An Early Death for the LA Teachers’ Struggle?

LA teachers marching carrying signs "I don't want to strike, but I will"

 By Zancudo M. 

United Teachers Los Angeles, the union for 31,000 public school teachers in Los Angeles, announced late Friday that it had reached a tentative contract settlement with the LA Unified School District in the final hours of mediation.

The settlement offer itself is a step forward from what had been on the table days ago, but still underwhelming. While most of the language remains unreleased, it’s clear that UTLA could have won more if they had kept fighting and not given up at this critical moment. The question is, why didn’t they keep fighting? And why hasn’t the left in UTLA, which is larger and more organized than in almost any other LA union, been able to push for an alternative path? The past year of this three year contract fight was marked by a new more militant union leadership elected by a reform caucus that promised to take the example of the Chicago Teachers Union and organize for a strike to win the schools LA students deserve. So why suddenly rush to settle for something so far short of that instead of fighting to win?

The Context of the Contract Fight

During the years of the financial crisis, Los Angeles teachers sacrificed immensely as the state, city and district balanced the budgets on their backs. The last time teachers had a raise was 2007. In the meantime, the cumulative rate of inflation has been about 14%, meaning that teachers have seen a large effective wage cut since 2007. The cost of living in LA has gone up even more than that, with the average rental rate in LA going up by about 50% (not inflation adjusted) to $2000. Now that LAUSD’s budget is rapidly growing once again, it is time for teachers to get back what the lost in the past 8 years – and then some, given that the teaching profession had already been underpaid before the crisis hit. The new settlement offers a 10% raise over the first two years of the three year contract, and then re-opens the contract for further salary negotiations in the third year. This is much better than LAUSD’s last offer of a 5.5% salary increase, but given how much teachers have sacrificed, and how this still doesn’t restore teachers’ salaries to what they had been, it seems reasonable to keep pushing for UTLA’s original demand of a 17.6% raise.

The settlement offers the first official class size cap for LAUSD. However, what this cap is has not yet been announced. The last word that teachers inside UTLA heard was that it would be set so high as to affect almost no classes, thus making it more of a symbolic victory. We will have to wait until the full language of the contract is available to make a judgement on whether this offer is really worth settling for or not.

Another point in the negotiations is the issue of the teacher re-assignment, informally called “teacher jail,” which is when teachers serve detention time at home or at administrative offices for months at a time pending investigation for discipline, which is a form of punishment before due process. The contract outline suggests that the union has accepted LAUSD’s demands that this punishment tactic become officially recognized and managed when it should be outright eliminated.

The counselor-to-student ratio is set to one counselor for every 500 students in the proposed settlement. This is clearly inadequate. It’s unclear how any counselor can provide effective individual support to 500 students. What’s more, the settlement doesn’t seem to address other issues with support staff, like the fact that therapists for special needs students are having to cover 17 or more schools each.

Meanwhile, more than 600 UTLA members have recently received notices from the District that they could be laid off. This has not been addressed at all by the union.

Forcing Concessions – Could More Have Been Won?

All of this in the settlement is much more than LAUSD had initially offered teachers. It’s clear that UTLA has won small victories by pushing the struggle this far. UTLA has been without a contract for three years and it has only been in the past year, as the union started organizing their base for the first time, that LAUSD budged at all. By beginning to mobilize teachers, by speaking about building for a strike, by bringing thousands of teachers out to the rally in Grand Park, by expanding their demands and by the faculty meeting boycotts, the union was able to force concessions.

But if LAUSD was moving this much at the bargaining table before negotiations had reached the final fact-finding stage, and before UTLA had taken a strike vote, how much more could UTLA have won for teachers, for our schools and for our city, if they had really committed themselves to building a movement for the schools LA students deserve (a movement that has to go far beyond the limited and fatally flawed process of collective bargaining and contract negotiations)? If instead of rushing to settle, they had fought to win? UTLA was organizing around a plan to strike to win their demands, inspired by the Chicago teachers’ strike, which would have been their first strike since 1989. But the UTLA leadership never gave the membership a chance to decide on whether to strike or not, or on what the campaign for the contract would be at all. Instead the one choice and input that LA teachers will have is whether to accept this settlement or not.

