Scenes from the class(room) struggle in LA

January 16, 2019

Luke Pickrell reports on the mood among teachers, parents and students at picket lines across Los Angeles during the first two days of the teachers’ strike.

ON MAY 16, 1989, the front page of the New York Times covered a visit from USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev to Beijing while protests massed in Tiananmen Square. On page six, George Bush Sr. pondered the invasion of Panama (still seven months away) while page seven offered a luxurious Pan Am flight to Brussels for $196.

Page 14 covered a teachers’ strike in Los Angeles with the alarmed tones one might think were more appropriate for the Panama invasion.

Headlined “Teacher Strike Spreads Chaos in Los Angeles,” the article described the strike as “throwing the nation’s second-largest school district into chaos and jeopardizing the issuing of student grades as the school year neared its end.” It quoted a police official warming about “problem kids” and “little predators out on the street.”

Thirty years later, the Soviet Union is gone, along with Bush Sr. and Pan Am, and a flight to Europe is a steal at anything under $400. But some things, like the fighting spirit of Los Angeles educators, haven’t faded with time.

Students at Venice High School rally on the picket line with striking teachers
Students at Venice High School rally on the picket line with striking teachers (Joe Brusky | flickr)

On Monday, the 33,000 members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) went on strike for the first time since 1989, erecting picket lines at 900 schools. This time, the stakes are higher not only for LA teachers, but the future of public education in the city and beyond.

ON THE first day of the strike, 50,000 people braved an abnormal Southern California downpour to descend on City Hall at noon and take to the streets of downtown. Once a set piece for such blockbusters as Blade Runner, Terminator and Independence Day, the tiled walls of the famed Second Street Tunnel were put to a more wholesome use on Monday, echoing the thunderous chants of “U-T-L-A!”

Some 400,000 students stayed home on the first day of the strike, roughly two-thirds of all students in the Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD).

At El Sereno Middle School, only 200 of the school’s 1,200 students appeared. “The buses were only 25 percent full,” reported Ulysses, a special education teacher. “We had 100 percent teacher participation” in the strike.

At UCLA Community School, kindergarten and first-grade teacher Gabriela Perez explained why being “humble” and “flexible” is no longer an option.

Following the financial crisis of 2007-08, she said, “Things become real for us. A lot of teachers were displaced [and] budget cuts were made...We made it work, but we’re at a time politically where we have to stand up for funding our schools. There’s a large reserve, and we’re wondering why that money isn’t being used to serve our schools today.”

The reserves in question amount to nearly $2 billion, more than enough to meet teachers’ demands for smaller class sizes and hiring more nurses, counselors and librarians.

“When you’re a teacher, you know you can change a life in a millisecond — you know you can change people,” said retired teacher Nicholas Harriss outside Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools. “When I come in here, I’m looking for that child that I can help. You see kids that you can’t help because you don’t have time to do it. Kids like to be paid attention to — they need to be given boundaries or guidance. But nobody has the time or resources to do this.”

While former investment banker and current LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner hoards, the community gives.

Across the city, parents and community members brought saucepans full of arroz con leche alongside conchas and coffee. Thanks to the Tacos for Teachers campaign organized by the International Socialist Organization and Democratic Socialists of America, local business Zingo Tacos supplied breakfast and lunch.

“We are here supporting the teachers in their strike, because we know how important education is for our community, for our kids,” explained Jose Maria of Zingo Tacos: “We are here to make sure the teachers get the fair wages and the resources they need. I went to LAUSD all my life — I witnessed the oversized classrooms and saw teachers all the time asking for donations [for school supplies] because what they are making just doesn’t cut it.”

ON DAY two of the strike yesterday, tens of thousands descended upon the California Charter Schools Association downtown in protest of school privatization and Beutner’s proposed “portfolio model”, which is meant to further accelerate the replacement of public schools with charters.

A high school band provided acoustics as red-clad supporters of all ages waved signs reading “The business portfolio is a scam,” “More than praise we need a raise” and “Austin Beutner is the Betsy DeVos of Los Angeles.”

Three optimistic young women wore yellow vests among the sea of red, and a group of school psychologists gathered under the banner “I’d rather be counseling.” One held a sign demanding a 750-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio. Another held a sign stating simply, “I am a school psychologist to 1,515 students!”

Currently, many LAUSD schools have one psychologist and one nurse for well over 1,000 students. “This is why we fight back, mental health is under attack,” rallied the group’s chant leader.

Lisa Hernandez said she chose public schools for all of her kids, not private or charter. “This is my community,” said the mother of four. “I went to public school, and so did my parents.” Behind her, a two-year-old in green rain boots held a sign asking “WFT? Where’re The Funds?”

In a first for California, teachers from the Accelerated Charter schools network joined the strike on Tuesday. This is a major development for charter school union efforts across the country, and it follows the successful strike of Acero Schools teachers in Chicago last month.

Some five miles east, over 100 teachers and parents picketed outside Theodore Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, telling privatizers to take a hike. One young girl smiled and ate a cupcake while walking a picket line in front of her older sister.

“Keep up the fight, we are here to support you,” a student urged the crowd of strikers. “Thank you for helping me, because it’s my education, and it’s your jobs they are trying to mess up.” Another student added, “Keep going, don’t stop ‘til you guys get what you want.”

Words of support and gratitude also came from Minnesota, Spain and Britain.

BACK AT El Sereno Middle School, an assistant professor at Cal State LA declared “full solidarity with UTLA” and said that as a former teacher in the LAUSD, “I understand the difficulty when working in conditions such as those that currently exist in the District: large class sizes, inadequate social-emotional support for students and a lack of resources.”

An El Sereno teacher told Socialist Worker that school administrators on Monday pulled students out of the common area in order to stage a class for the media. While a select few students were paraded around, the majority stayed in the gymnasium. The mock special education class ran counter to the norm.

The teacher, who asked not to be identified, was “livid” upon seeing how students were being used, and many strikers attributed a larger student population on Tuesday to the administration’s deceptive media stunt aimed at parents. In reality, most students have spent the past two days at school staring at their phones as the district scrambles to send in scabs.

At Robert F. Kennedy, strikers faced intimidation and harassment from police who — absurdly — threatened one teacher with loss of collective bargaining rights for stepping into the street. Another witness said the cops seemed “happy to shove around the group of teachers, students, children and community members.”

But the forces in red held strong. A group of four children wore superhero masks and took the bullhorn for much of the morning, leading the entire line in chants in both English and Spanish.

Alongside the children, pickets lines were sprinkled with veterans of the last UTLA strike in 1989, including the Cal State professor, who said that standing with teachers at El Sereno “brought to mind my own experiences during the last teacher strike...The same commitment and passion we exuded then was evident in the teachers participating today.”

“I’ve been hearing since the 1980s when Mr. Reagan was president that teachers are overpaid,” said retired teacher Nicholas Harriss outside Robert F. Kennedy. Smiling, the veteran of almost two decades in the classroom added, “I think we should have been on strike for the last 30 years.”

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