Red for Ed in LA

By Magally Miranda Alcázar
Courtesy Molly Steele/Commune

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.

Continue reading “Red for Ed in LA”

LA Strike: Self-Mobilization of Workers and Communities

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This is the first essay in a series that we are republishing and/or hosting on the recent United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) strike. Originally published on New Politics

In January 2019, a massive strike of over 30,000 public school teachers stunned the Los Angeles power structure when it received massive, almost unanimous public support, especially in the city’s large Latinx and Black communities.  Latinx students now make up 75% of the city’s over 600,000 public school students. Even the anti-labor Los Angeles Times, which had issued dire warnings ahead of the strike, felt compelled to run a front-page headline on the third day that began with the words, “L.A. Teachers Bask in support for strike.”

This support, and the sustained pickets and rallies of teachers, students, parents, and other community members, forced the school board of the LA Unified School District (LAUSD) to concede considerable ground.  Everywhere, the union placards of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) were printed in both Spanish and English. The mass outpouring in favor of the strike also helped change the national conversation about the privatized charter schools that are eating away at public education. And just as the West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona teachers’ strikes of 2018 paved the way for this one in LA, so the LA strike is very likely to be followed by major teacher strikes in Oakland, Denver, and other cities.

What Teachers and Students Are Facing

Public schools are underfunded, overcrowded, lack adequate social services and are subject to the worst impulses of neoliberalism. These attacks on public education disproportionately affect poor students, students of color, immigrant children, students whose primary language is not English, and those with disabilities. For months and years, LA teachers have been demanding a modest wage increase along with lower class size, accountability for charter schools, more support staff (nurses, counselors, librarians, etc.), less standardized testing, re-investment in education programs, and a stop to random searches and policing of students. A previous strike in 1989 demonstrated how demanding only a wage increase was short-sighted. LAUSD did meet teachers’ demands in ’89 but also increased class size, cut down on support staff and programs, and heavily charterized the district.

By 2014, a slate backed by progressive caucuses brought a new leadership to the UTLA. Moreover, the reinvigorated union lost hardly any members despite the reactionary Supreme Court decision making it harder for public sector unions to maintain their membership by making it “voluntary” even for workplaces with union contracts.

As a result of the January 2019 strike, the teachers won something on all of these issues, although in some cases only marginally. The seven-day strike commenced on Monday, January 14, Teachers wore #redfored, in/with the spirit of their fellow teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona who had engaged in similar labor struggles in 2018. Teachers would report to their respective school site at 6.30 am and picket heavily during school drop-off. A daily rally was held in downtown LA at the LAUSD headquarters. After the rally, teachers would return to their schools to picket at the end of school. Other actions involved protesting at the homes of school superintendent Austin Beutner and Monica Garcia (one of the more obstinate board members). Beutner the new superintendent is an investment banker with no teaching or education administration background. He was also a deputy mayor under Antonio Villaraigosa and has ties to billionaire Eli Broad.

Supporters from many political leanings joined teachers on the picket lines. In particular, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)-LA, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), and Black Rose/Rosa Negra (BRRN) were among the leftist groups that were conspicuously in solidarity with teachers picketing and offering resources, while several from the International Marxist-Humanist Organization (IMHO) participated as individuals. Teachers also coordinated their strike activity with other labor actions across the city.

Continue reading “LA Strike: Self-Mobilization of Workers and Communities”