UTLA had clearly decided against a strike even before they had reached their settlement. It seems that they didn’t win this offer from LAUSD, decide that it met their minimum demands (actually, the union never once articulated a specific set of minimum demands), and then choose to call off the strike in favor of settling with the offer; more likely is that the UTLA leadership wielded the threat of a strike as an empty rhetorical weapon to shake up both the union’s base and LAUSD, and had already decided that they would take whatever offer they could get at the end of mediation.

During their contract fight, UTLA drained their strike fund to hire more staff organizers and to fill their political fund for the upcoming school board election- doing so while continuing to claim in the last few weeks that the union was escalating in preparation for a strike. But reality UTLA was actually de-escalating by calling off a major public action at the beginning of mediation and instead shifting gears to have a smaller, silent indoor protest demanding that LAUSD “settle now.” From the leadership’s words and actions, it has seemed like they were accepting defeat before the battle had even begun – which of course is the surest way that they can guarantee defeat.

The Remarkable Response of the Left

What is most remarkable is the response to the settlement from the many leftists within UTLA. Many teachers who are members of revolutionary, left and anti-capitalist organizations seem to have lost any critical perspective of the union leadership’s decision to back down from the fight. Instead of having discussions about what kind of vision for education we all need to be fighting for and how we can fight for that vision, the discussion among most leftist union activists has been limited to how the decisions of the leadership can be carried out. Before the settlement had been announced on Friday, before anyone knew what would be in it, the main discussion among the militant union activists of the reform caucus was how to sell a yes vote on the predicted settlement to the membership. Union leadership came to the emergency caucus meeting on Thursday with the message that there would be a settlement soon, and it was the reform caucus’ job to convince the membership to back off the strike plans and accept whatever settlement came. There wasn’t any debate on whether a no vote would be justified, or if the union could gain anything more by continuing the fight – the only discussion brought up by the leftists in the reform caucus, as retold by those present, was why it was necessary to accept the leadership’s decision.

There is not a single organized, critical voice anywhere in the union that we’re aware of raising the idea that maybe unions are stronger when they take strike action seriously; that maybe this settlement isn’t perfect; that maybe the union should push for escalation instead of de-escalation; and that maybe teachers can in fact get something a little better with a little bit more fight.

This particular reaction to the union leadership and this absence of left opposition seems to result from the fact that the reform caucus that is supported by many leftist and social justice teachers is the caucus that elected the current leadership. In 2013 the Progressive Educators for Action Caucus (PEAC) formed a slate with the Latino Caucus and the United Valley Caucus called Union Power to run in the UTLA officer elections. The Union Power slate won the elections and PEAC member Alex Caputo-Pearl is now in the role of UTLA President. In the wake of the victory Union Power and PEAC became something of a withered appendage to the new union leadership and now have lost most of any orientation to the rank and file and instead have made their focus on supporting the leadership.

The Dynamic When ‘Your Guy’ is in Power

Much like progressives who called out Bush’s war crimes, then campaigned for Obama and became silent on drone strikes and spying because they had ‘one of theirs’ in office, reformers in UTLA would probably be calling for a no vote on the contract and a continued organizing push towards a strike if they didn’t have their own candidates in the union leadership.

We’re not going to get very far as grumpy spectators always saying “The union should do this”, “The union leadership is selling us out again” – union leaderships will sell out union members as long as there exists a leadership separate from the whole organized body of workers, so that’s not at all novel or surprising. But we should be aware of the traps in certain strategies for union organizing that lead us to situations where the rank and file is unable to continue organizing and agitating independently of the leadership.

What is happening in UTLA should be a warning to other union militants about the dangers of relying on electoral work and of not organizing to create our own independent vision of what we want our unions to be. Union militants should focus on building strong democratic rank and file organization that can move the politics of the union and that has the strength to push for its demands independent of the union leadership or staff. Building caucuses focused on union leadership elections results in weak organization, undemocratic decision making, and a movement that will lose its direction once the elected leadership doesn’t behave like they had dreamed.

The UTLA leadership and most of the militants who follow them will try to claim this new settlement as a victory. But really it is a surrender that does not give teachers at all what they deserve, or what they could win. The only way to build the education movement we need is to fight for democratic unions that don’t put their hopes in the leadership, to hold true to our own goals and demands, to build organization through struggle, and remember that no fight is won when you accept defeat before it’s begun.

For more writings on worker struggles and a positive example of waging a fight from below we recommend the piece “Unionism From Below: Interview with Burgerville Workers Union.”