Five days that stunned LA’s billionaires

January 22, 2019

Melissa Rakestraw and Elizabeth Lalasz report from Los Angeles on the inspiring first week of the teachers’ strike that shook the city — and how the stage has been set for another week of struggle. With additional reporting from high school history teacher Gillian Russom, a member of the UTLA board of directors.

AFTER FIVE days of picketing, striking members of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) have shown their bosses and the city of Los Angeles that they won’t back down from a fight for the schools their students deserve — and they’ve won the hearts and minds of a majority of Angelenos to their side.

Preliminary results of an ongoing Loyola Marymount University survey found that an astounding 82 percent of LA County families support the teachers against Superintendent Austin Beutner and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

Combined with the union’s massive downtown rallies and energetic pickets across the city, polls like this have put enormous pressure on Beutner, who has reportedly begun serious negotiations with UTLA after spending the first few days of the strike refusing to bargain in good faith.

Whether this leads to a deal in the coming days remains to be seen, but as the strike enters its second week today, the union is confident that teachers are ready to step up the fight. At a massive 60,000-strong rally last Friday in front of City Hall that was the culmination of the strike’s first week, UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl electrified the crowd with a militant speech harkening back to the 1930s era of mass labor struggles.

Striking teachers rally in front of City Hall in Los Angeles
Striking teachers rally in front of City Hall in Los Angeles (Joe Brusky | MTEA)

“The last five days of striking have stunned our naysayers,” he said. “If you’re a boxer, do you know what you do with a stunned opponent?” he asked, before answering his own question: “You double-down and keep on punching!”

Caputo-Pearl emphasized that power lies in the hands of the rank-and-file teachers, that their militancy matters at the bargaining table, and that they are leading a struggle for all of public education. And he pulled no punches about the Democratic Party and its role in the privatization of Los Angeles schools by underfunding them in “the bluests of the blue states.”

The crowd responded with repeated chants that promise a lot for the future of this epic labor showdown: “Lines stronger next week.”

THE STRIKE began on Monday, January 14, with UTLA educators starting their twice-a-day picketing routine — once before school started and later right before students were let out — in a relentless rain.

The energetic and creative pickets won the support by both students and parents. Confidence on the lines grew throughout the week. At Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, east of downtown, teachers delayed scab educators and other school personnel, including ancillary staff, from crossing their picket lines.

A sympathy action by members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99, which represents support staff, began at 10 schools on January 14 and grew through the week. Today, SEIU members at 24 more schools are joining the walkout.

Solidarity from working class communities could be seen everywhere. Members of other unions — including Teamsters with UPS, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, college faculty and teachers from other districts — joined the UTLA picket lines, bringing tamales, donuts and coffee, and donating rain ponchos for the wet days.

The “Tacos for Teachers” national solidarity effort organized by the International Socialist Organization, Democratic Socialists of America, Social Equity Educators and California Educators Rising has currently raised over $40,000 to supply LA teachers on multiple picket lines with delicious tacos.

Morning picket lines have been followed by daily rallies at locations throughout the city. The UTLA has organized these mobilizations to pressure different forces in Los Angeles that have been central to the corporatization of public education.

On the first day of the strike, teachers and their supporters marched from Grand Park in front of City Hall to the LAUSD headquarters. The next day, it was the offices of the California Charter School Association. One in five students in Los Angeles attends a charter school, and one of UTLA’s key demands is a cap on charter school expansion.

Both these rallies attracted around 60,000 people — nearly twice the UTLA’s membership — and took over huge sections of downtown.

Tuesday also saw the second charter school strike in the country kick off at Accelerated Schools, which serves 1,700 students at three schools. Along with the victorious strike at the Acero charter network in Chicago last month, this points to a welcome trend of charter educators not only unionizing, but going on strike.

On Wednesday, there were spirited rallies at seven regional LAUSD offices. At LAUSD East, a raucous crowd defied heavy rains to fill the street, dancing and chanting as they shut down a major thoroughfare.

PRESSURE INCREASED on the district on Wednesday afternoon when the head of the LAUSD principals union pleaded with the district to close the schools based on safety and campus conditions.

“It is the members who have more than once said, ‘This is untenable, this is dire, I’m afraid for my health and safety, I’m afraid I’m not going to go home to my family, and the schools need to shut down,” Juan Flecha, head of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, told an interviewer.

The plea was ignored. LAUSD issued a statement the next day it wouldn’t close schools, complaining that if it did so, it would lose even more state funding. With student attendance remaining at a fraction of a typical day, the Los Angeles Times reported that school officials are estimating “net losses [per] day in terms of funding based on student attendance at $18.1 million.”

With no teachers in the schools, the situation for students who do attend is stark. “Inside campuses,” the Times reported, “skeleton crews of supervisors, subs and remaining workers have herded students into large spaces, showing movies and plugging students into online coursework. About two-thirds did not show up, even though many working parents depend on schools to provide childcare and even meals.”

The first three days of the strike put pressure on the district to return to the bargaining table on Thursday for negotiations mediated by Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office. But with more stormy skies still overhead, teachers were back in force on the picket lines.

