Looming Los Angeles teacher strike could herald a fresh wave of unrest

January 10, 2019

By Politico Team

The Los Angeles teachers union delayed its planned strike until Monday but pledged to move forward with its plans — raising the possibility of a new wave of “educator spring” activity resurrected in the blue state of California.

A teacher walkout in Los Angeles — home to the nation’s second-largest school district — would be the city’s first since 1989, and sure to disrupt a city where 80 percent of school kids qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The labor unrest in Los Angeles is reminiscent of statewide teacher walkouts last year in the red states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona that had teachers standing up to their state legislatures and governors — even though the battle in Los Angeles features a more traditional labor fight pitting the United Teachers Los Angeles union against district leaders. UTLA has more than 30,000 members.

But just like in most of those states, California has struggled to bring per-pupil spending back back to pre-Great Recession levels, according to an analysis from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The fight is being watched closely in California and elsewhere to see if it is a harbinger of similar teacher labor action in the rest of the state or the nation, and whether it could help prod California lawmakers to dedicate more funds for K-12 schools.

The two sides were meeting at the bargaining table on Thursday. On Wednesday, union leaders announced the union had pushed back the planned strike from Thursday to Monday because of uncertainty over how a legal dispute over whether the union gave enough notice to strike to the district would be resolved.

“Although we believe we would ultimately prevail in court, for our members, our students, parents, and the community, absent an agreement we will plan to strike on Monday," said Alex Caputo-Pearl, the union president, in a statement.

Joseph Zeccola, a high school English teacher at a Los Angeles magnet school, said even though going on strike is a scary prospect, he's ready. He said watching other teachers walk off the job last year across the country helped give him “hope and confidence because the public is so behind teachers.”

While salary is an issue in Los Angeles, the two sides aren’t too far apart on teacher pay. The district has offered a 6 percent raise, while the union seeks 6.5 percent — although the two sides disagree over when the raise should kick in.

Beyond compensation, the teachers demand more full-time nurses, librarians and counselors, and funds to address large class sizes — even though the district argues that just 6 percent of schools have 40 or more students in a classroom. They are also upset by what they perceive as pro-charter-school policies by the district.

“It is dire in that things have been getting worse for a long time and nothing is getting better, and especially for our most at-risk students,” Zeccola said. “We’re giving them ridiculously high class sizes that makes it impossible for them to rise up and have the lives they deserve.”

Earlier this week, the district said it was “extremely disappointed and frustrated” that the union had turned down a $105 million proposal that sought to reduce class sizes and would allow the hiring of nearly 1,000 more teachers, nurses, librarians and counselors.

The district said with the proposal, it would be able make changes like reducing all secondary math and English language classes to below 40 students and providing library services at every middle school.

If the strike goes forward, the district has hired substitute teachers and has pledged to keep all of its 1,322 schools open for its more than 694,000 students.

All along, the district has maintained that its current financial situation is “not sustainable,” and unless something changes, it will be insolvent by 2021, when it will have depleted a $1.8 billion reserve.

The union, in turn, has accused district leaders of being disingenuous about the district’s finances. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, accused Superintendent Austin Beutner of acting “like a boss and not an educator of half a million kids.”

Because of the way Beutner has handled the situation, she said on Tuesday that a strike appears imminent.

Already, in Oakland, Calif., the Oakland Education Association teachers union has said a possible strike is looming there as well, and in Virginia, a group called the Virginia Educators United has announced a march on Jan. 28 on the Capitol in Richmond.

Weingarten said it’s premature to say whether there will be a teacher strike wave this year, but that there's a willingness on educators’ part “not to put up with despair or with conditions that don’t work for children.”

While labor unrest has put Los Angeles specifically in the spotlight, the state senator who chairs California’s education budget subcommittee said the LAUSD tension reflects an overarching statewide problem: School districts that are grappling with dwindling attendance and ballooning pension costs are seeking more state help.

“Districts around the state have taken the position and have started to advocate for increasing funding,” said state Sen. Richard Roth, a Riverside Democrat. Roth predicted that with newly inaugurated Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom inheriting a substantial budget surplus, “there will be a great deal of pressure to channel a lot of that toward schools.”

Tyrone Howard, an education professor at UCLA, said many districts across California are struggling with the same circumstances as schools in Los Angeles, and other teachers could soon follow suit to say “we deserve and we want better conditions as well."

He also said it could mean pressure on Newsom to put together a robust K-12 spending package. "This is a local fight but it has some statewide ramifications," Howard said.

On Wednesday, Mónica García, the Los Angeles Unified board president, and Beutner were in Sacramento asking state leaders for more resources for the district.

“We are working hard to avert a strike,” Beutner said. “We are building support at the state level to find more resources to help our students and better support all who work in our schools.”