Battle intensifies in LA schools

May 19, 2009

Gillian Russom and David Rapkin, members of United Teachers Los Angeles, report on the union's response to a court order barring a planned one-day strike on May 15.

AFTER AN anti-union judge issued a temporary restraining order banning our planned one-day strike set for May 15, thousands of members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and hundreds of Los Angeles students pushed back with a series of actions on that day.

Morning picket lines before school, student walkouts and sit-ins, a civil disobedience action by teachers, and an afternoon union rally sent a clear message that our struggle to stop layoffs and class size increases is not going away.

Teachers, students, and parents are outraged at the Los Angeles Unified School District's (LAUSD) plans to lay off nearly 2,900 teachers and 2,600 other school employees, and increase class sizes in every grade level. The layoffs are unnecessary, since money from the federal stimulus bill is sufficient to save these jobs.

UTLA members had voted to hold a one-day strike May 15 to protest the layoffs, but union officers decided to cancel the work stoppage when Judge James Chalfant issued a restraining order that could have imposed a fine of $1,000 and a loss of credentials on each teacher who participated.

Los Angeles teachers picket before school on May 15
Los Angeles teachers picket before school on May 15 (United Teachers Los Angeles | United Teachers Los Angeles)

Chalfant also threatened to fine UTLA itself $1,000 for each member who took part in the strike--a penalty that, if successfully imposed, would have bankrupted the union.

The pickets, civil disobedience and rally were important in keeping teachers active and sending the message that we'll continue the fight. However, it comes in the context of the injunction, which was a major defeat for us and represents a formidable attack on the labor movement.

Plus, Superintendent Ramon Cortines' hard-line stance can't be underestimated. From Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa--a supposed friend of UTLA--to the school board to Cortines and the courts, we are being hammered.

The next step it is to reinvigorate the fight in whatever ways we can. Chalfant's temporary restraining order--which could become a permanent injunction against strikes and job actions--needs to be challenged. This intervention against our democratic right to strike is an attack on the entire labor movement, and UTLA must enlist active support from the LA County Federation of Labor and unions everywhere.

Most importantly, we need to prepare union members for a long, tough fight.

The fight against layoffs is taking place while a tentative agreement on a contract was set aside prior to a ratification vote by the membership. The district may well agree to pull back partially on layoffs in exchange for reopening contract talks to seek unpaid leave and other concessions from the union. How much we can win in negotiations depends on the level of pressure we maintain through our organizing over the coming weeks.


SOME ACTIVISTS were disappointed with the UTLA officers' decision to call off the strike, but nevertheless shifted quickly into organizing actions that wouldn't violate the court order.

Angry picket lines were set up in front of most schools Friday morning for the hour before classes started. At Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, 100 teachers chanted, "The district says cut back, we say fight back!" and "What do we want? Lower class size! When do we want it? Now!"

Later that morning, we took part in a civil disobedience action in front of LAUSD headquarters with 37 other teachers and union officers. By getting arrested, we hoped to show our ongoing commitment to fighting the cuts, and to keep public attention focused on the detrimental impact that class size increases will have on students' education.

Wearing t-shirts reading "Don't raise class size" and "Restrain the district," we stormed up to the locked doors of the school board's offices. Our chants of "Don't raise class size" reverberated off the building as TV cameras rolled.

Knowing that the school board would not arrest us on their steps, we moved into the middle of the street where we formed a circle and sat down. "We are here because for over 500 years, we have been facing oppression," said Martha Guerrero, a history teacher at Roosevelt High School. "Students of color and marginalized youth are continually denied a quality education, and it is obvious that this system does not care about their future. Enough is enough, ¡ya basta!"

Twenty-one women and 17 men, including UTLA's president, vice president and secretary, were handcuffed by police in riot gear and transported to two LA jails. We were released around 9 p.m. after about six hours in holding cells.

Students showed their opposition to the cuts and solidarity with teachers in actions at several schools around the city. About 500 students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles held a sit-in in the school's central yard. Later, they moved to the athletic field bleachers, and the school provided a sound system so they could discuss why they didn't want teachers laid off. Garfield could lose 13 English and social studies teachers.

Sit-ins of hundreds of students also took place at Jordan High School in South Los Angeles, Franklin High School in Highland Park and Miguel Contreras Learning Complex in downtown LA.

"We care about the teachers," Jasmine Guerrero, a senior at Franklin, told the Los Angeles Times. "But it's more about us. One teacher for 45 students, it's not a productive learning environment."

At Miguel Contreras Learning Complex School, 300 students held a sit-in in the courtyard from 8 a.m. until about 10:30. Speaking on a bullhorn, one student leader listed the names of LA schools and how many teachers each school would lose due to the cuts. Another leader gave out the phone number of school board president Monica Garcia, and dozens left messages demanding that she change her vote.

"Students are definitely making the connection between supporting the teachers' struggle and the fact that their own education is at stake," said Jess Kochick, a teacher at Miguel Contreras. "They were saying things like, 'If they're not going to let you strike, we're not going to go to class!' What students are doing is definitely going to be a crucial part of how we win."

A spirited after-school rally drew about 1,500 teachers, students and parents to the LAUSD building yet again. The head of the LA County Federation of Labor, Maria Elena Durazo addressed the crowd, emphasizing that the struggle for public education is a fight for the whole working class.

UTLA activists are pressing ahead with further mobilizations. Teachers around the city are planning actions, including community forums and a protest by elementary school students and parents as well as a possible hunger strike leading up to a major protest at the school board's next meeting on May 26.

All this is vital--but more activism and organization will be needed. In the weeks and the months ahead, UTLA faces what are likely to be the most important struggles in its history, and the union will need to be mobilize and organize its rank-and-file members like it has never done before.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives