We’re ready for the fight of our lives in LA

January 7, 2019

Los Angeles teachers will be walking the picket line soon if the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) refuses the union’s just demands for schools they and their students deserve. School officials have pulled out all the stops to stop or delay a strike. Their latest move: An appeal to a federal judge to impose an injunction on the ludicrous grounds that the union hasn’t given proper notice of the strike date it set last month.

If a walkout happens, it will be the culmination of years of organizing by rank-and-file educators. Gillian Russom is one of them, a history teacher at Roosevelt High School and member of the United Teachers Los Angeles Board of Directors (UTLA). She wrote about the union’s preparations for the picket line at her school and around the city.

I’VE BEEN a teacher and union activist in Los Angeles for 18 years. For most of that time, I have worked within a progressive caucus (now called Union Power), fighting to transform our union toward an organizing model and a social justice vision.

It feels like our collective efforts are coming to fruition as we prepare for a strike of 34,000 educators in the nation’s second-largest school district — a strike that is framed around the future of public education in our city.

Since we declared our January 10 strike date, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and its lackeys in the media have gone on the attack.

The district has announced the hiring of 400 scabs. The historically anti-union Los Angeles Times — where LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner was formerly publisher and CEO of the paper — published a high-profile op-ed article attacking the union. And the district is seeking an injunction to stop the strike.

Los Angeles teachers march in defense of public education
Los Angeles teachers march in defense of public education (Joe Brusky | MTEA)

But UTLA members are speaking out — and are more united and informed about our struggle than ever.

Rank-and-file UTLA members are getting on radio shows and writing letters to the editor to defend our fight. Through dramatically improved union communications and increased organizing at school sites, we’ve now had over a year and a half to discuss and understand the issues — so we are solidly united and ready for this strike.

AT MY school, like most across LA, we have spent the past three years broadening union leadership at our site by building CATs (Contract Action Teams, a model borrowed from the work of the Chicago Teachers Union).

We have about 90 UTLA members at our school, including counselors, nurses, social workers and our librarian. Under the old model, just one or two chapter chairs would have to find a way to communicate with all those people. Naturally, this didn’t happen.

Now we have a 12-person CAT, in which each of us is responsible for reaching out to seven or eight colleagues, to keep them informed and hear their questions, concerns and ideas.

Back in August and September, we got 100 percent of members at my school to sign a public petition saying they’ll be on the picket line if we strike. As we prepare for January 10, we are connecting with everyone to make sure they are truly ready, and to address any questions they may have.

At our last chapter meeting before the holiday break, we talked about picket line logistics: where we will park, what restrooms we can use, etc.

And we identified different roles to make our picket line successful: leading chants, speaking to the media, providing coffee and snacks, keeping in contact with parent supporters, posting photos on social media, etc.

We know that many of our students depend on the free and reduced-price meals they get at school. So, inspired by what West Virginia teachers did during their strike, we’ll also be setting up food distribution for students who choose not to attend school on strike days. UTLA is providing $300 in seed money to each interested school to help make this happen.

As a union, we’ve also been working with parents in new ways and making parent outreach a regular part of our organizing.

In the fall, we held eight regional parent forums across the city. In my area, the event was standing room only, and after the forum, parents poured out onto César Chávez Avenue, where they held an impromptu rally. We’ve been developing lists of supportive parents who we are now reaching out to about the logistics of a possible strike and how they can support it.

The most active parents are taking leadership in groups like Eastside Padres Contra la Privatización and Reclaim Our Schools LA. They’ve been holding actions to confront politicians and the wealthy who are attacking our schools, and they are reaching out to bring other parents to the picket lines.

Students are organizing, too. The powerful student-led organization Students Deserve has been campaigning for two years to get the district to end the racist “random” searches of students in our schools, and to invest in fully-staffed community schools.

Students recently disrupted a $250-a-plate fundraising dinner in the wealthy Pacific Palisades neighborhood, where Superintendent Beutner was the featured guest. Before school starts, they’re holding a youth leadership institute to discuss their involvement in the strike and plan a student rally.

On the East Side, we’re preparing to hold a “freedom school” event on one of the strike days, where teachers will give lessons on social justice, and young people will participate in music and art activities. We want to use this moment to talk about the kind of liberatory education that our students really need and deserve.

As a socialist, it is so exciting to see the deep and spreading sense of empowerment that a strike can bring. As educators, we have put up with so much disrespect — of our work, our schools, our students and their families. It’s beautiful to see and feel that we aren’t going to take it anymore.

Thirty-four thousand of us understand collectively that we are not only fighting for our own dignity, but we are also on the frontline of a battle for the most critical needs of the oppressed communities where we work. And we know that our unity gives us the power to win.

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