that teachers' jobs could be saved if the union was willing to make concessions on other fronts, such as pay cuts or unpaid furloughs--and then softened his position a bit more.

But while Villaraigosa made vague promises of carrots, Cortines and Chalfant slammed the union with an enormous stick.

UTLA is the latest union to face anti-labor injunctions threatened or issued against important unions that take decisive job actions--such as George W. Bush's use of the anti-union Taft-Hartley law against West Coast dockworkers in 2002, and the severe penalties imposed on the New York subway and bus workers union for a brief strike in 2005.

What's remarkable about this case is that such a vicious injunction was issued for such a limited action. Apparently, even a one-day strike is too dangerous for Cortines, LAUSD, and the powerful business interests and politicians who are driving "school reform" in this city and across the country. The Los Angeles Times has been a mouthpiece for these anti-union forces, running article after article attacking "lazy" or "ineffective" teachers.

As David Rapkin, a member of UTLA's board of directors, put it:

They're not even letting us protest against a completely unjust and illegitimate raising of class size and firing of new teachers. All we're trying to do is stand up for our new teachers and our kids, and we're the criminals? We're standing up against a serious attack that will cause irreparable harm to students. And yet that's what they're accusing us of doing--causing harm to students.

This is an attack on all labor. Obviously, this injunction was a temporary setback, but we are going to come back fighting--not only to stop these layoffs and defend our kids, but because workers everywhere need to see unions standing up for our interests.

UTLA members were especially bitter about Chalfant's injunction since he cited concerns about students' safety and welfare--even though the job cuts will result in larger classes sizes and a poorer learning environment.

But teachers won't be intimidated--and the union remains determined to stop the layoffs. Whatever the outcome, this struggle is only one of many to come. LAUSD will continue to use the budget crisis to demand concessions. By taking a stand now, we can prepare our union for the many battles ahead.