LA teachers are ready to walk

September 26, 2018

Danny Katch reports on a showdown with a union-busting administration in LA that could bring the Democratic Party into the crosshairs of the educators’ rebellion.

EDUCATORS IN United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) voted overwhelmingly in late August to authorize a strike in a vote in which an impressive 83 percent of members cast a ballot.

Now a showdown looms in the coming months between a fired-up union and a labor-hating school superintendent — a showdown that could add important new dimensions to the wave of educators’ strikes that began last spring in West Virginia.

If LA teachers do walk off the job, it will build on the strikes this fall in Washington state to show that the miserable conditions facing teachers and public schools aren’t confined to Southern states run by Republicans, but exist in some of the richest and most Democratic states in the country.

A teachers’ strike would also shine a national spotlight on the network of militants who have won leadership in the UTLA; increase pressure on other “blue state” union leaders to use their resources and legal protections join the rebellion started in states dominated by anti-union Republicans; and expose the ways that even supposedly pro-labor laws are used to keep workers from using their power to strike.

Los Angeles teachers rally for a fair contract
Los Angeles teachers rally for a fair contract (UTLA | Facebook)

Finally, a UTLA strike would show — just as the 2012 Chicago teachers strike did — the importance of “bargaining for the common good” by taking up issues of racial justice and other community concerns, and linking those to issues of teacher pay, in order to build effective resistance to the divide-and-conquer tactics of those trying to destroy public education.

CALIFORNIA — THE home of the most billionaires in the country, as well as mega-corporations like Apple, Chevron and Disney — also has the nation’s highest poverty rate when cost-of-living is factored in, and ranks 43rd out of the 50 states in per-pupil funding.

More than 80 percent of students in the Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD) live at or below the poverty level. The town that gives us #OscarsSoWhite has a public school system with 90 percent students of color and class sizes “limits” that can reach 46 for many high school classes.

“My classroom is so crowded with student desks that my students and I sometimes can’t get from one side of the room to the other unless we walk outside and enter through the other door,” UTLA activist Gillian Russom wrote in an article for Socialist Worker earlier this year.

“I teach at a large high school with a sprawling campus which once had 18 custodians to clean it in the evening,” Russom continued. “Now we have just three.”

On paper, California teachers’ pay ranks the fourth-highest in the country. But that doesn’t account for housing costs that are over three times the national average in Los Angeles. Many education workers in LA can’t afford to live anywhere near their jobs and spend hours each way commuting to work.

Rather than trying to address the impoverishment of city schools, local Democrats and their billionaire “education philanthropist” pals have sought to use it as an excuse to privatize the education system via charter schools.

Last year, Eli Broad, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, and two Walton family heirs spent $13 million to get more charter school advocates on the LA school board — which then appointed new superintendent Austin Beutner, an investment banker with no education experience.

At a July UTLA leadership conference, union president Alex Caputo-Pearl warned members about the new superintendent:

As a corporate consultant, Beutner’s role was to wind down businesses, to consolidate, cut, sell off, whipsaw and profit. In the same way that Betsy DeVos and Scott Pruitt attacked the very institutions they were appointed to lead, Austin Beutner was brought in to attack our public schools...They want to end public education as we know it.

Sure enough, Beutner’s first act was to commission a report titled “Hard Choices” that used deceptive methodologies to argue that the city’s teachers and schools in fact receive too much money, and that some class sizes are too small.

Meanwhile, the LAUSD is sitting on reserve funds of $1.8 billion — more than 25 times what is required by state law — even as it claims not to have the money for teachers and schools.

THE UTLA has spent years preparing itself for this fight. The union’s strength has been forged out of a decade-long effort by radical and progressive teacher activists who created the Union Power Caucus with a vision of building a more democratic union with a social justice mission.

In 2013, they won leadership of the union and, inspired by the work done by the Chicago Teachers Union to prepare for its successful 2012 strike, implemented a program of increased member outreach, tools for chapter chairs to involve more members in union efforts and strengthening connections to parents and community allies.

