LA Teachers Didn’t Just Win Their Strike—They Beat Back School Privatizers

Barbara Madeloni February 1, 2019

LA teachers came out on top. (Photo by Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)

In a joy­ful, rain-drenched strike, 34,000 Los Ange­les teach­ers won things no union has ever won.

They forced Super­in­ten­dent Austin Beut­ner, a for­mer invest­ment banker, to accept con­ces­sions even on top­ics he had pre­vi­ous­ly refused even to bar­gain over.

L.A. will rein­state lim­its on class size — and for most class­es, reduce those lim­its by four stu­dents by 2022.

Despite a pro-char­ter school board major­i­ty, the nation’s sec­ond-largest school dis­trict agreed to move a board res­o­lu­tion to sup­port a statewide mora­to­ri­um on new char­ter schools

It will hire more nurs­es, librar­i­ans, and coun­selors; reduce stan­dard­ized test­ing and ran­dom police search­es of stu­dents; cre­ate an immi­grant defense fund; and hand bud­get con­trol of 30 schools over to local communities.

It’s a very dif­fer­ent vision from what Beut­ner had in mind. In Novem­ber the L.A. Times and Cap­i­tal & Main had leaked his plan to carve up the dis­trict into clus­ters of schools run like com­pet­ing stock port­fo­lios. Any school judged to be an under­per­former would be sold off like a weak stock.

Teach­ers were weep­ing at the mass ral­ly out­side City Hall Jan­u­ary 22 as Unit­ed Teach­ers Los Ange­les Sec­re­tary and Bar­gain­ing Chair Arlene Inouye reviewed the high points of the ten­ta­tive agreement.

Pres­i­dent Alex Caputo-Pearl told the crowd that this strike was one of the most mag­nif­i­cent demon­stra­tions of col­lec­tive action that the Unit­ed States has seen in decades.

We did not win because of a sin­gle leader,” he said. We did not win because of a small group of lead­ers. We won because you — at 900 schools across the entire city, with par­ents, with stu­dents, with com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions — you walked the line.”

Mem­bers returned to their school sites that the after­noon to review the ten­ta­tive agree­ment — which was pub­lished online in full — dis­cuss it with their co-work­ers, and vote on whether to accept the deal and return to work the next morning.

Some teach­ers around the city were frus­trat­ed at a process they felt was rushed. But mem­bers vot­ed a resound­ing 81 per­cent yes on the agree­ment, and returned to their class­rooms Jan­u­ary 23.

In the face of the union’s demands, the dis­trict had cried pover­ty — it said it was run­ning a deficit. But that didn’t appear to be true, since its reserves were grow­ing each year.

The teach­ers set out to force the dis­trict to put its stock­piled cash into cre­at­ing the schools Los Ange­les stu­dents deserve.”

HOW THEY DID IT

From day one of the strike, huge majori­ties of teach­ers showed up at their schools every morn­ing to hold the pick­et lines, togeth­er with par­ents and stu­dents. Then strik­ers and their sup­port­ers head­ed down­town for ral­lies that topped 50,000 the first day and kept growing.

The streets were full of joy. All week, every­where we turned there was singing, danc­ing, spo­ken word, brass bands, mari­achis. Teach­ers didn’t let the drench­ing rain daunt them; they suit­ed up in pon­chos, and lam­i­nat­ed their song sheets and pick­et signs.

All across the city, peo­ple were talk­ing about the strike and its demands — in cof­fee shops, on the bus, in stores, at the air­port car rental.

In an effort to keep schools open for 600,000 L.A. stu­dents, the dis­trict brought in scab sub­sti­tutes from pri­vate con­trac­tors. It offered cur­rent subs more than dou­ble their reg­u­lar wage to work dur­ing the strike.

But in L.A., the subs are part of the union. Very few chose to cross the pick­et lines.

Read more about how L.A. teach­ers over­hauled their union and got orga­nized at every school as they built towards this strike.

GO ON OFFENSE

L.A. is the biggest U.S. school dis­trict with an elect­ed school board. (The biggest dis­trict, New York City, and third-biggest, Chica­go, are both gov­erned by may­oral appointees.)

Year after year, its school board elec­tions have bro­ken spend­ing records. Cor­po­rate edu­ca­tion reform­ers spent $13 mil­lion in the last elec­tion, most of it com­ing from the foun­da­tions of the Wal­ton fam­i­ly (the own­ers of Wal­mart) and Eli Broad, two of the biggest spenders nation­al­ly in sup­port of char­ter schools, vouch­ers, and privatization.

That mon­ey was enough to win them a major­i­ty of the seats on the school board. And after the pre­vi­ous super­in­ten­dent resigned ear­ly last year for health rea­sons, that major­i­ty hand­picked a super­in­ten­dent, Beutner.

But as it turned out, a bought and paid for board and super­in­ten­dent weren’t as pow­er­ful as a good old-fash­ioned strike.

Read­ers who work in edu­ca­tion or the pub­lic sec­tor will be famil­iar with the claim that the mon­ey just isn’t there.” UTLA refused to buy into it, and named the pri­va­ti­za­tion schemes behind it. Rather than retreat or get cau­tious in the face of cor­po­rate attacks, the union went on offense, demand­ed ful­ly fund­ed pub­lic schools, and did the orga­niz­ing to back up its demands with action.

The teach­ers won big — and pro­vid­ed us all a mod­el for how to fight back. The vic­to­ry, said Caputo-Pearl, renewed the strike not only as the last resort, but as some­thing you do to build a social movement.”

This piece first appeared at Labor Notes

Bar­bara Made­loni is the Edu­ca­tion Coor­di­na­tor at Labor Notes. She recent­ly served as pres­i­dent of the Mass­a­chu­setts Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion and is a long­time writer and educator.
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