Some schools formed blocks-long human chains between buildings to demonstrate their collective resolve. They were met by almost constant honking from drivers showing their support.

The first week culminated on Friday, the first sunny day of the week, with an explosive 60,000-person mass rally, again at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles. A sea of red engulfed the streets in front of City Hall, where negotiations were taking place.

The creativity of LA teachers was on full display, proving Alex Caputo-Pearl’s point when he spoke: “Teachers make the best homemade signs!”

BECAUSE OF decades of neglect in LA schools, UTLA has a long list of critical demands to address in bargaining. This isn’t just a defensive strike against the privatization threat, but also an offensive action to improve school conditions, which will in turn help bring back enrollment to the district.

UTLA is demanding that LAUSD tap substantially into its $1.8 billion in unrestricted reserves and also to plan for an expected $140 million in increased education funding just promised by the incoming state governor.

At the top of the list is eliminating section 1.5 of the contract, which allows the district to waive any class size limits if they deem there to be a “fiscal emergency.” Equally crucial is the demand for more nurses, counselors, social workers and librarians.

Other essential demands include:

More support for special education, early education, bilingual education and adult education

End the toxic overtesting of our students

Empower parent and educator voices at school sites through stronger Local School Leadership Councils

Address the charter industry drain that siphons more than $600 million from our schools every year.

Back in September 2017, UTLA added a set of “community demands,” using the strategy of “bargaining for the common good” to leverage union power to get improvements on broader issues affecting school communities.

Among these demands are green space at every school; ending the racist “random searches” that feed the school-to-prison pipeline; creating an “Immigrant Family Legal Defense Fund”; expanding early childhood education; and using unused district property to create affordable housing.

The district has refused to address most of these proposals by labeling them “outside the scope of bargaining,” but UTLA is hoping the power generated by the strike will create the political will to address some of them.

In fact, if Mayor Garcetti wants to help end the strike, he could use the power of his office to address many of these demands. For example, his own District Attorney issued a statement condemning the “random searches” as ineffective and humiliating for students — Garcetti should call an immediate halt to the policy.

THE REALITY is that the teachers have won a lot already, even as their strike continues. For example, the strike pressured Los Angeles County supervisors to find $10 million to fund mental health counselors for the public schools, a significant win.

This is shown in their incredible power of collective mass action to stop teaching through their strike and to paralyze the second largest school district in the country.

Beutner and the LAUSD’s arrogant strategy of claiming “poverty” has begun to backfire, as the Los Angeles Times reported:

[T[he images of teachers marching in the rain, often cheered by parents and students, have amounted to powerful politics in this blue state, and have weakened the district’s hand. The teachers have told personal stories that many find hard to argue with: that too many students shouldn’t be crowded into classes, that schools should have nurses on hand every day. And that has up to now trumped Beutner’s grim financial diagnosis.

There is a growing confidence among teachers after just one week. The last time that UTLA went on strike was in 1989, and there are some veterans of that walkout 30 years ago still in the union.

But the determination of teachers spans generations. Asked how long they will be out on strike, the teachers have a common reply: “As long as it takes.” That echoes the sentiment of other educators’ strikes, from the Chicago Teachers Union victory in 2012 to the “red state” rebellion of teachers last spring.

With Los Angeles being the center of the world entertainment industry, plenty of stars have come out to show support at the picket lines. But even more compelling is the depth of public support across the city, particularly in underserved and struggling communities that know how hard teachers work for their children.

The vast majority of LAUSD students come from Latinx families, and the district has made blatant attempts to drive a wedge between teachers and these families.

School officials told the Spanish language TV station Univision that students who didn’t attend school during the strike could have it counted against their attendance and be considered truant after three consecutive missed days. UTLA immediately let it be known that this was false and that the union would fight any attempt by the district to punish students who support their teachers.

Despite the dirty tricks to undercut community support, parents have been vocal supporters on picket lines and at rallies. Many talk of having attended the same schools — and how the educators’ fight is a fight for social justice to preserve a key thread in the fabric of their communities.

This community support crosses racial lines, tapping the potential for building a multiracial working class movement that connects struggles for racial and economic justice.

Students, too, have proven which side they’re on, both before and during the strike, protesting at the homes of LAUSD board members, for example.

One moving show of solidarity came from Aryana Fields, a fifth grader at Playa del Rey Elementary School, who performed “Strike Song” on video to support the teachers. She sings:

Everything that’s done by my teachers daily
I will scream them out today...
I know this is exactly what I need.

The UTLA strike is the next step in the struggle for public education in this country, and the whole world is watching what happens now that the red state teachers’ strike wave is sweeping through a blue state. As Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch wrote:

It might sound clichéd, but LA’s teachers truly seem to striking less for themselves and more for the kids — much like the “red wave” of educator walkouts that during 2018 shocked “red states” like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona where Republican lawmakers had been starving public schools for years.

What happens next will impact struggles for schools in every state, whether the Democrats or Republicans are in charge. But the LA teachers have already taught us another lesson about the incredible ability of working people to learn from each others’ struggles — and take power into their own hands to win what we all deserve.

Further Reading

From the archives