These efforts paid off in 2015 with a contract campaign that won important gains, including a 10.4 percent raise over two years, stronger protections against administrative abuse, and new guidelines on class sizes and counselor ratios.

After this success, UTLA leaders launched an internal organizing drive to win a 30 percent dues increase.

“We were truthful and direct with our members,” explained UTLA Secretary Arlene Inouye in a recent interview with Jacobin’s Eric Blanc. “We said that these resources were needed to defeat the huge political threats against public education in LA. Eighty-two percent voted in favor — that was the real turning point in the internal union dynamic.”

Now the UTLA is not only resisting the school board’s proposed attacks, but boldly demanding an agenda for what it calls “Schools LA students deserve.” As a union press release put it:

While LAUSD would like to constrict contract talks to pay and a few narrow issues, educators have been fighting for a righteous set of proposals that are urgently needed for the district to survive and thrive, including lower class sizes, fair pay, less testing and more teaching, accountability for charter operators and co-locations, respect for early and adult educators, and more nurses, counselors and librarians to support our students.

As Inouye adds:

We’ve also raised broader “common good” demands, such as the establishment of a teacher training program; more green space in schools; an end to the discriminatory security wanding of students, which made students of color feel criminalized; housing possibilities in LAUSD; free bus passes for LA students; and the establishment of an immigrant defense fund to pay for undocumented parents’ legal costs.

When the teachers’ strikes broke out last spring, spreading from West Virginia to Arizona, some union leaders like American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten praised them, but claimed they weren’t necessary in places like New York and California, thanks to more union-friendly politicians.

The UTLA has taken the opposite approach in this year’s contract campaign, pointing to the strikes as an inspiration and model for what was necessary in Los Angeles, and inviting teachers from the Arizona and Puerto Rico strikes to talk to members at rallies and conferences.

It’s a message that has galvanized members in the union. “In the course of the strike vote, over 1,000 people who weren’t yet members joined UTLA in order to vote,” says Russom. “That means that post-Janus, the union is at 96 percent, our highest ever.”

UTLA MEMBERS are ready to fight for Los Angeles public schools, but unlike many of the educator walkouts that took place in anti-union “right to work” states, they find themselves ensnared in a legal process that determines when they can lawfully strike.

Although the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) certified in early August that negotiations were at an impasse, the school district is trying to drag out the process into the winter holidays or even beyond — and to this point, the PERB has allowed these obvious bad-faith stalling tactics.

Not surprisingly, Beutner and Broad-funded anti-union groups like Great Public Schools Now are trying to turn the public against teachers with tired argument about how teacher strikes “hurt the children.”

Then there’s the question of how city and state Democrats will attempt to head off an election-season strike that could expose their responsibility for the conditions of Los Angeles schools and cast a spotlight on their close ties to union-busting billionaires.

Mayor Eric Garcetti has already offered to broker a deal, and UTLA has respectfully declined his offer, saying he should instead push the district to stop stalling.

It remains to be seen if Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who the UTLA has unfortunately endorsed for governor despite his acceptance of funding from the California Charter Schools Association, will attempt to use his influence in the union to try to intervene.

But teachers are determined that it’s going to take a strike to win what they and their students deserve, and they’re using the extra time to build community support.

UTLA members are working with the Reclaim Our Schools coalition of community groups to hold forums throughout the city and protesting Beutner’s attempts to denigrate them, including a recent “invite only” meeting that the superintendent held in the library of Robert F. Kennedy school — where he kicked out the school librarian!

The union has also produced thousands of window signs with the message “We stand with LA Teachers/Estamos con los Maestros de Los Angeles” which members are asking parents and community businesses to place in their windows.

Socialists and supporters of public education around the country should follow the UTLA in the coming months, both to support their fight and to learn how we can expand the “red state” teachers’ rebellion to all 50 states.

Further Reading

From the archives