By Magally Miranda Alcázar
This is the second article in a series that we are republishing and/or hosting on the recent United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) strike. Originally published in Commune
In their six-day strike, Los Angeles teachers refined the model of community unionism developed in West Virginia. Along the way, a generation of working-class students has discovered something you can’t learn in a classroom.
Long before the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) capitulated to union demands, it was clear the teachers were winning over Angelenos in the court of popular opinion. The teachers’ strike had an 80 percent approval rating in LA county (the largest in the United States). Organized under the banner of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), approximately thirty-thousand teachers struck in nine-hundred campuses throughout the city. School staff as well as parents and community members joined teachers on the picket lines in numbers that grew every day. This strike was not only enormous; it was also incredibly well organized. In fact, it was UTLA’s first strike in thirty years. Nevertheless, daily picket lines at 7 a.m. blocked scabs—both substitute teachers and critical staff hired by the district—from entering the schools. Teachers also engaged in city-wide marches and a picket at the home of LAUSD School Board member, Monica Garcia. An estimated one third of students, about five-hundred thousand, were absent from school each day for the duration of the strike, costing the district $97 million by Thursday. The coordination of these demonstrations despite soaking rain was nothing short of amazing in a city known for shutting down after a few drizzles.
Privatization and Beutner’s Board
Across the country, teachers are fighting to preserve public education against an onslaught of privatization. A key target of this strike is the new superintendent of schools, Austin Beutner, a former hedge-fund manager who is leading a campaign to expand charter schools. Beutner ran on a campaign paid for by the California Charter School Association. Unelected but shadowing him on the school board are venture philanthropists like billionaire Eli Broad and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, whose financial contributions give them incredible steering power. Beutner’s election to the pro-charter board was controversial but not surprising, since the swing vote in the election was Ref Rodriguez, who had been forced to resign after convictions on felony charges of corruption and money-laundering. The UTLA strike took place ahead of an upcoming special election to replace Rodriguez’s seat on the school board. Teachers hope to fill the seat with an anti-charter voice, but they know the struggle does not stop or start with that election.
Yvette, a special education assistant I met on a picket, gave voice to the anti-privatization movement growing up around public education. “New Orleans lost all of its public schools after Katrina. Now they’re trying to spread this privatization all around the nation.” She continued: “These charter schools think that they’re doing everyone a favor by providing more options, but the reality is that they amplify discrimination. Test score based acceptance to charter schools weeds out the students they don’t want to take. How can you tell a student they’re not worthy of education? And all the kids that are being affected are the brown and black kids.” For teachers like Yvette, charter school reform is the wrong direction; she envisions a radical transition from a system of standardized testing to one that values students with differential needs and abilities.
In addition to the struggle against charter school reform, UTLA had five demands: 1) a 6.5% pay raise retroactive to July 1, 2016; 2) a cap on class sizes, because California teachers rank 48 out of 50 in the nation with regards to class sizes and LAUSD is among the worst of the worst; 3) discretion to determine when standardized assignments are given; 4) increased per-pupil funding, given that California ranks 43 out of 50 in per-pupil spending despite being the richest state in the country; and 5) additional school staff including nurses, counselors, librarians, and social workers. Prior to the negotiated settlement, the student-to-nurse ratio was 1,224:1 and the student-to-counselor ratio was 945:1.