L.A. teachers’ strike: Gains, losses, and perspectives

Feb. 2019 LA teachers (AFPGetty)By JEFF MACKLER

After seven solid days on the picket lines in drenching rains and in the face of a poor-mouthing school district that swore they were dead broke, 34,000 Los Angeles teachers voted overwhelmingly to approve a three-year contract. Most teachers saw the agreement as an important first step toward stemming the decades-long tidal wave of disastrous cuts imposed on teachers and students in the nation’s second largest school district.

The strike was led off with a city-wide mobilization of 50,000 teachers and community supporters, a prime indication that the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) had prepared well in advance to engage the broad Los Angeles community—students, parents and working people in general—in a united and sustained effort for improved schools and to advance teacher and community interests.

UTLA, a long-ago merged union of CTA/NEA and CFT/AFT members, fully anticipated a bitter fight against a reactionary locally elected, corporate-oriented school board that had laid its own secret plans, separate and apart from any union contract, for a massive privatization/charter school project in Los Angeles. Its objective, according to UTLA-released documents, was, and perhaps remains, to break up the sprawling school district into 32 separate corporate-run private-school entities.

The charter school challenge

Indeed, School Superintendent Austin Beutner, a billionaire former investment banker, had made his fortune largely in the charter school business, wherein public schools are converted to private for-profit entities that are funded from public resources. Charters are largely exempt from statewide educational regulations.

Los Angeles schools today, already replete with a significant number of these largely non-union charters—22 percent, or almost 200, of the city’s 900 schools to date—drain huge financial resources from the public school system. With slick corporate advertising campaigns, falsified achievement statistics, appeals to “school choice,” or “vouchers” paid to parents to use at parochial schools, and with across-the-board gutting of public education funds, they are touted as superior, if not a vibrant alternative for young people and their parents, who face a bleak future in capitalist America.

In truth, charters are part and parcel of the ruling class’s overall strategic objective to boost declining profit rates by looting a myriad of social services and transferring the booty to the corporate elite—in the name, of course, of allowing the capitalist market to miraculously arrive at the “best possible educational outcome!”

Here we note in passing a recent study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) that revealed that students’ test scores may prove that public schools are now outperforming charter schools. For the purpose of this article, however, it is sufficient to postulate that free, quality education for all—in the context of a humanitarian and egalitarian society that offers everyone a full and productive life with fundamental security and rewarding opportunities to maximize the potential in all human beings—is far superior to any private-for-profit institution based on measuring success on the always exploitive and predatory capitalist market system.

Today, 75 percent of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) students are Latino, 10 percent Black, and a similar percentage of Asian origin; 80 percent are low income, a terrible example of the ongoing racist process of school re-segregation wherein white students with financial means flee deteriorating, underfunded public schools to various forms of private enterprises, whether they be charters or parochial schools.

Charters are allowed to “cherry pick” students—that is, mostly white students—and exclude English as a Second Language (ESL) students, a significant percentage of Spanish-speaking youth. In some schools, within the confines of the same building, public and charters co-exist, with Los Angeles teachers repeatedly scoring this now legalized striking racial divide.

Tragically, the new UTLA contract makes no changes to this racist and corporatist scenario other than to record in their contract an “agreement” with the charterizing school board, whose members spent an estimated $11 million to win a pro-charter majority, that the school district would urge the state legislature to cap charters at 20 percent. (This Democratic Party-dominated “blue state” legislature currently has zero caps on charters.) For the corporate plunderers who run the state, capping charters is an oxymoron akin to capping profits.

Charter schools are no newcomers in challenging public education. Fully half of Detroit’s school-age children attend charters or related private schools. The entire post-Katrina school system of New Orleans is today privatized.

Thirty percent of Oakland schools today are charters, with more in the works as well as an Oakland School District plan to close some 24 public schools over the next five years, likely to make way for even privateering schemes. Oakland teachers are currently in the final stages of the negotiations/fact-finding process and are expected to call a late February strike to challenge the district’s charter school proposals and planned school closures.

