We won a historic victory for LA schools

January 23, 2019

Last night, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) president Alex Caputo-Pearl announced that a “vast supermajority” of union members had voted to approve the settlement reached earlier that day with the Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD) following a dynamic one-week strike that won overwhelming support across the city.

As the vote was being tallied, Gillian Russom, a history teacher at Roosevelt High School and member of the UTLA Board of Directors, gave a presentation to a meeting of the International Socialist Organization about the terms of the deal and why this is a historic victory. This is an edited transcript of her presentation.

WE HAD just an enormous number of demands because we’re been dealing with schools that have been neglected for so long, and because as a democratic union we had a pretty big process for all sorts of constituents to say what they wanted to see in the contract. And on top of that, we’ve had a process of working with the community developing these common good demands.

And so the agreement is complex and there’s a lot there. I think it’s a victory on many levels.

Teachers take the fight to the billionaire class in Los Angeles
Teachers take the fight to the billionaire class in Los Angeles (Joe Brusky | MTEA)

Going back to last Monday, [LAUSD Superintendent] Austin Beutner’s offer was to tie our raise to making it more difficult for new hires to get their lifetime health benefit. That was a condition of giving us a raise. Also last Monday, the only staffing they were offering to our schools was one person per school for one year only. Let’s say your school needed a nurse, a counselor and a librarian: you’d have to choose and that was only funded for one year.

On a whole range of other stuff, they were still maintaining that a huge number of items were “permissive subjects of bargaining” that they did not even have to talk about.

First of all, we got rid of that regressive health care attack, and so we got our raise free and clear. We got a 3 percent raise for the 2017-2018 year and a 6 percent raise retroactive to the beginning of this school year.

There may be folks that wanted to get the 6 percent retroactive all the way for two years. You can think about that, but when Austin Beutner came in, one of his big contentions was that our retiree health benefits were way too expensive. He was looking for any way to chip away at that, and he thought he could two-tier that by tying our raise to reduced lifetime health benefits for new hires. That was a huge goal of his that we were able to defeat.

IN TERMS of class size, in my view from everything I’ve learned in this struggle, it’s hard to overestimate the importance of getting rid of Section 1.5 in our contract, which allowed the district to violate and waive any class-size caps that we ever won.

Keep in mind, the reason class sizes are so high in LA is that California is 43rd in the nation in per-pupil funding coming from the state. We’re going to have to go to the state for more money to get truly reasonable class sizes.

But this contract not only takes away Section 1.5, it reduces class size by one student next year and the following year, by another two students after that, and then beyond that they have to be down to original caps that we negotiated in our contract. For most high school classes, that’s going to be a reduction of seven students over four years. For English and Math in high school, that cap goes down by seven students immediately next year.

Nurses — this might be the biggest victory — they’re committing to hire 150 nurses next year and an additional 150 the following, for a total 300 nurses, which puts a full-time nurse at every school. [The contract also won additional hiring of full-time librarians and counselors, as well as additional staffing to help run newly designated community schools.]

The other thing I want to talk about is the number of items we got wins on that are permissive subjects of bargaining. These are issues that we were able to force victories on, even though they’re technically not legal subjects of bargaining.

One of them is the issue of getting political support behind a cap on charter schools. [The Board of Education agreed in the contract to pass a resolution calling on the state to establish a charter school cap.] We got something on that and they didn’t have to bargain on that at all. Number two: the issue of charter co-locations — we got more power for the union to regulate when a charter comes in.

Testing is another permissive subject of bargaining — the district has the right to determine curriculum and assessments. We created a task force that has to develop a plan to cut assessments in half. This is not just your average bullshit task force that’s like, “Oh we’ll get together and discuss stuff.” They have to put forward a plan for how they’re going to cut testing in half.

Another permissive subject is more power for the Local School Leadership Councils. And Green Space. [The contract creates a join task force of the union, the city and the school district to create greener play areas and build community school parks.]

We won a reduction in the “random” searches — although obviously they should be eliminated. If the district’s admitting they’re racist or don’t work, the answer to that is eliminating them not reducing them. But again, it’s something they moved on that we technically had no bargaining rights over.

Then there’s the immigrant defense fund. Our original demand — again completely outside the box of what a union can usually get — was a $1 million fund. What we got was that the district is hiring a dedicated attorney for immigrant families to receive support. That’s a big expense. I don’t know how far a million dollars would go, but I think it’s tremendous that we won on that.

THE BIGGEST problem today was how truncated the amount of time we had to discuss the contract.

If you combine that with how high people’s spirits, empowerment and expectations are — people were ready to rule the world — it’s natural that there’s a lot of questioning: was this the best we could get? What if we stayed out a few more days?

Class size is a piece where people are dissatisfied because they’re looking at the numbers and we’re coming back from such horrible numbers that it’s frustrating. The caps we have are extraordinarily high, and compared to other places in the country, they’re ridiculously high.

One of the frustrations at my school that I’m hearing from a lot of folks is, “Yeah you’re reducing by seven kids but you’re reducing from 46 kids to 39, which is still bullshit.” That’s totally understandable but one figure to keep in mind is that if you were to reduce one student in every classroom in LAUSD, that’s the equivalent cost of a 5 percent raise. So you’re talking about a very expensive item in terms of hiring new people.

Also, if you can’t enforce it [by getting rid of Section 1.5 which allowed LAUSD to waive caps] it’s meaningless to get lower numbers. So we’ve been doing a dance forever with this union where we try to get lower numbers but we can’t enforce them.

Another piece that came up at my school is that there’s no language around psychiatric social workers, which is a huge need of our students, but apparently nobody had any numbers about how high the caseloads are for our social workers. People also have questions how we’re going to move the charter cap.

I wish we had enough time. There are some issues where I wonder if we could have done better education before the strike. I don’t think it was well understood that when it comes to class size, we were coming back from 46. At my school, I had to be up there for a half-hour answering everybody’s questions — we ended up at with an 83 percent yes vote. One of my close lefty friends, her school voted no. I’ve also heard about a bunch of other schools that are 100 percent yes votes.

I THINK it’s good that people are saying, “We felt powerful, could we have won more?”

We conducted this strike in a very aspirational way. People felt so empowered that, if anything, the discontent [among some members about the contract] is this feeling like, “Shit we were ready to win everything.”

In some ways, this was more of an offensive strike. The direct contract attack that we fought off would have been that regressive health care proposal. That would have been a loss if we accepted two tier health care.

And then, of course, the other threat we’re dealing with is the bigger piece around privatization and the portfolio district. We didn’t kill the portfolio district — again it wasn’t a subject of bargaining. Apparently what happened is that Beutner said this is not a portfolio model, we’re just decentralizing things. So that’s something important to keep in mind, we did not kill that.

But on all of these other issues of learning conditions, you could say this was an offensive strike. We weren’t dealing with the kind of attacks that Rahm Emanuel put on the Chicago teachers in 2012. Instead we were trying to make positive ground on learning conditions that have been like this for a long, long time.

So it does make it a different thing to gauge what does a victory look like when you’re on the offense in a new way. My measuring stick is getting rid of Section 1.5, the number of people we got hired as far as support staff in schools and the number of permissive subjects that we forced them to address — including straight-up social justice demands.

Further Reading

From the archives