Last spring a teacher uprising swept the red states. On January 14, 2019, 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 that the school board and Superintendent Austin Beutner, a former investment banker, were pushing.
In November 2018, 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 wanted 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, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) wanted 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 thirty-nine, forty, and I talked to a teacher the other day that has fifty kids in his AP English class.” “I have forty-one 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 pushed for more investment in community schools, which remain open beyond the school day as hubs for community activities, and 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 cried poverty—it said it was running a deficit. But that does not 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 called 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 wanted 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 was an issue too—though the union stressed it is just one among many. The district offered 3 percent increases for the 2017–2018 and 2018–2019 school years, but made them contingent on the union’s acceptance of a two-tier health insurance system for future employees.
Ready, Set, Go
The district spent the last few weeks prior to January 14, 2019 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 had not 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. Between January 7 and January 14, I made dozens of phone calls to substitute teachers, nurses, counselors, occupational therapists, and art, physical education, and adult education teachers who do not have their own classrooms, but were 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 brought in scab substitutes from private contractors. It offered current substitute teachers more than double their regular wage to work during the strike. But in L.A., the substitute teachers 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 had been building toward this strike for two years, utilizing 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 were 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 Ten Ratio
The building block that made this possible was the Contract Action Team (CAT)—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-ten ratio and enough people on the CAT team to really talk to everybody.” That ratio—one CAT volunteer for every ten 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 CAT teams 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 81 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.” On December 15, 2018, the union was able to turn out 50,000 people to a huge rally. A week before the strike, 1,000 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 is 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.
Can’t Stop Us Now
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 overall 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 $15 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 Offense
Even without the $600 million lost to charter schools every year, the school district is sitting on $1.9 billion in reserves—26.5 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 aimed at the heart of the effort to undermine public education. They demanded fully funded public schools. Rather than retreat or get cautious in the face of corporate attacks, UTLA went on offense, providing a model for how to fight back. While Beutner talked about what the schools could not do—and how to make cuts—UTLA was establishing a vision for what L.A.’s public schools could become, and organized 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. 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.”
After six days on strike, the union announced a tentative agreement—and big win for the UTLA and the student of Los Angeles. They forced Superintendent Austin Beutner, a former investment banker, to accept concessions even on topics he had previously refused even to bargain over. L.A. will reinstate limits on class size—and for most classes, reduce those limits by four students by 2022. Despite a pro-charter school board majority, the nation’s second-largest school district agreed to move a board resolution to support a statewide moratorium on new charter schools. It will hire more nurses, librarians, and counselors, reduce standardized testing and random police searches of students, create an immigrant defense fund, and hand budget control of 30 schools over to local communities.
Teachers were weeping at the mass rally outside City Hall January 22 as United Teachers Los Angeles Secretary and Bargaining Chair Arlene Inouye reviewed the high points of the tentative agreement. President Alex Caputo-Pearl told the crowd that this strike was “one of the most magnificent demonstrations of collective action that the United States has seen in decades.” "We did not win because of a single leader," he said. "We did not win because of a small group of leaders. We won because you—at 900 schools across the entire city, with parents, with students, with community organizations—you walked the line.”
The success of the strike carried into the next school board election when UTLA endorsed candidate Jackie Goldberg won, flipping the school board to a majority of public school supporters. Just a few months later the school board voted 4-3 to end random wanding of students, a demand that had been partially met in the agreement.
The work that UTLA did to build toward this strike resulted in a critical pushback against the billionaire union-busting forces who are hellbent on privatizing public education. It resonated across the country and fed 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 happened 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.”
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