The new UTLA contract leaves all the current charters in place, perhaps with UTLA leaders invoking the rationale that negotiations on this key issue are “out of scope,” or perhaps “illegal” with regard to California’s teacher collective bargaining laws.

Example of “red state” strikes

UTLA members, as with teachers across the country, were no doubt inspired by last year’s “red state” strikes, especially by West Virginia teachers—who defied threats of mass arrest and injunctions and closed down the state’s entire school system to demand, and then win, major gains for teachers, students, public school funding and, amazingly, equal salary increases for all state public employees. The red state victories were powered by statewide strikes, often of wildcat origin, to demand that the same billions of dollars gifted to the corporate elite over the past decade be returned to state budgets, post haste, to finance public education and related social services.

No doubt West Virginia teachers, along with their sisters and brothers, to one degree or another, in Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma, Nevada, and other “red states”—that is, Republican-dominated states—paved the way, for the first time in a half century, to bringing to heel capitalism’s one percenters who dominate all state and national legislative bodies.

But notwithstanding West Virginia’s shining example, the UTLA strike was a loner—a single and almost totally isolated fightback, however impressive, in a state with 1100 school districts. A handful of districts, Oakland in particular, saw its teachers engage in partial one-day “sickouts” and other solidarity actions aimed at lending a statewide air to the UTLA action. Yet, few would dispute that all of the state’s districts are suffering the same major cutbacks and related financial gutting of public education.

Indeed, UTLA strikers repeatedly pointed out that California would be ranked fifth in GDP in the world if it were designated as a nation, yet it ranks near the bottom of all 50 states in school expenditures, class size, and other key indices of the quality of public education. At $11,000 annual expenditures per pupil (based on inflated and manipulated figures used by all school districts to demonstrate their “fealty” to public education), California’s school funding compares pathetically to New York State’s $22,000 per pupil.

But even here, the statistics cover a bitter truth. Fifty years ago, when this writer was a New York City school teacher, a full 53 percent of all city high school students, after “completing” 12 years of public education, “graduated” as officially designated “functional illiterates”! Fifty years later, I would guess that the figures remain close to the same.

Class size Section 1.5

Contract gains were registered, albeit modest in the extreme with regard to class size. Here the major victory resided in the elimination of the heinous Section 1.5 provision in UTLA’s last contract, wherein whatever class size maximums were negotiated could be unilaterally ignored whenever the school district decreed a financial emergency—which it did almost every year of the contract.

The class size provisions in the new contract, according to the UTLA, were as follows: “2019-2020: [class size] reduction of 1 student per grade level, and an immediate reduction in secondary [schools] from an unenforceable 46 to a now enforceable 39 for English Language Arts and Math.” In the following two years of the three-year contract, additional class size reductions will be implemented via one less and then two less students per year, for a total reduction of four over the course of the contract.

While undoubtedly a gain, it must be said that even with these reductions, Los Angeles class-size figures will remain far above most California school districts, including the already overcrowded districts in Oakland and San Francisco.

The fact that UTLA’s previous contract contained a provision for “an unenforceable class size ‘maximum’ of 46”—that is, even more than 46 students could be crammed into classrooms—was obnoxious in the extreme. UTLA’s strike, its first in 30 years, ended this atrocity, but the union has a long way to go in fighting for qualitatively greater class size reductions that are among the key factors related to student success, not to mention teachers’ capacity to educate.

Strike gains

An UTLA Bulletin #9 stated, “In waging a strike not for money for ourselves but for money for our students, teachers reclaimed the moral authority they’ve always merited.” True enough, for without this moral authority, that is, without the broad support of Los Angeles’ working-class communities, the strike would have been doomed from the start. UTLA listed other important contract gains as follows:

• Nurses: LAUSD will hire 150 full-time nurses for 2019-2020 and at least 150 for 2020-2021, to provide a full-time nurse at every school every day of the week.

Librarians: LAUSD will hire 41 full-time teacher librarians for 2019-2020 and at least 41 more for 2020-2021, to provide a full-time teacher librarian at every secondary school every day of the week.

