What’s next for United Teachers Los Angeles?

April 7, 2011

David Rapkin, a member of the outgoing executive board of United Teachers Los Angeles, looks at the outcome of this month's union elections.

THE REFORM movement in United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) faces a somewhat uncertain future in the aftermath of Julie Washington's run-off defeat at the hands of Warren Fletcher in the election for president of the 40,000-member organization.

Washington, who emerged with other reform leaders six years ago out of the rank-and-file group Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC) to become UTLA Elementary Vice President, would have been the union's first African American president.

Fletcher, a talented and well-respected technocrat, who is himself in many ways a progressive, ran a bread-and-butter, pay-and-benefits campaign. However, he wasted no time after his upset victory was announced March 29 in reaching out to his erstwhile opponents and staking out a broader vision for UTLA.

Fletcher won by 450 votes out of 9,000 cast. About 24 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, up from a mere 16 percent in the first round.

Four other full-time officer seats went to PEAC-endorsed candidates. The other loss in PEAC's column for top officer was this article's author, who ran for union secretary and was closely associated with the union's current leadership. The race for secretary was narrowly won by a previously little-known substitute teacher.

Missing media.

Unlike many union elections, in which a group of progressive dissidents run what are often quixotic and futile campaigns against an entrenched old guard in tight control of an ossified apparatus, the incumbents in the UTLA election were themselves former dissidents. That leadership was understandably questioned in the wake of defeats for the rank and file and for public education.

United Action, the coalition that included Washington and other PEAC leaders, won the top offices in UTLA in 2005. The group had a tough time from the start, taking office at a time of mounting economic crisis and an escalating attack on public education.

In addition, PEAC was only one part of United Action, and PEAC's politics have sometimes been forced to take a back seat to the approach of our president, A.J. Duffy. While Duffy was an ally of PEAC, he had some sharp differences from the caucus--and specifically, from Julie Washington.

The fact that Duffy's popularity has waned in the face of what some activists consider his unilateralism may have hurt Washington and this writer in their bids for office, as both were considered close to the leadership.

Even the increasingly popular steps taken by the current leadership to develop a viable strategy and to plan a real fight against our enemies were not quite enough to carry Julie Washington into office. Too many voters wanted to try something new, and hoped that a new leadership could help avoid some of the concessions and other losses the union has suffered in recent years.

Nevertheless, and crucially, PEAC candidates won 21 out of 23 of the executive board seats they ran for, creating what will be a formidable majority on the UTLA Board of Directors and a broad layer of rank-and-file leadership well-positioned to build an organized base at the schools.

NOW THAT the dust has settled after the election, one thing is clearer than ever around UTLA: People want our union to get its message out more broadly and decisively, and they want a more relentless, escalating fightback. The current UTLA leadership was well positioned to lead such a fight going forward--but that still felt like too little, too late, as people marked their ballots.

It is that dynamic which explains Washington's defeat. Despite her fighting politics, important successes and a commitment to a social justice model of unionism, Julie came to be seen by many as in part responsible for the difficult predicaments Los Angeles teachers and the school district's health and human service workers find ourselves in.

Certainly, the current leadership was forced to explain some tough losses, sometimes taken without the unrelenting fight that militant activists wanted.

Just two years ago, UTLA was hit with the first round of the layoff notices that have become business as usual in Los Angeles. As over 2,000 of our members faced termination, UTLA planned a one-day strike in May 2009 that the leadership was forced to call off when a Superior Court judge handed down a threatening temporary restraining order that caught us by surprise. Members continued to fight valiantly to save jobs after the aborted strike, but in the end, the union lost almost 1,000 members.

Julie's hard line and her strategic persistence at the negotiations table, certainly saved many jobs in 2009. But key activists remained bitter in the aftermath of that loss. When faced with a similar dilemma last year, union members ultimately voted overwhelmingly to take seven furlough days--that is, a pay cut--to save almost all the jobs that otherwise would have been lost. People were eager to save jobs, but the necessity of taking concessions to do so hurt the members and weakened confidence in the leadership.

The current UTLA leadership has, by most insiders' accounts, done an excellent job of holding the line, despite some slight losses, on health benefits and even salaries--with a big push from an activated and militant rank and file, along with parent and community allies. In 2008, we organized a hugely successful one-hour strike, with over 40,000 participants, among them many thousands of parents. In the health benefits fight of early 2009, tens of thousands rallied, and the district was forced to settle to our advantage several days latter.

In addition, UTLA, with Julie in the lead, pushed back decisively against the district's attempt to give away 36 schools to charter school operators under the guise of "school choice." Union-initiated proposals for progressive school reform won community support at 32 of the 36 schools, ensuring that those schools would remain unionized. (Now, of course, the district is back with a similar effort to privatize schools).

So rather than a repudiation of left-wing militant unionism inside UTLA, Julie's election loss signals the opposite. People know we have held the line, even admirably, in key battles, but all the same, they want UTLA to do a better job of defending our rights and those of our students.

THE FACT that Warren Fletcher had no clearly articulated broad plan or strategy to arrive at a more militant solution to UTLA's problems, beyond hiring a professional negotiator, did not of course stop many from voting for the promise of "change."

But Fletcher's rise to power raises a set of as-yet unanswered questions. Will he continue to support the union's Strategic Planning Committee, led currently by PEAC officers and PEAC rank-and-file leaders? Will Fletcher continue the work UTLA activists have started developing our own proposals for authentic, bottom-up reform of our schools? Will Fletcher move forward with organizing the unorganized teachers at charter schools?

Will he continue our difficult work writing school plans that can compete with the charter schools trying to take over many of our campuses? Will he go forward with our escalating actions and our plans for strike preparation? Will Fletcher support the political and budgetary research that UTLA has embarked on? Will he increasingly train the union's staff on organizing rather than merely providing a "service" to a tiny minority of members?

So far, Fletcher's overtures to PEAC and other leaders engaged in these and other important UTLA projects suggest reasons for optimism on most of these counts. On each of the topics above, Warren knows that good work is going on, and that his administration is beholden to those individuals who have been doing the organizing work.

As this article goes to press, Los Angeles teachers and health and human service workers in UTLA face the prospect of over 5,000 layoffs. Pink slips, called Reduction in Force (RIF) notices, have already gone out. And now, after destabilizing the schools with this tremendous number of RIFs, the Los Angeles Unified School District is telling us that we can have all the jobs back--but only if we take a 6 percent pay cut and agree to a number of other concessions.

So as UTLA transitions to a new leadership (the new officers officially take over on July 1), we are faced with another round of attacks and a horrible offer we must refuse. In other words, we are faced with a challenge that no leadership, however determined, can win without waging a fight that engages the entire rank and file of the union, and thousands of supporters--in the kind of action, including strike action, that we have seen taking shape in Wisconsin.

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