The United Teachers of Los Angeles have won a big victory after six days on strike, Jan. 14-22. The 32,000 teachers and staff were on the picket lines at every school in the district, with the support of tens of thousands of parents and students. Support rallies of more than 50,000 brought out teachers, parents, students and union members in downtown Los Angeles. Eighty-one percent of the members of UTLA voted to accept the contract their strike won.
Improvements in the working lives of teachers will be dramatic: smaller class sizes, a nurse in every school, more counselors and librarians. Public education was also defended with restrictions on the formation of charter schools. A slew of “common good” demands were won regarding social justice issues that benefit the entire community, like support for immigrant rights, opposition to racial profiling, restrictions on random searches of students, and green spaces at schools. All this was won — as well as a 6 percent pay raise!
The teachers were emphatic they were striking for the good of their community and their students. According to Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of UTLA, close to 95 percent of the 500,000 L.A. students are students of color and “over 85% low-income, working-class folks.” (UTLA.net, Sept. 28, 2018)
The superintendent of the L.A. school district, Austin Beutner, is a billionaire investment banker with no experience in education. He knows how to cut a deal, has deep ties to the Democratic Party, which is how he got his job, and is chummy with the for-profit charter-school operators aiming to privatize as much of the L.A. school system as they can profitably loot.
UTLA victory will have ‘national resonance’
Now the UTLA victory is going to put a serious crimp in local plans to privatize public education — and it’s also going to have national resonance. While education of K-12 grades in the U.S. is a local responsibility, state and federal governments supply essential funding for a variety of needs.
For-profit right-wing forces have focused for years at the national level on the creation of “charter schools” — private schools to be funded with public money, both state and federal, supposedly to offer an “alternative approach” to public schools. Both Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose family is one of the richest in the U.S., and Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pushed for the creation of charter schools. Charter schools allow huge profits in a nonunion environment for big business investors.
One tactic in this privatization push has been to get pro-business state legislatures to systematically defund and underfund public education. The result has been overcrowded classrooms, tattered and out-of-date textbooks, elimination of school nurses, counselors and librarians as well as art and music programs — and plummeting teacher salaries.
In response, there was a huge surge in education worker walkouts, strikes and other job actions on the state level in 2018, especially in states where teachers’ very low pay was set by state legislatures. There was a nine-day walkout in West Virginia, where teachers’ salaries ranked 48th in the U.S. Oklahoma, Colorado and Arizona all saw major, days-long teacher actions.
While California has a reputation as a wealthy, liberal state with good social programs, its spending on public education has been low. Exactly how low in comparison to other states is disputed. But ever since Proposition 13 was passed in 1978, spending on education has been restricted. Prop 13 reduced state property taxes by more than 50 percent.
A Jan. 17 report in Politifact, using data from the 2015-16 school year, pointed out: “California schools spent $10,291 per K-12 student that year,” about $1,900 less than the national per student amount.
UTLA has been organizing for years both to build support among the teachers for a strike and to explain to the community and their students the need for such an action. They were dramatically successful.
The UTLA victory — not against a “red” Republican state government, but against a “blue” Democratic hierarchy — is going to keep the education worker struggle energized throughout the U.S. Actions are already brewing in Virginia, West Virginia, Colorado — and just a short drive north to Oakland in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The UTLA victory also offers hope that more workers will see that independent, class-conscious action against the bosses — whether Republican or Democratic — is the only way to win.