“They want us to fail…the schools, the teachers, the students. So they can push students into charter schools. So they can make money. We’ve had it. Enough is enough!”- Los Angeles teacher on strike.
January 14 marked the beginning of an historic strike. Over 30,000 United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) members walked off the job. This is no mere contract dispute. Building upon the wave of teachers’ strikes in 2018 that started with the successful surprise uprising in West Virginia, Los Angeles has become the site of a decisive battle between the forces of privatization and those who seek to defend and restore public education. This is more than bargaining; this is ideological combat.
The economic and workplace realities for teachers are troubling. Despite its enormous wealth, California drastically underfunds its schools, spending half of what New York does on a per pupil basis. According to UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl, class sizes are often 45 or higher in high schools, 35 in middle schools, and 25 in elementary schools. Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has repeatedly used a “financial crisis” clause from the expired contract to essentially declare a permanent “crisis,” thereby justifying the firing of teachers, the raising of class sizes, and the ultimate plan of dissecting LAUSD into 32 separate districts or “portfolios” that would be managed according to how much money they can generate for LAUSD.
LAUSD’s financial crisis has been manufactured to bleed the district of resources and make alternatives, namely billionaire-backed charter schools, attractive to parents. Furthermore, stagnant teacher salaries combined with the skyrocketing cost of living in Los Angeles have led to a teacher shortage, causing a ripple effect of instability throughout the school district. This steady and systematic deterioration has also made Los Angeles schools more segregated. LAUSD schools are approximately 90% people of color. Wealthier white communities can send their children to private schools and charter schools. All of this occurs while LAUSD sits on a nearly $2 billion reserve claiming there is no money to meet teachers’ demands. The inequality is stark in California when you consider that the state has the fifth biggest economy in the world, and a massive budget surplus.
Armed with these facts and the increasingly bitter experience of trying to succeed in this context, teachers, parents, students, and supporters filled the sidewalks as spirited pickets formed at school sites all across the massive metropolis. At mid-morning on the first day, 60,000 strikers and community supporters rallied and marched through the cold rain from City Hall to the LAUSD offices. The momentum continued the next day with 30,000 gathering at the charter school association building to show disapproval of the $600 million that these profit-driven schools drain from public schools every year. More cold and rain followed but the union and its supporters were undaunted while chanting “We’re soaking wet and freezing cold but our public schools will not be sold!”
To be sure, the union has a set of demands meant to improve working conditions and quality of instruction. Among these are lower class sizes, less standardized testing, and more support staff such as nurses, librarians, and counselors. However, from UTLA’s leadership on through its rank & file members, the real target is the charterization plan spearheaded by Superintendent Austin Beutner and his pro-charter school board. Indeed, privatization itself is being exposed by this brave union struggle.
The pickets are high energy and laced with anger. Highlighting the privatization plan of the billionaire class, a new chant rose up: “I don’t know but it’s been said, billionaires run the board of ed.” There is a sense among the teachers that this will be a lengthy fight. Based upon this chant, it appears the teachers are digging in: “I don’t know but I’ve been told/Beutner’s got a pot of gold/If he doesn’t share it soon/teachers will be striking until June.” Some union members are expecting to take out loans since they won’t be paid during this strike.
Teachers waging this privatization fight are beginning to connect important systemic dots such as the effects of privatization on affordable housing and lack of health care. One high school English literature teacher told Socialist Alternative: “I have a student who is one of six in a one-bedroom apartment. That’s not right. Something’s wrong.” Back on the picket later that day, we overheard teachers making the connection between their strike and the federal employees working for no pay during the government shutdown.
Community support is sky high in these early days of the strike. Huge numbers of students and parents have been joining the picket lines. According to a study conducted by Loyola Marymount University, 82% of Los Angeles County families are in support of the UTLA strike. At most one-third of students showed up to school on Monday and that number continues to decline each day. It was reported at Taper Avenue Elementary that 49 of 750 students showed up on Monday, by Wednesday it was down to 18 students. Recognizing the national and even international significance of the UTLA strike, messages of solidarity have poured in through social media from teachers in Oakland, across the country, and as far away as France.
Charter schools, held up by education reformers as a way to sidestep teachers unions, are joining the fight for education. Following the lead of the Chicago charter school strike in December – the first of its kind – and inspired by their UTLA public school sisters and brothers, Accelerated Charter Schools teachers went on strike at three schools on Tuesday. They are striking for job security, health benefits, and lower class size.