• Counselors: The district will hire additional full-time counselors by Oct. 1, 2019, to achieve a counseling service ratio of 500-1 per secondary school. The union honestly stated their victory with regard to counselors was far from perfect. The same bulletin reported, “Students’ limited access to their overscheduled counselors is made worse by counselors’ obligation to do yard duty during nutrition and lunch. One gain from UTLA’s victorious 1989 strike was the elimination of yard duty for teachers. We sought but did not get the same for counselors” (emphasis added).

• Salary: On salary gains the union won a retroactive 3 percent increase for last school year plus an additional 3 percent for the current year, for a total of just over 6 percent, a modest and more than justified average gain of $2250 for this year and the following two. But the seven-day strike cost the teachers close to $3000 on average in lost pay for the year, fully justifying their claim that salary was not their central objective but rather improvements in the overall quality of education.

While the 6 percent was essentially the same proposal that was offered before the strike, a salary-related provision pressed by the district to make it harder for new teachers to have health-care retirement benefits was dropped at UTLA insistence, a positive signal to new teachers that they would not be sacrificed to the advantage of older teachers—a phenomenon that has become all too common in trade union contracts. There is zero doubt, however, that Los Angeles’ salaries and, indeed, all teachers and working people more generally, have been hostage to a virtual ruling-class-backed freeze on all wages for the past several decades. Los Angeles teachers are fully justified in seeking to win salary improvements as well as to be champions of broader working class interests, as was the case with their just-concluded strike.

Other modest contract wins

The UTLA contract included a provision beginning next year for a “joint UTLA/LAUSD committee tasked with identifying all district required assessments [standardized tests]. The committee will develop a plan to reduce the amount of assessments by 50%” But an UTLA statement made clear that “we have not made an issue of the tests mandated by the state and federal governments—that’s a battle for another time and place.” Thus, UTLA negotiators again acceded to the “law of the land,” wherein massive and reactionary standardized tests are mandated on school districts and teachers as a condition for federal and state funding. Teachers are compelled to spend countless days and hours devoted endless, if not worthless, testing of students, not to mention the inevitable byproduct of “teaching to the test.”

The truth is that standardized testing is aimed qualitatively more at providing school officials with so-called empirical data that they can use to “measure” teacher competence than it is to improve the quality of education. In time, punishing, firing, and otherwise scapegoating “incompetent teachers” is but another means to blame the “failure” of public education on teachers as opposed to the overarching massive broadside attacks on every aspect of the public education system, not to mention the demoralizing effects on students that are daily subjected to conditions of poverty and repression (the school-to-prison pipeline) that combine to undermine their efforts in the class room.

It is true that ending such mandated state and national testing is, among a myriad of other critical factors, deemed “out of scope” with regard to what is “negotiable” at the bargaining table. By the same token in decades past, if not today, unions themselves have been decreed by the state power to be “illegal,” as has free speech during the McCarthy era and increasingly today, or school desegregation, women’s and LGBTQI rights, the right to assemble, the right to breathe clean air and to drink clean water, to name a few of the items banned or regulated by capitalist legislatures or the courts or by presidential decree. In all these matters, however, the “law” in all its “grandeur” has been proven to be subordinate to the mobilized challenges of its victims. Defiance, as with the West Virginia teachers, as opposed to compliance with reactionary legislation, is central to teacher unionism and to the future of public education.

Los Angeles teachers registered modest gains, and some losses in a broad range of negotiable items. They won a guaranteed daily preparation period for Regional Occupation Center teachers and the right of teachers to vote whether to convert their schools to Magnet schools. They established a LAUSD-provided “Immigrant Defense Fund” that includes a dedicated hotline and some attorney consultation for immigrant families.

“As teachers our loyalty is to our students. If it’s a problem for them in their community, then it’s a problem for us,” said a union spokesperson. Similar modest gains listed by union officials include limited funding allocations for Community Schools—that is, schools in the poorest areas—and funds for Special Education. Modest, usually non-monetary advances were registered with regard to “Local School Leadership Councils, limiting the racist practice of ‘random’ student searches, Green Space, Substitute Educator, Adult Education, Workspace for Itinerant Employees, UTLA Rights, protection of health care for striking adult education and substitutes and Protection for striking substitute teachers.”

