We’ll Walk the Line: A Teacher’s Reflections on the 2019 UTLA Strike

I. Faith

Teaching is faith-based work.  While many educators (including myself) are not religious, teaching requires that we set aside our fears and pour all of our effort into the present moment, believing that our work will someday result in a more compassionate, educated, and courageous generation.  There is no reason to b0elieve this is true.  And yet, despite persistently low test scores, vanishing funding, and chronic stress and fatigue, we continue to show up for a purpose that feels larger than ourselves or our classrooms.

We teach because we believe in our students and our mission, not because we have evidence, data, or incentives.  We look to heroes like Gregory Boyle, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Paulo Freire, and are consistently frustrated by the pressure to quantify what for many teachers, is unquantifiable.  Our work is guided by our faith in education, social justice, and collective responsibility.

A labor strike is similarly a faith-based endeavor.  There is no guarantee it will work.  If anything, the possibility of failure looms and grows with the impending possibility of not showing up to work.  Teachers are asked, by their union and by one another, to take yet another risk in their daily lives—giving up pay, benefits, relationships with supervisors and communities, and time with students—to put their faith in something larger than themselves.  We battle familiar doubts about whether our sacrifices will produce positive results.  We battle internal feelings of cynicism developed from years of experiencing disappointment.  We even battle our families and peers, who may not share our views of teaching, labor organizing, or union activity.  We battle all of this to show up on the streets and in front of City Hall.  We do so knowing the odds are against us—that the media has more reasons to target us, politicians have more reasons to blame us, and our communities have more reason to doubt us. We show up anyway.

Our faith makes teachers the ideal candidates for labor movements.  We possess the critical consciousness to ask questions of leadership and evaluate risk.  We possess the knowledge of history to apply to our current situations.  We possess the ability to build and sustain relationships that endure difficult situations.  And we believe that people working together can achieve something greater than our individual actions.  Despite our knowledge that we are “failing,” we keep showing up.

II. Gratitude

As a millennial, I grew up being told I would be fortunate to find any job in the faltering economy. I was told teaching high school English would be a competitive position to land—the charter movement had yet to gain full steam, and teaching positions in the humanities were difficult to come by.  The recession was in full swing during my college years, and many of my peers gave up on finding a sustainable job.  They let go of pursuing their passions in favor of something more “employable,” and resigned themselves to only someday, maybe, owning a home and raising a family.

We watched unions buckle under the Janus decision[1]and witnessed the gig economy replace dependable positions.  My friends work as Uber drivers, Rover sitters, TaskRabbits, and GrubHubbers.  Most have two jobs and a side hustle, using social media to sell health products, skincare, make up, weight loss aids, or clothing.  As we scramble to make rent in a city where rents are ever-rising, our ignorance of labor history and union organizing is taken advantage of by non-profits, tech companies, and start-ups. We struggle without any knowledge of an alternative.

Despite this context, I entered the 2019 United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) strike from a place of deep conviction and gratitude.  My family is a union family—my paternal great-grandfather was attacked for organizing at the Detroit Ford Rouge Plant in the 1930s, and my maternal grandmother served as her school’s union representative in West Oakland in the 1960s and 1970s.  My parents sang “Which Side Are You On?” to me as a child, and I knew from childhood that a scab could be something much worse than a wound healed over.  I am descended from organizers, activists, and rabble-rousers.

So striking for me was never a question, for which I am deeply indebted to my family.  When rumors of a strike began to solidify as fact, my mother wrote me a check for $1,200; Memo: Strike Fund!  My father showed up in solidarity lines at his workplace, holding UTLA signs, and wore red every day before and during the strike.  My grandparents, in-laws, and friends sent their support via text message, email, and Venmo.  When I stepped into the picket line on Day 1, I knew I represented more than myself—I represented the love of my family, my community, and my ancestors.  Not everyone is so lucky to have this support.

