ON 22 JANUARY AFTER six days of all-out strike action teachers across Los Angeles, California have backed by a four-to-one margin a new three-year contract. The deal was announced after a marathon 21-hour negotiating session between union representatives and School Board management in the USA’s second largest school district. In addition to a back-dated 6% pay rise for the current school year, the deal begins to address issues of chronic understaffing and woefully overcrowded classrooms.
Nearly a year before in February 2018 teachers and school support staff across the Republican-controlled state of West Virginia launched a wildcat strike that lasted nine days and ultimately secured a 5% pay rise for virtually all state employees. The West Virginia action proved the spark that lit a nationwide fuse with a ‘Red for Ed’ movement spreading westward among teachers in other Republican-run states such as Arizona and Oklahoma. In contrast, Los Angeles is a Democratic Party stronghold with more than 600,000 pupils – nearly 75% from Latino backgrounds - enrolled in publicly funded primary and secondary schools.
After 20 months of largely fruitless negotiations and assorted legal challenges, some 30,000 members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) finally launched their strike on Monday 14th January midst a rare southern California downpour. The rain didn’t, however, dampen strikers’ spirits as nearly 50,000 teachers and supporters marched on LA’s city hall. A similar march and rally on Friday the 18th attracted an estimated 60,000! By early Tuesday morning the 23rd hundreds of the city’s firefighters had marched to show their support for the strike.
The UTLA action marked the first strike in the city’s schools in 30 years and reflected the culmination of an extended campaign launched under a new union leadership elected in 2014. Significantly, the action also embraced many of those teachers working in Charter schools (roughly the equivalent of Academies in Britain), following swiftly after the first major and largely successful strike action by the Chicago Teachers Union at a chain of Charter schools in December. Across LA there are already over 220 Charters and the union had demanded a moratorium on further expansion, arguing that the Charter programme has effectively drained nearly $600m in funding from community schools. As a result of the agreement, the School Board is now committed to a resolution that would introduce a state-wide cap on Charters. While hardly a cast-iron guarantee such a move would have been unthinkable only days before.
The threat to divide up the current Los Angeles United School District into 32 parcels and dramatically expand the Charter programme – the de facto privatisation of LA schools – had been central to the dispute and quite probably remain key objectives for the school district’s appointed superintendent, Austin Beutner. A former investment banker, with a huge personal fortune, Beutner had previously been a failed bidder for the Los Angeles Times media franchise. He has long had ready access to key figures in the Democratic Party establishment, both regionally and nationally even if LA mayor, Eric Garcetti, suddenly distanced himself from Beutner and his close ally, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, whose foundation has helped underwrite the drive to marketise education. Garcetti played the part of mediator during the final round of talks and will doubtless be keen to claim credit for the resolution of a dispute that had generated national headlines.
The UTLA’s president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, had asserted that ‘Austin Beutner was brought in to attack our public schools. They want to end public education as we know it . . . It’s not enough to a win a salary increase when we may not have a school district in a few years.’
In picket line interviews striking teachers stressed that the issue of pay was not at the heart of the dispute – indeed far from it. In the hope of buying off teachers’ discontent, negotiators for the School Board, which had actually been operating with a $1.9bn surplus, had already offered teachers a backdated 6% rise, though in the new contract the Board has retreated from an attempt to increase teachers’ health insurance contributions in exchange for the pay hike.
Thousands of strikers, however, were more concerned with the threat of further de facto privatisation and the chronic underfunding of schools, which has resulted in overcrowded classrooms with 40-45 pupils in many secondary school classes, compounded by cuts to support services with the loss of teaching assistants, librarians, school psychologists and nurses. Despite California’s reputation as a liberal state, per pupil spending in 2016 was only half that of New York, according to federal statistics. Since the 1970s when California ranked among the top five states in per pupil funding the state had slumped into the bottom ten of the 50 states.
The first week of the strike featured lively picket lines outside schools with dance lessons, street theatre and music – and the picketing was necessarily more than token. Beutner and the School Board, often backed by school principals (headteachers), initially dug in their heels and looked determined to keep schools open with the Board approving the expenditure of $3m to pay substitute teachers to strike-break. Even so, the vast majority of students had not been in classrooms, not least because of widespread support among parents for the teachers’ action. By the fifth strike day attendance was down to just 13% of the student population and with support staff in dozens of schools joining action at the start of the second week the management strategy looked threadbare.
Perhaps the most remarkable concessions secured by the strike were a commitment to ensure the swift recruitment of an additional 150 school nurses and to reduce classroom sizes on a phased basis in virtually all schools. Under the new contract the School Board is committed to a swift reduction of seven pupils in secondary school English and maths lessons. A cap on the number of students in a class will have contractual status going forward, reversing a previous clause that conferred arbitrary powers. There are lingering and justified concerns about pupil-to-teacher ratios and the limited commitment to recruit additional counsellors/psychologists, but the gains are once more undeniable.
The strike with its overtly political demands revealed significant fractures in the Democratic Party and underscored the pressure that some of its politicians are feeling from a resurgent trade unionism among teachers. Though current LA mayor Garcetti eventually voiced support for teachers his immediate predecessor, also a Democrat, has opposed the strike and continued to champion the Charter programme. Former Obama administration Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, has also publicly attacked the strike. Prior to nearly seven years in Washington, Duncan had been the Chief Executive of Chicago’s school system for eight years, presiding over the closure of numerous state schools and the dramatic growth of Charters in the nation’s third largest city.
Most national Democratic figures have remained silent, but three likely presidential candidates – US senator from California Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) and ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders – have all declared support for the strike, though Sanders along with newly elected representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has been distinctive in highlighting the issue of school privatisation.
The funding of the settlement will partly hinge on the release of substantially more funding from California’s state budget. In part, that will mean finally tackling the toxic legacy of Proposition 13, a referendum in 1978 that marked the triumph of a reactionary revolt against property taxes and reversing corporate tax cuts.
Meanwhile, the wave of action by teachers in the US shows few signs of abating, with wildcat walkouts in Oakland, California and official action due to start on Monday 29th January in Denver, Colorado after a 93% ‘yes’ vote. This surely means that the future of state education will continue to move up the national agenda in advance of 2020 elections, opening up a much enlarged audience for socialist arguments in many parts of the US. The evident victories in LA and elsewhere can also fuel the resurgence of a union movement in the US that has been in retreat and decline for an even longer period than Britain’s.
In the words of Arlene Inouye, a speech and language specialist, who led the union’s negotiating team:
“Our strike is a lesson for unions across the country: the status quo isn’t okay. It’s time to step up, to be courageous, to put yourself out on the line because working people can’t continue with the current situation of economic inequality and divisions within our communities — it’s time to rise up.
People have seen that we have real power; that we can win. Now’s our day. We’re going to shine and we’re going to keep rising”.
The months, indeed years, spent preparing for the January 2019 strike doubtless have important lessons for education union activists in Britain.
· For the full text of Eric Blanc’s interview with UTLA secretary, Arlene Inouye, go to the Jacobin website: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/01/la-teachers-strike-contract-arlene-inouye
Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP Trade Union Liaison Officer