The bottom line

The UTLA leadership published on its website both a summary of the new contract provisions as well as the entire contract. Its concluding “bottom line” public statement read: “We fought for this agreement for 21 months, worked without a contract for 18 months, and finally, forced to the wall, we struck for seven days. What we ended up with was vastly better than what was originally offered, and significantly better than what we were offered on the eve of the strike. There are certainly things lacking in this agreement, but it is a major step forward.”

The battle over school funding

The LAUSD had taken to the airwaves with ceaseless claims that it was broke, in spite of the fact that it had assigned some 25 percent of its annual budget to the category of “reserves,” that is, unbudgeted funds to the tune of nearly $2 billion to be held for unknown future contingencies. State law requires a contingency fund of only 1 percent! Needless to say, the district’s reserves were set aside for all contingencies other than meeting the just demands and needs of Los Angeles teachers and parents. The same can be said of the California State Legislature’s budget, geared to advancing corporate interests at the expense of all others.

Today, the great portion of California’s education funding derives from local property taxes, or to be more accurate, the taxes imposed on homeowners. Commercial property is essentially excluded from the state’s overall taxation system, the result of the infamous Proposition 13 or Jarvis-Gann ballot initiative of 1978 that reduced property taxes by some 57 percent and thus posed a major threat to public education funding.

Today, more than 40 years later, California homeowner property taxes have escalated in direct proportion to the incredible rise in property valuations. The 1 percent Proposition 13 cap on property taxes of four decades ago was levied on homes that then had an average market price of some $40,000. Today, given the fact the average homeowner sells their property every five years, the same house has a market value of more than 10 times that amount. A Proposition tax of 1 percent in 1978 would have amounted to roughly $400; the same house today, valued on average at $570,000, would be taxed at $5700 annually, plus the allowed addition of 0.5 percent for local or city homeowner taxes, bringing the total annual property tax to an incredible $8550—a 21-fold increase!

No to regressive tax measures

In this context, the UTLA contract includes an agreement with the LAUSD to jointly lobby the state legislature to support a 2020 state ballot initiative that would modify Proposition 13 to include taxing commercial property only, a measure that could be expected to add additional tens of billions of dollars to the state, a portion of which would be set aside for public education. But this gain, to be achieved by taxing commercial property, still leaves the highly regressive Proposition 13 homeowners’ tax intact, leaving an ever-increasing portion of the working-class population totally incapable of ever buying a house and paying for property taxes, not to mention the multi-thousand-dollar costs of paying off impossibly high mortgages.

Tragically, teacher unions have largely accepted this regressive tax system, wherein the corporate elite and their trillion-dollar corporate entities are provided with endless tax exemptions, or “loopholes,” to avoid taxation entirely coupled with outright grants for corporate services, while working people are always subjected to an endless variety of regressive tax measures.

West Virginia and other red state teachers faced this dilemma directly when they demanded that state legislatures tax the rich heavily and return the funds stolen from public education to their rightful place. The support of the NEA and AFT to continued and ever-deepening regressive tax measures can only serve to alienate their working-class base.

Unfortunately, taking the road of taxing the rich is the furthest thing from the minds of these top union misleaders. The AFT’s president, Randi Weingarten, a member of the Democratic Party National Committee, as well as the top leaders of the NEA, have long subordinated the issue of school funding to mobilizing teachers in every state to fund and support Democratic Party politicians at every level, regardless of their anti-union policies. In blue state California, where Democrats hold perhaps the largest majority anywhere, school funding stands near the bottom of all states, while the corporate policies of the state’s billionaires, among the largest in the nation, are prioritized to the hilt.

The future of teacher unionism, and indeed, of public education more generally, rests in the capacity of teachers to match and exceed the fighting example set by their red state sisters and brothers and in their collective capacity to help initiate their own working-class party based on renewed militant fighting unions and their allies among the nation’s oppressed and exploited.

Photo: AFP/Getty