In addition to my parents and family history, I was also grateful to have the backing of a community that defies the increasing disdain towards organized labor.  San Pedro, a community built around the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach, remains union strong in an era where unions are quickly losing their power.  International Longshore and Warehouse Union signs are present in the windows of local businesses, and the community of San Pedro High School is sustained by alumni and working-class, union-friendly families.

Our teachers represent generations of San Pedro graduates, and there is little turnover among the staff.  We have teachers on our faculty who struck in 1989, and we were able to host multiple retirees who struck in 1970 as well.  They came to San Pedro High School to share their stories and walk the line with us.  Every morning, parents and business owners rolled up to the picket line with gallons of coffee, hot donuts and pastries, fruit and granola bars, and bottled water.  We had no teachers show up to work on our campus.  We had minimal student attendance, and our administration did not bully, intimidate, or threaten us in our actions.  We had very few substitutes attempt to cross the line.  And local law enforcement made it clear that they were there to ensure safety and personally supported our cause.

I feel very grateful to have struck in San Pedro, and the lessons I learned about community and solidarity are lifelong.  Every time I was tired or frustrated, I reminded myself that I am fortunate to have been able to walk an actual picket line in 2019, as unions are struggling for survival and our labor is increasingly being exploited.  I have never had a genuine opportunity to make a real sacrifice for something I believed in—to give up more than a $25 donation or a Saturday afternoon.  I have never been so proud to be a teacher, an activist, or an Angeleno.  I have never been so sure of who I am or what I believe, and I was able to prove my faith and convictions of that for a period of 9 days alongside dedicated, funny, compassionate individuals.

As teachers, we know the impact of our emotions and energy on our work.  We knew we would not be successful unless we could secure community support, stay positive, and keep one another’s spirits up.  We showed up strong on the first day, with smiles, ponchos, and boxes of donuts.  While we worked out the kinks in our picket lines (moving too slowly or too quickly, or not maintaining a strong and consistent barrier), adrenaline kept us warm.  As the first car with a substitute approached the line, the intensity of the situation heightened.  Our union representative yelled, “Keep moving!” and we stepped in front of the car, daring the substitute to decide whether to keep the car moving forward or shift to reverse.  After a few tense moments, the car pulled back and away from the parking lot, prompting cheers and fist pumps.  That was our first and last confrontation with a substitute.

The first day’s rally was similarly filled with the energy of a group ready for a fight.  The trains were packed with teachers in red, swaddled in ponchos, with laminated signs and noisemakers.  We gave each other directions and traded stories about encounters with substitutes and administrators.  As we disembarked from the Metro in front of City Hall, the station echoed with whistles and chants.  Our march to Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) headquarters, known by teachers simply as “Beaudry,” was lively and impassioned.  The rain served to fortify our resolve.  We made comments about our daily commitments as educators and our strength in the face of adversity.  We bumped and dodged umbrellas, pushing through downtown Los Angeles in wet socks and high spirits.  As we dispersed after rallying in front of Beaudry, social media was already buzzing with photos and headlines, encouraging us to change our socks and return to the picket line for the afternoon shift.

As the days went on, energy continued to build.  Changing the locations of the lunchtime rallies helped relieve the monotony of marching.  Even in moments of doubt or skepticism, there was humor.  We exchanged wry smiles and sarcastic comments to relieve the pressure and stress of each passing day.  Facebook groups and articles and videos shared on social media helped us know we were part of a larger fight, and we bristled with every insinuation that our strike was ill-planned, ill-timed, or ill-informed.  We shook our heads when we heard about someone crossing the picket line (which did not happen at my school site) or a nasty confrontation with a substitute or administrator.  Our indignation grew with every passing day, overshadowing our doubts that this strike would continue to drag on without end, or worse, would end badly for our union and our fight.

