April 13, 2018President's Perspective
Above: Youth movements and educator strikes are galvanizing people across the country. Top: Alex speaks with UTLA members Deirdre Harris and Krystal Bowser at a youth-led forum in Los Angeles that drew more than 700 attendees. Bottom: West Virginia teachers have captivated the nation with their successful strike. Alex, other officers, and UTLA rank-and-file leaders have been in touch with leaders from West Virginia to learn lessons from their grassroots organizing.
By Alex Caputo-Pearl
As youth movements catapult school issues powerfully onto the national stage, now educator strikes are ripping through the country—making this arguably one of the most important moments in U.S. history for public education. West Virginia, Puerto Rico, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona. School funding, teacher salaries, privatization, learning conditions, learning supplies, working conditions, healthcare, pensions—they are all now front and center in the national debate.
All of these struggles are about a tipping point. At what point do cities and states lose our public education systems, as has essentially happened in New Orleans and Detroit? In these cities the “systems” are actually non-systems of mostly privatized, non-union corporate charters, where teaching is becoming more of a short-time endeavor than a profession.
\But, West Virginia and the other struggles also show us how to win—it is through collective, mass action. And, in the era of Janus, these struggles are showing us that the best and sometimes only vehicle we have to win is our union.
As the corrupt LAUSD School Board majority here in Los Angeles rushes to select a superintendent before Ref Rodriguez’s next court date on May 9 (by the time you read this, the choice may be made) and in the shadow of Rodriguez’s recent public drunkenness arrest during work hours, LAUSD is also coming toward a tipping point. It was a huge victory to win our healthcare. But, if we do not use this unique moment, with our entire contract open for bargaining, to shift the direction of LAUSD and the state of California, we will be facing not only attacks on healthcare before 2020, but also district and privatizer-led calls for layoffs, school closures, and more. We must fight for the future of our students, our schools, our healthcare, our jobs—and we must fight for that future now. We cannot wait until 2019 to have a fight against cuts in 2019. That will be too late. We have to be proactive, shaping the future through the leverage of our current full contract campaign.
Why are Los Angeles schools at a tipping point? California is 46th out of 50 among the states in per-pupil funding and 48th out of 50 in teacher-to-student ratio, dramatically affecting class size. In LA, charters have grown at a clip of 287% over the past 10 years, leading to an almost $600 million annual drain from district neighborhood schools. LAUSD sits on a $1.7 billion reserve while teachers spend on average more than $500 per year out of our pocketbooks for our classrooms. The district is offering employees only a 2% salary increase, while the cost of living has increased by 27% since 2006, and while LAUSD School Board members recently received a 174% raise.
This is outrageous—another stunning story to go with the conditions in Kentucky, Puerto Rico, and other spots. We need to fight to shift district money, stem privatization, win more state money, and win demands, economic and non-economic, that shape our working conditions and our students’ learning conditions. The district is currently refusing to bargain, not moving, or not moving enough on salary, class size, charter and co-location regulation, staffing, local control, testing/mandates, safety/discipline, and more. Simply unacceptable.
As with healthcare, we need to build escalating actions to win. We have a plan for just this, aiming to get an agreement by the end of this academic year. April 19 school actions at 900 sites, May faculty meeting boycotts at 900 sites, and a May 24 Stand at Grand action—just like we did in February 2015, with 15,000 of us at City Hall right before our contract victory. And, if we do not have an agreement by the end of the academic year, we will prepare to take strike votes in September.
We need partners in this fight on the state level, which is why electing Tony Thurmond as state superintendent and Gavin Newsom as governor is a critical part of our organizing plan. The primary election is June 5 and the general is November 7—great timing for our contract campaign. With pro-privatizers on the ballot against Thurmond and Newsom, public education will be prominent during the election season, and we will use that attention to call for greater funding, charter accountability, and all the other changes we need in state policy.
Inspired by educators
Through a network of national grassroots education leaders, a few weeks back I was able to take part in a small, in-depth strategy dialogue with Nicole McCormick, a West Virginia teacher leader, and Tammy Berlin, a rank-and-file Kentucky teacher leader, along with a few other organizers around the country. It was inspiring to hear Nicole and Tammy’s stories of how they organized for their strikes and protests. So much was similar to us in their organizing at every school through structures like our Contract Action Teams and through systematic work with parents, youth, and community organizations.