All of this occurs while Beutner and his school board privatizers have spread misinformation and outright lies. In advance of the strike, three different letters were sent home to parents sowing confusion as to what to expect during the strike. Beutner gave a press conference on Monday saying that this “disruption” was completely unnecessary as LAUSD has been willing to negotiate all along. This has fallen on deaf ears. The next ploy was LAUSD phone calls threatening parents saying their children would be penalized for missing school. This was squarely debunked and corrected by UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl through a press conference and over social media. Lastly, Beutener lied about all students receiving cooked, hot, healthy meals during the strike after reports that students at one school had been fed Lunchables, processed and pre-packaged food. It is clear that the bosses play by their own dirty rules.
So what are the next steps for the teachers in this monumental struggle? Committed picket lines and strong community support are essential components. In addition to spirited picket lines, UTLA must keep the pressure up on the school board: each day includes a public rally component either in one central location or in multiple highly visible locations around the city. Teachers and supporters must maintain a strong social media presence to counteract the corporate media narratives designed to erode public support. One brilliant example of this is the lively Parents Supporting Teachers Facebook page.
However, LAUSD will try to use time to its advantage. As the strike goes on, LAUSD is hoping that parents frustration with what to do with children could turn public opinion against the union. UTLA needs a plan of escalation. All union members in the LA area, and public school teachers in Oakland and elsewhere are potentially under threat if this strike is defeated – it has become a fight for all workers!
UTLA must tap into the massive mood of solidarity across the state. Preparations must be made for a one day California-wide teachers walkout with a mass mobilization on Sacramento to put pressure on newly elected Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom. Just like with LAUSD sitting on nearly $2 billion, Newsom inherited a $21billion budget surplus. Newsom is proposing $3 billion in relief payments to school districts and this is positive. However, there are billions more in the surplus devoted to “budget resiliency.” Public school teachers working two and three jobs are fighting for the most basic financial stability. A statewide, mass mobilization by teachers joined in solidarity by other public and private sector unions would shake the political establishment declaring to all workers everywhere that the deprivation of the working class will not be accepted as fiscal conservatism and prudence.
Just like former Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, Newsom will enjoy a super majority of Democrats in the state legislature. In Los Angeles, Democratic Mayor Eric Garcetti enjoys a city council comprised of 14 Democrats out of 15 seats. California Democrats enjoy such total control that the GOP is, by its own words “on the brink of irrelevance.”. But the harsh reality is that this entire scenario of the deterioration of public schools in Los Angeles and statewide has been overseen and implemented by the California Democratic Party. The same party of which Beutner is a proud supporter. Arne Duncan, secretary of education under President Obama, was a major proponent of corporate education “reform,” which was really a system designed to attack public school teachers and public education itself through increased high stakes testing of students, merit pay linked to test scores and closing public schools and bringing in non-union charter schools. This brings into clear focus why working people need a party of their own. A party free of corporate donations and influence. A party to fight for the interests of workers, not bankers, developers, and charter school profiteers. A party that will fight for fully funded public education, single-payer health care, affordable housing, and a living wage!
Los Angeles Teachers Can Lead The Way
Teachers from across the state and country are looking to Los Angeles teachers to lead the way in this struggle against privatization and for their students. Oakland teachers are likely going on strike next month with similar demands, and the outcome of this strike will influence their battle. On Saturday January 12, over 3,000 teachers and supporters gathered in Oakland in solidarity with LA and Oakland teachers, followed by a wildcat strike at 15 Oakland high schools on Friday, January 18 demanding the funding of public education. Workers everywhere have their eyes on Los Angeles.
Socialist Alternative calls for:
- A one day California-wide teachers walkout and mass mobilization on the capitol in Sacramento.
- Solidarity from other public and private sector unions on the mobilization.
- A general pay increase for all public sector workers.
- Tax The Rich! Tax the wealthiest Californians and the top corporations. Use the revenue to fully fund public education, publicly owned permanently affordable housing, and single-payer health care.
To fund California schools it will be necessary to tax the billionaires who have been profiting off of the privatization of society. California is home to 124 billionaires, while there are 250,000 millionaires in Los Angeles County. We need to fight the system that gives them control over the resources working people need to live – a more democratic system, indeed a socialist system, would never allow teachers to be paid poverty wages or for schools to fall into disrepair. Teachers are already starting to take up the call to tax the rich, recognizing the incredible wealth that clearly exists in LA, and in the state. This is a fight not just for LA teachers, but for teachers across the state, for the working class of Los Angeles, the state of California, and beyond. Victory to the teachers and workers everywhere! We have a world to win!