We formed carpools and new friendships and found time to grab lunch together and share personal stories.  A veteran teacher mentioned that in three decades of teaching at San Pedro High School, she has never seen or experienced such positive relationships and culture among the staff, as new teachers walked with teachers nearing retirement, and science and math teachers walked alongside humanities teachers.  Divisions and rivalries (magnet vs. non-magnet or Olguin campus vs. Flagship campus) ceased to hold weight on the picket line. We were just showing up for a single common purpose—to secure better conditions for our schools, our students, and one another.  Like we do in our daily work, we pushed past our personal fears, concerns, and emotions to show up for others.

The Tuesday of the agreement was the first genuinely sunny day of the strike, and we were refreshed from a three day weekend.  We shed our waterproof layers and brought out fresh batches of signs and baked goods.  We turned up favorite tunes and settled into a now-familiar rhythm of walking, talking, and raising our fists as cars honked their support.  As we disbanded to head downtown, news began to swirl on social media of a press conference at 9:30 a.m.  My colleague pressed her phone to her ear to hear Mayor Garcetti, Superintendent Austin Beutner, and UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl announce a settlement.  Rumors flew back and forth between groups of teachers on the train platform, but our experiences as educators has taught us not to be too trusting until we see something with our own eyes.  Our celebration in Grand Park, while genuinely joyous, held undercurrents of concern.  Emails were sent out from UTLA, and we were provided with instructions to go home, read the contract, and return to our school sites to vote at 5 p.m. that evening.

For me, this was the only major misstep of the union.  We were not prepared for the quick turnaround or informed about how the strike would end.  We did not know what to do with our questions or concerns, and many teachers I spoke to struggled with the emotional and psychological whiplash of striking, celebrating, reading, questioning, debating, and voting in a single day.  Moreover, we were then lesson planning at 8 p.m., debating the merits of returning to curricular content versus creating space for unresolved questions and concerns from students.  Emotions ran high at the 5 p.m. meeting, and while I can acknowledge and understand the need to immediately return to school for financial and political reasons, teachers were left without time to adequately process and plan our transition.  For many, the strike ended with media declarations of historic wins, but personal feelings of uncertainty and dissatisfaction.  Social media roiled with arguments for and against the contract and teachers left the room to vote in subdued silence. Should we see our way to a strike again, I would encourage the union to provide these steps in advance and provide paths for teachers to continue being heard and fighting for better conditions, especially when the contract does not provide for all of our needs.

III. Agreement

It is essential to acknowledge the teachers and educators who were and are still feeling angry, frustrated, and unheard in the agreement.  There are so many of those teachers in LAUSD.  They are important.  These feelings are valid.  I want in no way for anything else I say here to be an argument against any of these things.  People sacrificed time, emotional and physical energy, pay, time with students, time with their family, their passions, and more in the hopes that they would see actual changes that would benefit students now.

And that simply didn't happen.  We went out into the streets with vivid experiences and grievances: crowded classrooms, too few resources, secondary trauma, physical injuries or illnesses, unpaid bills, closed libraries, and overwhelming schedules.  These issues had concrete stories and specific names attached.  We thought of these stories and people when we made signs, or chanted, or walked.  We shared them on social media and in our social circles.  We were proactive, vulnerable, articulate, and passionate.  And in many ways, it didn’t matter, because the gains made feel trivial compared to our needs.  Acknowledging this fact is crucial to a larger educational justice movement and honors the sacrifices teachers have made in striking.

I am satisfied with our strike's resolution for a few reasons, thought my thoughts will likely evolve as the agreement is implemented, and our work becomes solidified as history, rather than holding the possibilities and potential of the present.

The distance between the starting negotiations and the final agreement was vast.  In all negotiations, compromises have to be made.  UTLA had to walk a fine line between encouraging us to be vocal and firm in our demands, and deciding what would be given away so that other things could be included in the agreement.  It is the nature of compromise not to win.  I do not want to be patronizing or trite, but I believe that the deal was genuinely a strong compromise.

