High stakes in UTLA election

March 21, 2011

Randy Childs, a Los Angeles teacher and United Teachers Los Angeles activist, looks at the dynamics of union elections in the nation's second-largest school district.

THE FIRST round of elections for the leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) wrapped up in February with very little decided about the future course of the union.

Six out of seven officer races are up for run-off elections between members of the Core Action slate led by current Elementary Vice President Julie Washington and a variety of challengers led by presidential candidate Warren Fletcher benefitting from widespread frustration with the attacks and setbacks UTLA has endured in recent years. Ballots for the run-off election will be counted on March 29.

In each of these races, the Core Action candidate received the most votes in the first round, but came short of winning a majority of votes cast. However, each of these races contained other opposition candidates who gained significant numbers of votes running on platforms that were highly critical of Washington and other current UTLA officers. This "throw the bums out" mood makes every one of the run-offs too close to call.

Julie Washington's progressive strategy for taking UTLA forward won her this writer's vote. It also gained her the endorsement of Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC), which also endorsed four out of her six Core Action running mates. The role played by PEAC--a rank-and-file caucus within UTLA that focuses on bringing together rank-and-file activists and organizers under a banner of progressive school reform and union militancy--is an important factor in analyzing the UTLA elections.

UTLA teachers and parents join the March 4 protest in downtown LA
UTLA teachers and parents join the March 4 protest in downtown LA

UTLA elections were not just for the seven full-time officer positions, but also for 39 rank-and-file positions on the union's Board of Directors. PEAC activists worked tirelessly to form a team of 24 candidates for these positions, and 21 were elected in the first round of voting.

Members of the Board of Directors are immediately responsible for the day-to-day outreach and organizing with chapter chairs at nearly 1,000 LAUSD schools in the union's eight geographical areas, as well as members of "special constituencies," including substitute teachers, special education teachers and health services professionals.

Tellingly, while the seven full-time officer positions were contested by an average of nearly six candidates per race, 22 of the 39 Board of Directors positions were won by candidates who ran unopposed, and 14 of these candidates ran on the PEAC slate. In the North, South, East, West and Central Areas--where the vast majority of LA's high-poverty, inner-city schools are located--18 out of 20 elected Board members were PEAC-endorsed candidates and/or public supporters of Julie Washington, and 15 of those candidates ran unopposed.

Opposition candidates denouncing the current leadership flocked to the full-time officer races, but very few put their names forward for the less glamorous director positions, where much more of the actual organizing that our union needs will take place.

NEVERTHELESS, IN the runoff election, the union's most active members are closely divided between those who hold Washington and her allies responsible for recent defeats our union has suffered and those who think Washington's team has done at least as well as anybody else would have defending our union through a period of unprecedented attacks.

UTLA represents over 40,000 teachers and other non-administrative education professionals who work for the Los Angeles Unified School District--the second-largest local school district in the U.S. Yet only 6,200 members cast votes for a presidential candidate in these elections--about 15.5 percent of the total--a troubling sign for the union.

Many commentators have been quick to identify member discouragement as the cause of this low turnout. Low morale is certainly a factor, and years of high teacher turnover rates in LAUSD have eroded the percentage of veteran teachers--who are more likely to be active in union affairs--in our ranks.

Most significantly, however, UTLA officer elections are conducted by mail, consistently leading to voter turnouts of less than 30 percent. By contrast, contract votes and strike authorization votes are conducted at school sites and routinely gain the participation of solid majorities of the membership. For example, over 20,000 UTLA members voted in favor of an illegal one-day strike in 2009, which was thwarted by a judge's restraining order that threatened massive fines against UTLA and its individual members and the revocation of teaching credentials.

The current UTLA election comes at a time when the corporate attack on teachers unions and public education has never been more ruthless. This barrage has taken its toll on the union, pushing many members into demoralization and inactivity while fueling the frustration that many others are feeling at UTLA leaders. Even a brief listing of these attacks is overwhelming.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) School Board approved Superintendent Ramon Cortines's call for 7,300 school employees to receive Reduction In Force (RIF) notices--including over 5,000 UTLA members. Class sizes for kindergarten through 3rd grade would increase to 30 students, and for 4th through 8th grade it would go up to 37 students.

These same LAUSD leaders have been posturing for months as defenders of the civil rights of school children for their role in the anti-union settlement of the Reed v. LAUSD lawsuit. The parties to the settlement hypocritically blame teachers' seniority protections for the high turnover rates at 45 schools in the city's poorest neighborhoods. The settlement will undermine seniority provisions in the UTLA contract by exempting teachers in those schools from most layoffs--but ties that protection to improvement in standardized test scores.

LAUSD is accelerating its use of discredited reconstitution schemes at high-poverty schools, which would force teachers and staff at these schools to reapply for their jobs. Fremont High School was reconstituted last year, and now more than half of its faculty are first-year teachers. The district plans to do the same at Jordan High School, Manual Arts High School and John Muir Middle School this year. All four of these schools are in South Central Los Angeles.

Cortines's hand-picked successor, Deputy Superintendent John Deasy, is leading the charge for discredited value-added measures to be used to tie teachers' evaluations, pay and job security to student test scores. For his trouble, Deasy will be getting a whopping $330,000 annual salary when he takes over for Cortines later this spring. That's an $80,0000 raise over Cortines's salary, and that money could pay for the salary and health benefits of one of the teachers LAUSD wants to lay off this year.

