Details of LA Strike Settlement

After six days on strike, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) won a new – and positive – contract from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

Copies of the tentative agreement circulated to the 31,000 union members, including those still on the picket lines. Chapter chairs at the district’s 1,240 schools conducted votes to approve the agreement, which passed. That ended 20 months without a contract.

The teachers were forced to strike starting on Jan. 14, after months of fruitless talks with LAUSD bargainers and pro-charter superintendent Austin Beutner, a businessman.

The walkout lasted all that week through four days of steady rain until the skies cleared. Angelenos were impressed by the dedication of teachers who wrapped themselves in plastic ponchos and continued to march not only in front of their schools but in massive rallies downtown.

The rallies both showed their own unity and broad solidarity among the parents, students and general public, with students often joining the downtown marches. No more than a third of the students attended understaffed schools during the strike, meaning the financially district lost over $100 million in state per-pupil funding.

The long MLK holiday weekend provided some relief from the vigors of the picket lines, but during that time UTLA and LAUSD negotiators huddled in City Hall with Mayor Eric Garcetti to hammer out an agreement. After 21 straight hours of bargaining, at 9:30 am on Jan. 22, when picket lines had already resumed for the 6th day, the settlement was unveiled.

Although UTLA compromised on a number of issues down from their original proposal, the final agreement largely follows its contours. The teachers had to undertake a long, painful and costly strike affecting 600,000 students and their families because the school district was provoking the teachers, the union movement, and the public, to see if a lack of community support would enable Beutner and his appointed district bosses to continue dismantling public education and siphon off public funds into charter schools and private hands.

Neither the teachers nor the public took the LAUSD’s bait.

Actions by the district, and Beutner – a businessman with no public school experience – gave the public a much clearer understanding of the intent by the American “free enterprise” system to decimate, privatize and monetize what was in many parts of the country the jewel of the national commonweal, our public education system.

Over the decades, public schools, including unionized public schools, over the decades helped to establish a broad, well-educated middle class. There were some notable exceptions – inferior segregated schools, gender discrimination and poor rural schools. But they paled in (continued)

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comparison to elitist private and charter schools, closed to anyone not of the ruling class.

Los Angeles students also received a civics lesson unlike what their textbooks teach: They saw a form of class warfare playing out in front of their eyes, and in that struggle they could plainly see the teachers were on their side.

Key issues that forced UTLA teachers to strike were out-of-control class sizes, lack of adequate staffing in schools, including counselors, librarians and nurses, and the proliferation of mostly non-union charter schools which discriminate in their non-acceptance of students with learning disabilities yet continue to operate on public school grounds and with public school money. The teachers also demanded decent raises.

The contract stipulates a 3 percent retroactive salary increase for the 2017-18 school year and a 3 percent increase retroactive to last July 1. According to the “Me Too” policy, school administrators will also benefit from these raises even though they did not sacrifice any lost salary during the strike.

The new pact also eliminates a prior contract provision which let management unilaterally ignore all class size averages and caps if it claimed a financial crisis. The pact further delineates gradual class size reductions over the next four years, but nowhere near to the degree educators would prefer. UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl modestly commented, “We have started down a real path to address class size.”

One issue teachers consistently raised was the overemphasis on mandated testing which forced teachers to “teach to the test” instead of focusing on intellectual development. The new agreement says that beginning this school year, a joint UTLA/LAUSD committee will be created to develop a plan to reduce the amount of assessments by 50 percent.

The new pact also mandates that by the 2020-21 school year additionally hired nurses will serve full-time at every school five days a week, and there will be a full-time teacher librarian at every secondary school campus five days a week. More counselors will be hired, allowing the district to maintain a counseling service ratio of 500-1 per secondary school. The current ratio ranges from 690 students to 890 students per counselor, according to the school.

The district also agreed to designate another 20 community schools by the end of this school year, and 10 more by next year. Local School Leadership Councils at community schools will have much wider discretion over budgetary decisions. This provision aims to reduce daily classroom supply shortages that plague teachers’ lives and shortchange students.

And the new pact forces the city Board of Education to “vote on a resolution calling on the state to establish a charter school cap and the creation of a governor’s committee on charter schools at the next BOE meeting.” This reflects growing public concern and interest in public education by the new Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). It compels a statewide conversation over the nature and intent of the corporate-pushed charter school movement.

 

The strike brought into sharp relief how underfunded California’s public schools have become, on the level of Louisiana and South Carolina. Beutner’s principal argument was that though UTLA’s demands had merit, the budget simply could not fund them. Beutner’s hurried trips to Sacramento to visit with legislators appealing for more school funding may have been little more than a public relations stunt, but the strike victory called his bluff.

The new agreement mandates that “UTLA, LAUSD and the Mayor’s office will jointly advocate for increased county and state funding.”

Democrat Garcetti had his own interest in achieving a victory for the schools, and in settling the strike, in light of his much speculated-upon ambitions for a presidential run. But such considerations aside, state, county and city government — not to mention federal, which at the moment, under Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, seems hopelessly antagonistic to public schools – are on notice that educators, parents and voters are watching to see how they respond to the urgent need to prepare our children for their future.

Other clauses in the agreement deal with matters such as school co-location (shared use of school property by charter schools), more green space at schools for recreation, substitute teachers, adult education, union rights, and other topics.

Significant for a school population such as L.A.’s, the new contract provides for an Immigrant Defense Fund: The “District will provide a dedicated hotline and attorney for immigrant families and will collaborate with UTLA for further services.” The agreement also establishes an ethnic studies taskforce to assess current provisions and offer suggestions for the future.

If the agreement cannot be seen as comprehensively transformative, a union that showed its muscle, a community that quickly became educated and engaged on public education, and a corpus of public officials, legislators and legislative bodies newly motivated to improve California schools may all combine to make real advances in the coming years.

Despite the win in Los Angeles, the business-backed charter schools, and DeVos’s hostility to public schools, their teachers and their unions show education is now in an existential struggle over basic democratic principles — what the country stands for, what its people can rightly claim, and what we are willing to fight for.

And while education also overlaps with other problems – poverty, homeless, wages, work, race and gender rights among them – the forced L.A. strike also showed the power of the union movement, when backed by the community, to force the public to address those issues.

(PAI)