On that note, the nature of that compromise highlights the horrific conditions of our schools.  Thirty-nine kids are far too many in a classroom, and English and math are only two subjects of many taught in our education system.[2] One nurse is too few to adequately meet the needs of our most vulnerable children (my school has 2,600 students).  Counselors are still expected to see and serve five hundred students each year.  Our students who receive special education continue to be wildly underserved, and their teachers are forced to grapple with the brunt of rising costs and budget cuts.[3] Early childhood educators and substitute teachers will still be marginalized in our educational systems.  We are still going to struggle to make ends meet.

But now people know.  They know what we deal with, and they know how charter schools affect traditional districts, and they know how little funding there is to meet basic needs.  We must continue to push and advocate for our students to build on this growing awareness.  As educators in across American cities seize the headlines and share their stories, we must support them and say, "Yes, me too, and this is not acceptable."

We can push board members to be accountable to the most vulnerable students.  We can push voters and politicians to increase funding on a state level.  We can push our colleagues in charter schools to examine their working conditions and be inspired to demand better.  We can push ourselves to continue to be brave and outspoken for our schools.  We are not done because we went back to work.  The agreement did not say teachers would be quiet, and we will not be.

The larger proposed goal of Beutner and some of the LAUSD board members was to break up LAUSD into thirty-two smaller networks.[4] To be fair, LAUSD is big, diverse, and often dysfunctional.  But we have shown that we are capable of convening in one location, across race, class, gender, and geographic divides, to come together for set purposes.  We organized and struck as one district. And we organized under one single union. We are often told that LAUSD is both too big to succeed and too big to fail.  Regardless of these dynamics and criticisms, the ability to coordinate picket lines and rallies among thirty-one thousand educators has shown that where there is a will, there is a way.  LAUSD is entirely capable of working together as a single entity, if we have a shared vision, community buy-in, and timely communication around logistics.  We disrupted the narrative of a district being too large to serve its students.  This made the “innovative” ideas of division and privatization much harder to implement, and that is a tremendous victory.

Lastly, we strengthened our own educational commitments and communities.  I felt different walking into San Pedro High School after the strike.  Our administrators looked at us differently.  My students looked at me differently.  I have a sense of purpose that I did not have in December.  And, as I told my husband the night the strike ended, veteran teachers and retirees didn't show up with signs that read: "In 1970 I won collective bargaining," or, "In 1989, I struck to get school-based management teams."  Their signs said, "I WALKED THE LINE."  That alone is an accomplishment.

IV. Lessons

For those on the cusp of organizing actions and strikes, I provide the following as a humble guide to my own takeaways.  Los Angeles was not the beginning, nor was it the end.  And even as we voted, there were rumbles and rumors of striking again to continue making our voices and our needs heard. There will always be space for lessons and advice in labor movements, for as long as the American worker needs employment to survive, there will be organizing movements that ensure survival is where we begin, not where we give up.

Striking is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting.  I should have known this, but it can be easy to be carried away on the tidal wave of energy and excitement.  We began picketing at 7 a.m., an hour before school typically begins.  The day ended at 4 p.m., an hour after the school day ends.  Walking in circles is repetitive and tiring.  Chanting is repetitive and tiring.  Struggling with the unknowns, the rumors, and adrenaline highs, and the exposure to weather is exhausting.  Strikers should prep themselves as they would for any other physical event—hydrate (but be aware of when and where you can use the restroom), wear layers, bring a backpack, pack snacks, go to sleep early, stretch or do yoga, and eat your vegetables.

Pace yourself and prioritize your own needs.  I took a twenty-four hour break on the weekend—no strike videos, messages, posts, or news.  I went camping.  Every night I watched The Great British Baking Show and walked the dog with my husband.  I tried very hard to make sure my life did not revolve around the strike as it can be immersive and obsessive.  But your energy is precious and should be closely monitored and maintained.

Accept help, both financially and otherwise.  I personally made a list of the ways I thought I could use and accept help.  Think about if you are willing to take money, and how much.  Can people buy you groceries?  Give you rides?  Make you signs?  Walk the line with you? Your support network is going to ask you how they can help, so be ready to engage them.

