Last spring a teacher uprising swept the red states. Today it reached the West Coast, as the 34,000 members of United Teachers Los Angeles began a long-anticipated strike in the nation’s second-largest school district.
Teachers, parents, students, and community supporters hit the picket lines in their fight against the budget cuts and privatization being pushed by the school board and Superintendent Austin Beutner, a former investment banker.
In November the L.A. Times and Capital & Main leaked the outline of Beutner’s plan to carve up the district into clusters of schools run like competing stock portfolios. Any school judged to be an underperformer would be sold off like a weak stock.
The teachers have a different vision. Instead of this dystopian contest, they want to force the district to put its stockpiled cash into creating the “schools Los Angeles students deserve,” with smaller classes, more nurses, librarians, and counselors, and an end to random police searches of students.
In particular, UTLA wants to abolish Section 1.5, a clause in the existing union contract that allows the district to override class-size limits.
“They’ve been starving the schools slowly but surely over the years,” said Taiesha Fowler, a sixth-grade English teacher at Revere Middle School. “Our state now has a $21 billion surplus and we have 39, 40, and I talked to a teacher the other day that has 50 kids in his AP English class.”
“I have 41 students,” said Michael Schepps, who teaches seventh-grade world history at Revere, “and in two of my classes it prevents me from doing things I want to do, such as group work. I used to do plays in my classroom, with costumes, and because of the numbers, I can no longer do that.”
The union is pushing for more investment in community schools, which remain open beyond the school day as hubs for community activities, and which provide wraparound services to meet the needs of students and their families.
“I would like art and music back in schools,” said Shiraj Bhinderwala, who teaches engineering at Sun Valley Magnet. “Austin Beutner is making a mockery of education.”
In the face of these demands, the district cries poverty—it says it is running a deficit. But that doesn’t appear to be true, since its reserves are growing each year.
Meanwhile the district is losing more than $600 million a year to privately run charter schools that are often “co-located” inside public school buildings. UTLA is calling for meaningful fiscal oversight of how the money that goes to charter schools is spent—and a moratorium on adding any more charters.
Teachers also want to limit the use of standardized testing by allowing educators, except in the case of state or federal requirements, to determine their own assessments for their classrooms.
In a city with a rising cost of living and skyrocketing housing costs, pay is an issue too—though the union has stressed it’s just one among many. The district has offered 3 percent increases for 2017-2018 and 2018-2019, but has made them contingent on the union’s accepting a two-tier health insurance system for future employees.
Ready, set, go
The district has spent the last few weeks in court. It made three different attempts to secure injunctions to stop or slow the strike—and lost on all three, though it did force the union to push the strike date back from January 10 to January 14 to steer clear of a potential injunction on the grounds that UTLA hadn’t given enough notice.
During the two-day delay while the union and district were in court, volunteers and members phone banked and prepared supplies for the picket lines.
My work as a volunteer supporting the strike convinced me that UTLA was strike-ready. Over the past week I’ve made dozens of phone calls to substitute teachers, nurses, counselors, occupational therapists, and art, phys ed, and adult ed teachers who don’t have their own classrooms, all UTLA members.
These itinerant union members are the most difficult for the union to reach, because they move between many schools. But I found that even they were knowledgeable about the demands and ready to walk the line.
In an effort to keep schools open for 600,000 L.A. students, the district has brought in scab substitutes from private contractors.
It has offered current subs more than double their regular wage to work during the strike. But in L.A., the subs are part of the union. When we spoke to these teachers about their plans, almost to a person they said, “I am a teacher. I am standing with teachers.”
A union transformed
UTLA has been building toward this strike for two years, with activities at every school led by the union’s contract action team.
But to get to that point, the union itself first needed to be transformed.
In 2008, a number of young teachers lost their jobs due to district cutbacks, prompting conversations about how to build a more militant union capable of taking on the administration.
Some of the educators who kept their jobs or were eventually rehired joined with veteran teachers to form the Union Power caucus, which won election to lead the union in 2014.
“Before, we may have been more of a service-model union, worried [only] about filing grievances and worried about site-based issues,” said Mark Ramos, a high school history teacher and UTLA board member.
“A push was made to change that, to be a union that fights back and organizes. People have been elected with that mindset, and staff have come on who understand that organizing model.”
When Union Power won office, members were already working under an expired contract. In 2015 the union settled a deal with a 10 percent raise over two years, which included 4 percent retroactive raises.
But to achieve more in the next contract—the one they’re striking over now—the leaders knew they would need to broaden the scope of bargaining, engage more members, and bring the community in.
And they knew they would need to be ready to strike.
One to 10 ratio
The building block that made this possible was the contract action team—union volunteers recruited at each school who took charge of involving educators and the local community in developing contract demands; communicating regularly with co-workers about their top issues; and mobilizing co-workers to participate in actions, such as regional rallies last spring.