Meanwhile, 56 LAUSD schools are on the auction block in the School Board's deceptively named "Public School Choice" process, in which the teachers at these schools are forced to compete with well-funded charter school companies to propose reform programs that would gain the approval of the LAUSD bureaucracy.

The backdrop to all these attacks is the continuation of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. This crisis has precipitated tens of billions of dollars of state budget cuts in California and given LAUSD officials the leverage to make teachers and students pay the price for the crisis. We have endured four years of salary freezes, continued erosion of employee health benefits, thousands of layoffs in 2008 and 2009, class size increases in every grade in the spring of 2009, and a district-wide temporary pay cut in the form of five furlough days in the spring of 2010.

IN THE midst of this election season and this litany of attacks, UTLA held a citywide meeting on March 13 for school-site activists and leaders that drew approximately 600 people.

Washington, along with other officers and activists, laid out a mobilization plan for fighting back against this year's layoff notices issued by LAUSD, as well as the ongoing giveaway of schools to charters and push for test-score-based evaluations of teachers. The fightback plan includes school-site picketing, a series of rallies and a possible statewide job action in the spring. This action plan could help to galvanize and re-unify the membership for the fights ahead.

Julie Washington led the negotiating team that agreed to the furlough days in exchange for preventing 2,000 layoffs and canceling the district's plans to raise class sizes for a second consecutive year. Indeed, LAUSD was demanding thousands of layoffs, class sizes increases, permanent cuts to the salary tables for teachers and furlough days. Most UTLA members were relieved that the worst of these district demands were thwarted, and the deal over furlough days was approved by 80 percent of voting members.

Many activists, on the other hand, are understandably frustrated about these concessions when taxing the rich and cutting deeply into LAUSD's bloated bureaucracy could have made them unnecessary. More organizing and mobilizing probably could have won more at the bargaining table.

But what would it take to actually win the demands that our side hungers for? Recent events in Wisconsin and elsewhere show us that beating back such intransigent and powerful foes will require a struggle the likes of which none of us has directly participated in before. It won't be easy, but at least Wisconsin shows us that such seemingly unprecedented struggles are possible.

Washington's role as chief negotiator during a period when UTLA has taken tough concessions--and the feeling that UTLA's current reform leadership could have done more to hold the line on givebacks--has made her campaign for president more difficult. Like current President A.J. Duffy, Washington and other reform leaders have been in office for two terms. Despite revitalizing the union in many respects and forging alliances with the community, these officers have not completely broken from the pattern of concessionary agreements and organizational inertia seen under previous UTLA administrations.

Some UTLA militants have responded to the crisis by running campaigns for office that denounce current union leaders and demand something better. More difficult, however, is forming a strategy for how we could actually reverse these concessions and defeats while launching a powerful battle to save public education from cutbacks and privatization.

THIS STRATEGIC dilemma has come to the fore in these elections, especially in the race for UTLA president between Julie Washington and Warren Fletcher. Both candidates have long track records of progressive activism, and both are respected by large numbers of UTLA members. However, they are promoting very different strategies for making the union stronger in their campaigns.

Warren Fletcher's campaign platform centers around a promise to "return UTLA to its core priorities" of salary, benefits, retirement and job security, and a proposal for the union to hire a professional negotiator. Fletcher criticizes the current leadership for being "distracted" by organizing for pro-union school reform models as an alternative to charter takeovers under "Public School Choice."

No mention is made in his literature of building alliances with parents and community members, and he says nothing about rank-and-file organizing except arguing that he will support chapter chairs (school-site UTLA representatives elected by their co-workers) by showing teachers "that there is a real union standing behind them."

Fletcher is undoubtedly supportive on some level of pro-union school reform, rank-and-file organizing and building community alliances. But his campaign rhetoric is dismissive of such strategies. Fletcher implies that UTLA's recent defeats are entirely a product of current UTLA leaders' supposed failure to be clever negotiators--and for not really trying to defend the interests of members.

By contrast, Julie Washington's campaign emphasizes involving rank-and-file activists in strategic planning and organizing, building parent and community support for progressive teacher-led reforms and against charter school takeovers, and organizing with other unions and community members to fight for more resources for public education. She argues for progressive proposals on hot-button issues like teacher evaluations and support for high-turnover schools that aim to protect members' union rights, while offering real alternatives to the fake "reform" solutions being advanced by LAUSD officials.

When LAUSD started putting new schools and beleaguered inner-city schools up for bid under the "Public School Choice" process, Washington led a campaign to use union resources to support UTLA members to write school governance and instructional plans for these schools as a specific counterweight to the mostly non-union charter operators. UTLA also campaigned to galvanize parent and community support for these teacher-led plans, which pressured the district and the school board to approve UTLA-supported plans for most of the schools.

Had we heeded Fletcher's advice to abstain from this process--which, to be clear, is absolutely an uneven playing field tilted against teachers and parents--then many more of these schools would have been converted to charters, and many of our members would have lost their jobs, their benefits and their union representation.

The Washington slate is the clear choice for LA teachers who want to build a fighting union. But whatever the outcome of the vote, there will be no magic bullets or shortcuts to making UTLA a strong enough force to push back against the powerful corporate and political interests coalescing against us.

We will need tireless organizing, mass mobilization and creative methods of disrupting business as usual if we are to stand a chance in what is increasingly a fight for survival.

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