Be prepared to not get support, too.  If you talked to me during the strike, I was and have since struggled with the silence and reticence from friends and organizations I was close to before the strike.  This caused me genuine emotional distress, as I counted on certain folks to be there for me.  It was, and continues to be, an unpleasant shock to realize you haven't heard from someone who plasters their laptop in activist-minded stickers, or shares posts on Facebook, but feels the need to be neutral or uninvolved when social justice comes uncomfortably close to their privilege.  It confounds and confuses me to live in a society in which people can "support" gender equality, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, and immigration, but can somehow not connect all those issues to labor, work, and our value as human beings.

Talk to people around you.  I was able to meet and form connections with so many new folks through the strike—on the train, at rallies, within my school, even in my own building!  Wear your button and start conversations.  Walk or ride with people you do not know well.  It is a tremendous opportunity to network, connect, and build community.

Have fun.  How I wished I had had one of those backpacks with the bluetooth speakers, the ones I have decried in my classroom for years.  Visit the toy store for noisemakers.  I finally picked up a cowbell and a whistle; this made things more fun (and saved my voice).  I recommend spending time to make signs and clothing; whatever gets you pumped for the day is worth the splurge at the Dollar Tree.

Measure your expectations.  You will not win in the sense of a landslide victory.  If that was possible, you would not be striking.  You must hold your idealism high and your expectations low.  In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: "We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope."[5] This quote became increasingly meaningful for me as the strike unfolded.

Put faith in your leadership, whoever that is for you.  For me, that was Alex Caputo-Pearl.  I have met him several times and I believe in him as a leader.  Maybe this person is your chapter chair, or a colleague, or a mentor.  But whoever it is, when they tell you to strike, you put your trust and faith in that leader to lead and you strike.  You do not set conditions: "If there is no agreement, I'm going to break the strike," or impose deadlines: "I'm only doing this for 3 days."  You are making a commitment to see something through when you step into that picket line, and you must follow a leader for a movement to move.

V. In Closing

When it's over, it's over.  I think that was what made the last day so difficult for strikers—we poured twenty-one months into this fight, and in a matter of hours, we were done.  Accepting the end is not giving up, but it does take some measure of surrender—with grace, humility, acceptance, and promises to do more.  I (like many of my colleagues) was and still am happy to return to my classroom and my students.  But I recognize there is a grieving process at play as well—saying goodbye to our moment in the movement, as well as the grief of knowing there are so many battles left to fight.  I urge my colleagues to continue to raise important questions about our conditions in a way that inspires us, not embitters us to acceptance and resignation, and to keep doing what we have been doing—teaching and inspiring through our willingness to keep showing up.

[1]Janus v. Am. Fed’n of State, Cty., & Mun. Emps., 138 S.Ct. 2448 (2018).

[2]Tentative Agreement 2019, UTLA(Jan. 22, 2019), https://www.utla.net/news/tentative-agreement-2019[https://perma.cc/P9TP-MD3Z].

[3]Susanna Loeb et al., Getting Down to Facts II(2018), https://gettingdowntofacts.com/sites/default/files/2018-09/GDTFII%20Summary%20Report.pdf[https://perma.cc/5G7M-7F6V].

[4]Howard Blume & Anna M. Phillips, School Chief’s Plan Would Divide L.A. School District Into 32 Networks, L.A. Times(Nov. 5, 2018) https://www.latimes.com/local/education/la-me-edu-lausd-school-networks-20181105-story.html[https://perma.cc/JN7B-MG25].

[5]Martin Luther King Jr., Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/37292-we-must-accept-finite-disappointment-but-never-lose-infinite-hope[https://perma.cc/BR2U-ZZQ8] (last visited July 8, 2019).

About the Author

Maya is an LAUSD teacher who has worked in private, charter, and traditional public schools. In addition to teaching, reading, and organizing, Maya is the author of the blog Candid Irreverence (candidirreverence.com).