Our School Site Fights Have National Implications

We have an historic role to play now and under a Trump administration

I met Channing Martinez in 2001 when he walked into my Life Skills class as a ninth-grader at Crenshaw High School. He developed an interest in the history of social movements and efforts to address inequality — and he gradually connected these to an analysis of conditions in his own community and to his own power to be a part of social change. By the time Channing graduated in 2005, not only was he headed to college, but he had also helped to build a student organization at the school, met with School Board members and the mayor, traveled to Sacramento to advocate around policy, and attended youth organizing institutes on the East Coast. 


Along the way, I got to know Channing’s family very well—an immigrant family from Belize, and a central force in their neighborhood in South L.A. They were one of the first families my young son got to know—they attended his first few birthday parties.


In his high school years, Channing led two walkouts at Crenshaw High School, addressing different issues of concern to students. The walkouts were well-organized, well-articulated, and peaceful, and they were reflective of what can be one of the most inspiring and educative school site activities.


Since the elections of November 8, our youth are leading with their voices and their feet in reaction to the coming Trump administration. Channing is now a well-established, full-time community organizer (as well as an incredible artist and photographer). Organizing is his career. Over the last week, he has helped youth at many schools in South L.A. ensure that the walkouts they have organized have been peaceful, powerful, and seeds for a larger movement. 


Our school sites are sacred for our students and our profession

The school site is sacred for our students, their families, and for us as professionals. School sites are the beating hearts of our educational system. All of the organizing that Channing does now at city, state, and national levels is founded upon what he learned in school site organizing and interactions. 

 

  • It is why UTLA has brought on additional staff organizers to support members in enforcing the contract at schools and to press school site administrations for improvements in school site conditions.
  • It is why our contract reopener demands — on salary, class size, school discipline, overtesting, and staffing/restructuring—relate directly to everyday experience at school sites and in classrooms.
  • It is why it’s so important that both of our endorsed candidates for School Board in March 2017 — Imelda Padilla and Steve Zimmer — have a long history of work at school sites.
  • It is why we must now double-down on our work to stand hand-in-hand with parents and youth to make school sites and communities safe zones. As we head into a Trump administration and fear has escalated tremendously among our students and families, we know there will be systematic federal efforts to undermine unions and their ability to have and enforce contracts. 


The elections: Props. 55 & 58 and CCSA’s political power

Through the incredible work of UTLA members, UTLA staff, our state affiliates, and a movement of community allies, we scored overwhelming victories on Propositions 55 and 58 on November 8. While data is still being tabulated, we believe that the percentage of UTLA members who voted was at an all-time high—demonstrating another aspect of the power we have as an increasingly well-organized union. School funding literally and existentially depended upon the passage of Prop. 55. Prop. 58 not only allows us to build more broad and effective language programs, it is also an endorsement of racial and language diversity and a firm rebuke to the anti-immigrant movement.


As much as Prop. 55 is a platform for continuing the fight to address California’s shockingly low per-pupil funding and Prop. 58 is an important turning point for language instruction and language rights, the California Assembly and Senate races reflected another turning point: the rise of the charter school industry, led by the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), as the largest spender on state races. They spent $23 million, outpacing the oil, energy, and big pharma industries. CCSA, as the front group for Eli Broad, the Waltons of Walmart, and other billionaire privatizers, won 20 out of 23 races for State Assembly and Senate across California in which they endorsed a candidate. 


This makes all the more important our work to build a movement for sustainable community schools that serve the entire public, and for common-sense accountability standards that all publicly funded schools, District and charter, must abide by. It makes all the more important our continued work to expose Broad-Walmart and other billionaire privatizer efforts. (Case in point, two weeks ago, educators at four school sites voted overwhelmingly to reject grant money from Great Public Schools Now, a private group funded by Broad and the Waltons.) And, it reemphasizes, a hundredfold, the critical importance of each of us doing our part and joining PACE, so that we have the funding to be able to compete in election campaigns.


Donald Trump and the leadup to the inauguration 

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States has sent ripple effects across our school communities, city, and nation. As is the case with so many social movements throughout history, and as is reflected in Channing’s experience, youth have taken the lead in this moment. Thousands of students in Los Angeles have peacefully protested an election result that they, and many of us, see as dramatically increasing the threat of mass deportation, discrimination, and families being torn apart and that has already dramatically increased the incidence of hate crimes. 


