What Spurred a 98% Strike Vote by LA Teachers? Plutocrats Pushing Charter Schools

Bruce Vail September 7, 2018

(UTLA/Facebook)

Pub­lic school teach­ers in Los Ange­les vot­ed over­whelm­ing­ly in late August to autho­rize a strike over stalled con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, but the issues real­ly ener­giz­ing the union mem­ber­ship go far beyond a new con­tract. Instead, say union lead­ers and rank-and-file mem­bers, the teach­ers are grow­ing increas­ing­ly alarmed at a small clique of bil­lion­aires that has won con­sid­er­able sway over the L.A. school board and is aggres­sive­ly pro­mot­ing char­ter schools as a replace­ment for pub­lic education.

In a stun­ning dis­play of sol­i­dar­i­ty, 98 per­cent of some 28,000 union mem­bers vot­ed to autho­rize strike action. Arlene Inouye, co-chair of the con­tract bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee of Unit­ed Teach­ers of Los Ange­les (UTLA) union, tells In These Times that the vote reflects the dis­may of the teach­ers and oth­er edu­ca­tion pro­fes­sion­als at the actions of the school board.

For many teach­ers, the focus right now is on Austin Beut­ner, the new schools super­in­ten­dent cho­sen by the board of Los Ange­les Uni­fied School Dis­trict (LAUSD) ear­li­er this year. Beut­ner is a for­mer invest­ment banker with no expe­ri­ence run­ning pub­lic schools who replaced a for­mer teacher as super­in­ten­dent. The appoint­ment was a scan­dal,” says Inouye. One of Beutner’s first moves in his new job was to lead the LAUSD into an impasse with the union over the new contract.

The Beut­ner appoint­ment is mere­ly the tip of the ice­berg as far the union is con­cerned, Inouye con­tin­ues, not­ing that teach­ers and oth­er edu­ca­tors were out­raged” last month to see school board mem­ber Ref Rodriguez plead guilty to charges of polit­i­cal mon­ey laun­der­ing. The charges had been brought last year, accord­ing to Inouye, yet Rodriguez con­tin­ued in his school board post while he nego­ti­at­ed a plea deal with local pros­e­cu­tors. Through­out his career, Rodriguez has con­sis­tent­ly vot­ed in favor of the char­ters — and has been strong­ly backed by the Cal­i­for­nia Char­ter School Asso­ci­a­tion and oth­er pro-char­ter groups.

The Beut­ner and Rodriguez episodes came hard on the heels of a May elec­tion that saw unprece­dent­ed char­ter school mon­ey pour­ing into races for two seats on the LAUSD board. In a strate­gic blow to the union, pro-char­ter-school forces gained strength. The May vic­to­ries were a cul­mi­na­tion of a long cam­paign by pro-char­ter forces to gain board con­trol, and fore­shad­ow a fight for the very soul of pub­lic edu­ca­tion in this city,” says Inouye.

Rodriguez resigned in July, reduc­ing the vot­ing pow­er of the pro-char­ter forces on the board, although they still wield con­sid­er­able pow­er on many issues, the UTLA leader explains. Atten­tion is already turn­ing to a spe­cial elec­tion planned for next March to fill the Rodriguez seat. Accord­ing to Inouye, some UTLA mem­bers have already stepped for­ward with their inten­tions to run, so a repeat of the expen­sive and high­ly con­tentious elec­tions of ear­li­er this year seems likely.

Much of the fund­ing for these pro-char­ter elec­tions come from what edu­ca­tion reformer Diane Rav­itch has called The Bil­lion­aire Boys’ Club” – a clique of rich busi­ness own­ers ded­i­cat­ed to over­throw­ing pub­lic edu­ca­tion. Par­tic­u­lar­ly promi­nent in Los Ange­les are Net­flix exec­u­tive Reed Hast­ings and bil­lion­aire phil­an­thropist Eli Broad. 

That was the back­ground then when union mem­bers vot­ed to autho­rize a strike. The vote was less a dec­la­ra­tion of a desire to strike, Inouye says, than a sig­nal flare to LAUSD that teach­ers are unit­ed in their deter­mi­na­tion to push back against the pro-char­ter forces. Most teach­ers hope for a fair and peace­ful set­tle­ment, but nei­ther are the teach­ers afraid if LAUSD wants to pro­voke a strike, she tells In These Times.

Reflect­ing that fear­less spir­it, the UTLA held a lead­er­ship con­fer­ence in late July and invit­ed teach­ers fresh from the pick­et lines in West Vir­ginia, Ari­zona and Puer­to Rico. The strik­ers were round­ly cel­e­brat­ed at the con­fer­ence, inspir­ing the L.A. teach­ers with their sto­ries of strug­gle, Inouye says. They were gen­uine­ly inspir­ing for us,” she says, adding that there is def­i­nite­ly a change in con­scious­ness for teach­ers” since the West Vir­ginia teach­ers elec­tri­fied the teacher unions. 

For rank-and-file ULTA mem­ber Michael Gearin, the strike vote was an affir­ma­tion that the union mem­ber­ship is com­mit­ted to bat­tling pri­va­ti­za­tion of the pub­lic schools. 

The main rea­son teach­ers vot­ed yes is they feel dis­re­spect­ed by the school board,” Gearin says. 

Gearin describes Beut­ner as a cor­po­rate hatch­et man.” Accord­ing to Gearin, the push for more char­ter schools is a state­ment that the cur­rent board wants to replace pub­lic edu­ca­tion with pri­va­tized classrooms.

As teach­ers, we are asked to do more with less, over and over again,” Gearin empha­sizes. And then that is turned against us to jus­ti­fy destroy­ing the pub­lic school system.”

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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