A strike for our schools

May 6, 2009

David Rapkin, a member of the board of directors of United Teachers Los Angeles, explains what's at stake in LA teachers' fight against budget cuts.

LOS ANGELES teachers and health and human service workers are preparing to go on a one-day May 15 strike to protest layoffs and class size increases.

"We've tried to reason with the school district," said Mat Taylor, South Area chair of United Teachers Los Angeles. "They want us to raise scores and 'improve instruction,' but they turn around and fire the new teachers. Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) pretends to care about our kids, but all they think about is cutting the budget and blaming us."

After weeks of organizing for a vote authorizing the one-day strike, UTLA members voted 74 percent "yes" to walk out. The turnout was historic: Almost 27,000 members, most of the eligible voters, participated in the election, a first for the union.

Even many of those who voted "no" expressed their willingness to strike if that was the will of the majority. In many schools, teachers who met and debated the issues found that "no" sentiment turned into "yes" once everyone clearly understood the fight.

UTLA members rally in April 2009 against budget cuts and layoffs
UTLA members rally in April 2009 against budget cuts and layoffs (David Rapkin | SW)

Almost 4,000 teachers' jobs remain on the chopping block. These "RIFed" teachers--victims of LAUSD's "reduction in force"--are concentrated in the city's poorest areas, at schools that serve communities of color. The jobs of several thousand more "classified" workers--the district's term for employees such as secretaries and custodians--are also threatened.

"This fight isn't just about saving jobs," said C.C. Love, a RIFed English teacher at Youth Opportunities Unlimited Alternative High School. "It's a civil rights issue. Young teachers, many of them Black and brown, serving Black and Latino communities, are being fired. Class sizes are being increased. The promise of an equal education for all children is being shamelessly violated."

SUPERINTENDENT RAMON Cortines insists that the money isn't there to save jobs. When UTLA officials pointed out that $1 billion in LAUSD funds could be used to avert the layoffs, Cortines abruptly dismissed that proposal. "There is no billion dollars," he taunted at a recent school board meeting.

Yet within several weeks of making that statement, Cortines was forced to admit that there was a billion dollars in the pipeline. In a bulletin sent to all teachers, the superintendent wrote that "it is estimated that President Obama's administration will grant LAUSD about $1 billion in federal stimulus dollars as one-time funding."

LAUSD bureaucrats now know that they will be receiving more than enough money to rescind all the layoffs and maintain class size rather than raising it. But Cortines refuses to budge. His excuse: "We have a giant deficit to fill."

Cortines' rationale for laying off thousands of teachers left RIFed middle school teacher Joseph Zeccola unmoved. "President Obama passed a stimulus bill to keep us in our jobs, paying taxes and buying things to stimulate the economy," Zeccola said. "That's the purpose of a stimulus bill. The president wants us to use this money now to save jobs, not as spackle to cover holes in the budget created by the district's wasteful spending in the past."

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That wasteful spending continues unabated. LAUSD still holds useless trainings at posh hotels, spends millions on unnecessary tests assessments, maintains an archipelago of wasteful "local districts," and pays consultants millions of dollars to perform duties that never affect a single classroom. The district also stacks schools with negligent and petty middle managers and spends money to decorate its 25th floor downtown offices.

A first-year RIFed teacher at Manual Arts High School said that the district's policies "are effectively saying we want fewer students to be equipped to graduate. Education is being cut; health care is being cut; social services are being cut," she said. "We need to see how the threads tie together."

As Julie Washington, the UTLA's elementary vice president, put it, "They're actually deciding to widen the achievement gap."

What's more, recent studies--and common sense--show that LAUSD will need many more teachers over the next several years. Thousands of current baby-boomer teachers are on the verge of retirement. Superintendent Cortines' "fiscal conservatism" looks like wasteful stupidity when you consider that the district will need to turn around and hire and invest in new teachers right after they get through firing thousands of them.

HOWEVER, THE strike vote is already having the desired effect. School board members who betrayed teachers and students by voting for the budget that included the layoffs and class size increases are reconsidering their position, thanks to tremendous pressure from teachers and the community.

In the last six weeks, there have been approximately 20 parent-community forums around Los Angeles, organized locally by teachers, students and parents, many of whom are brand new to activism.

In addition, countless local actions, from protests and rallies to student walkouts, press conferences, classroom door decorating campaigns and more, have cropped up. This has created a powerful groundswell of fightback that has pressured UTLA leaders and helped bring the union to life.

Max Castillo Sanchez, a second-year RIFed social studies teacher at the Academic Leadership Community, said that he's watched his students come alive in the face of the attacks on their teachers.

"Students that used to give me a hard time are passing out pink cards depicting LAUSD as a pig," he said. "They're pinning them to their backpacks. They want to do something. Who wouldn't want to fight for students like that?"

One particularly memorable action Sanchez helped organize was the April 23 town hall panel at the Edward Roybal Learning Center, featuring LA school board president Monica Garcia. Five hundred angry teachers, students and parents relentlessly confronted Garcia, a supposed champion of the Latino community, for voting to fire teachers and throw schools into chaos.

Chants filled the auditorium as the crowd warmed up: "Monica Garcia. No es mi amiga!" "Change your vote! Change your vote!" people roared.

When she tried to defend herself, students hooted and booed. When Jackie, a particularly fearless high school student reached the mic, she reminded everyone that Garcia claimed to be a friend of the community. Then she turned to Garcia and said: "You're a big liar!" The crowd erupted.

A week later, a rally organized by the teachers, students and parents at Liechty Middle School drew 350 outside a school board meeting. There, kids and parents surrounded Garcia and sang, "Give yourself a pink slip" over and over until she slunk away.

Cortines, for his part, is reportedly unmoved. In response to our strike threat, he stated:

Our students need their teachers. They need them in class every day teaching them to read, write, think and speak. We need our teachers there to ensure vital instruction is occurring, schools are safe, and advanced placement and state testing goes on as planned.

It is irresponsible for the UTLA leadership to push this work stoppage action that violates the law and the union contract. We value our teachers and expect them to carry out their teaching responsibilities every single day, including Friday, May 15.

The man responsible for laying off 4,000 teachers when Obama has given him the money to save every job reminds us that "our students need our teachers." "Hypocrisy" doesn't even begin to describe Cortines' stance.

In fact, UTLA is fighting precisely because our students need our teachers--which is why they shouldn't be laid off. Our one-day strike is meant to defend our schools, to save every job, and to call out the district for its racist and indefensible budget cuts.

And as the teacher from Manual Arts told me, "Our strike will also challenge our own sense of powerlessness." We are fighting for ourselves as well as our students, he said, adding, "we should have direct, democratic control over everything that happens in our lives."

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