“At the ground level, the creation of the CAT teams is really key,” said Gillian Russom, a history teacher at Roosevelt High School and UTLA board member. “The goal was a one-to-10 ratio and enough people on the CAT team to really talk to everybody.”
That ratio—one CAT volunteer for every 10 union members—sounded pie in the sky to some longtime union activists. “At the beginning people didn’t really believe that they could get that many people to step up in their school,” Russom said. “People said it was too much work and would never happen.”
But over time, the union showed it could be done. The CATs established two-way communication between members and union headquarters, and gave the activists plenty of opportunities to help their co-workers connect the dots between UTLA’s contract demands and the privatization agenda.
That organizing is why UTLA achieved a 98 percent strike authorization vote last summer, with 82 percent of members voting.
Contrast the CAT system with the way the union ran previous contract campaigns—involving just one person at each school, the chapter chair. Russom said the old approach made it impossible for the union to reach most members. “Most people never had a conversation about what are we fighting for,” she said.
By last month the union was able to turn out 50,000 people to a huge rally. A week before the strike, a thousand people showed up for a meeting of the chapter chairs.
Brought parents in
Each school’s CAT team includes a parent representative. That has “opened the doors of our schools, brought the community in, and made [our fight] about our students and our community,” said Karla Griego, an English language development teacher.
It’s one move among many that have helped transform the union’s relationship to the community.
“Five years ago, nonprofits were aligned against the unions,” said Russom. “The new leadership changed the narrative by creating coalitions and building relationships with parents and families at the school sites.”
The Union Power educators were active with parent and community coalitions even before they won office.
These groups eventually formed Reclaim Our Schools Los Angeles, an umbrella group that defends public education and is supporting the strike.
In particular, parents and teachers have teamed up to fight charter co-locations—when charter schools are handed space within public school buildings. Community groups have come out of these grassroots fights better organized, with new parent leaders, and with a clearer sense that the fight for public education and against privatization is their fight.
One student, Litzy Bautista, a senior at University High School, made a post on Instagram the night before the strike to raise money for the strikers. She raised $160 from students, parents, and friends to buy donuts and coffee for the picketers, to “thank the teachers for standing up for students, and standing up for better classroom conditions.”
Can’t stop us now
Win or lose, the battle in L.A. will have implications not only for students and teachers here, but also for union members in schools across the country.
UTLA and its community allies have said their goal is “to defend the civic institution of public education” against a school board that is stacked with people who want to privatize public education.
L.A. is the biggest U.S. school district with an elected school board. (The biggest district, New York City, and third-biggest, Chicago, are both governed by mayoral appointees.)
Year after year, its school board elections have broken spending records. Corporate education reformers spent $13 million in the last election, most of it coming from the foundations of the Walton family (the owners of Walmart) and Eli Broad, two of the biggest spenders nationally in support of charter schools, vouchers, and privatization.
That money was enough to win them a majority of the seats on the school board. And after the previous superintendent resigned early last year for health reasons, that majority handpicked a superintendent, Beutner.
Went on offence
Even without the $600 million lost to charter schools every year, the school district is sitting on $1.9 billion in reserves—24 percent of the district’s operating budget, higher than any other large urban district in California.
Yet Beutner claims the district cannot afford raises or smaller class sizes or more counselors. Readers who work in education or the public sector will be familiar with this claim: “the money just isn’t there.”
By refusing to buy into it, and by naming the privatization schemes behind it, L.A. teachers are aiming at the heart of the effort to undermine public education. They are demanding fully-funded public schools.
Rather than retreat or get cautious in the face of corporate attacks, UTLA has gone on offense, providing a model for how to fight back.
While Beutner is talking about what the schools cannot do—and how to make cuts—UTLA is establishing a vision for what L.A.’s public schools could become, and organizing to win that vision.
The magic word
As union activists talked up the relationship between underfunded schools and privatization, Griego said, she has witnessed an amazing change in teacher consciousness.
“Privatization has sparked a lot more motivation for the strike,” said Griego. “Most members say, ‘You know we have to do something about this charter growth.’
“They feel the encroachment of charters. They feel the lack of resources or low enrollment. The members needed to hear that analysis, to have the words to say, ‘This is what it is—privatization.’
“I will have a conversation with a member who believes in what we are doing but is scared. But once you break it down and they see that is about something bigger, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we have to do this.’”
The work that UTLA has done to build toward this strike will be tested in the days ahead.
A win would be a critical pushback against the billionaire union-busting forces who are hellbent on privatizing public education. It would resonate across the country and feed the fire of the teacher insurgency.
One act of collective power feeds the next, as we saw in the red-state rebellion last year. What happens here will matter everywhere else.
“This is the second-largest teachers union, and the privatizers are trying to take us down,” said Ramos. “When we win, it will show everyone that the teachers have power and we are going to keep public education public.”
This piece was first published by Labor Notes