Donald Trump has assembled a transition team and a set of strategic advisors that unambiguously take steps toward operationalizing the hateful, misogynistic, racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric that characterized his campaign. His campaign manager and now top strategic advisor, Stephen Bannon, comes directly out of movements linked to white supremacy and has a long history of behavior and advocacy characterized by sexism, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment. Trump’s main transition team leader on immigration policy is the architect of the most reactionary measures created over the last 10 years—from Arizona to Pennsylvania — and has no qualms about shredding civil liberties and fundamentally disrupting families, communities, schools, and other foundational institutions.


Trump’s transition team leaders on issues of education come out of the most conservative, market-based, think tanks in the country. For years, they have advocated for massive cuts in federal spending on education, for privatization through vouchers and the massive growth of unregulated charters, and for fundamentally undermining teacher unions. It is clear from Trump and the Republican legislature’s direction that they will appoint and confirm a Supreme Court justice, to fill out the nine positions, who will hasten the process of bringing a case like Friedrichs back so that the Supreme Court can radically undermine unions and collective bargaining law.

  
We are in for huge fights, on multiple fronts. 


In the context of the national election, our members are reaching out, wanting to be supportive of students and families. We are there, in multiple ways. On December 1, UTLA will cosponsor an event with immigrant rights organizations at the union building, geared specifically toward our members. It will give concrete ideas and resources on how to address the coming of the Trump presidency in the curriculum, how to support students regarding immigration issues and hate crimes, and how to understand educators’ rights when it comes to advocating for our students and their families. (See the event flyer on page 12 and find more resources at www.utla.net/resources/social-justice-resources.)


We expect that this will be the first of several sessions like this that UTLA will help put together in a variety of locations around the city.


Moreover, as this issue of the UNITED TEACHER goes to print, we are in discussions with immigrant rights and other community organizations on building a citywide action in the leadup to the Presidential inauguration that demonstrates — school by school — that educators stand with our students and their families, and that we are protecting our schools and communities as safe zones. This action will be crucial in three ways:

 

  • Building relationships and trust between parents, students, community, and educators.
  • Taking a stand against mass deportation, against hate speech and crimes of any sort, against federal cuts and privatization, and against the undermining of unions.
  • Concretely, school by school, engaging parents, youth, and community in what they want to see from our School Board candidates in the leadup to the crucial March elections, and what they want to see for students and schools in our reopener and full contract campaigns, which can expand from narrow contract campaigns to broad community campaigns for the Schools L.A. Students Deserve.

 

The source of our strength: Organizing together for contract enforcement and improvements at school sites 

No matter the challenges that we confront, we must remember that we are in a much better position than most to problem-solve and to fight when necessary: We have each other, we have a union (one of the biggest in the state), and we have organic connections to the community. Let’s take encouragement and empowerment from this. 


The source of our strength is what we can accomplish together, and fight for, at the school site and work site on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis — often around local school site improvements and enforcing our contract. Doing this daily work not only contributes critically to improving conditions for students, educators, and parents, and therefore builds our confidence and our credibility, but it also builds the relationships and structures that are essential to taking broader citywide, statewide, and national action when needed.


The exciting struggles highlighted in the cover story, led by our members and parents from Stanford Primary Center, Malabar Elementary, and different schools involved in the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools (PLAS), are perfect examples of school site organizing for contract enforcement and improvement in conditions. There are many other school communities organizing in similar ways. We want to, and can, support more and more examples of this all over the city, in growing and expanding ways. In the last year, UTLA has invested heavily in additional staff and resources to work with you in these types of organizing and contract enforcement efforts. We can be successful. Let’s take inspiration from the examples given, and let’s move forward at school sites all over the city.


I want to end with this. While I was doing door-to-door precinct-walking for Props. 55 and 58, I heard constantly from people how much they appreciate educators. As we go from already challenging times into even more challenging times, let’s carry that with us. While it doesn’t always feel like it, we are widely respected by the public, we have a powerful organization, and we have an historic role to play in times like these. You are wonderful. Keep up the fantastic work.