That same type of crucial work is happening here in LA. In my site visit to Porter Ranch Community School in Valley West, chapter chair Lisa Martinez and vice chair Don Kim have helped the school become very well organized. They are at 95% “All In” on the new, Janus-proof membership cards, they are making sure their last few co-workers sign the cards this week to make it to 100%, and their entire staff signed the “Take Action for a Fair Contract” petition, committing to April 19 pickets, May faculty meeting boycotts, May 24 rally, and September strike votes, if necessary. In my meeting there, a 1989 strike veteran spoke very movingly about the importance of solidarity and the concrete wins of the 1989 strike that we benefit from mightily today.
In my site visit to South Gate High School in South Area, I was thrilled to see Laura Vasquez. She and I had taught together for many years at Crenshaw High School, and she had recently moved over to South Gate. When I was chapter chair at Crenshaw, Laura had been a “wing captain,” helping spread union news and dialogue with our co-workers on a particular wing of the main building. At South Gate, she is looking forward to helping chapter chair Carlos Robles organize the escalation for a fair contract within the math department.
At the February 24 youth-led Black Lives Matter in Schools event, I had the pleasure of speaking with UTLA members Deirdre Harris of Fairfax High School in West Area and Krystal Bowser of Muir Middle School in Central Area. They are focused on building with youth and parents as we escalate our contract campaign and its Common Good proposals that aim to win support for the Community Schools model and concrete services for families.
There is much to be optimistic about. We can collectively build the movement we need. To do that, we all need to be involved, and we all need to sign onto the commitment sheets for the April 19 pickets, May faculty meeting boycotts, May 24 rally, and September strike votes, if necessary. Talk to your chapter chair and do it today, if you haven’t yet!
100% “All In” to protect healthcare and win a fair contract
The corrupt LAUSD School Board majority’s rush job to pick a superintendent before Ref Rodriguez’s May 9 court date is their next move to advance privatization and future cuts. As we have reiterated our call for Rodriguez to resign immediately, and our call for a superintendent who is collaborative, an educator, and someone who believes in a public school district, parents and community allies have burst into the lead. The April 10 demonstration at the School Board was quite amazing, with more than 1,600 signatures for Rodriguez’s resignation presented to the School Board, and parent leaders like Rebecca LaFond and Cynthia Martinez telling the LA Times that Ref has no business voting on who should be superintendent or whether a charter should co-locate a district school.
We must be strong at the local level, with actions like these, but we must also be strong against the reactionary headwinds at the national level because they dramatically affect us locally. This is what our “All In” campaign is—facing down the impending Janus U.S. Supreme Court decision that will be the biggest blow to organized labor in 50 years, facing it down by having every single one of our more than 34,000 members sign a new, Janus-proof membership card. Unions across the U.S. are now following UTLA’s lead, doing re-card campaigns as we are. People know about our re-card campaign. Our allies are inspired. Our adversaries will use any shortfall in the campaign as a weapon against us in contract bargaining and in the fight against privatization. We must reach 100% signed on the new cards.
Our goal is audacious, and it needs to be. We must enter the period that the entire labor movement is fretting over—the Janus period—stronger, not weaker, and with more members, not fewer. We are well on our way, with thousands of current members having recommitted to the union on the new cards, and with more than 1,000 new members already in the last two months, having converted from agency fee payers.
If you haven’t signed a new “All In” membership card yet, do it now. That is one of the most concrete and meaningful steps you can take in building our power to protect healthcare and win a fair contract.
Schools and Communities First: Taking on school funding
The West Virginia and Oklahoma struggles, and so many others bubbling right now, are fundamentally about taking on school funding at the state level. As we fight to get LAUSD to reprioritize its money locally, we must fight tooth and nail, just like West Virginia and Oklahoma teachers, to get the state to put more money into education overall. It makes sense that our struggles are similar—after all, California joins West Virginia and Oklahoma at the bottom among the 50 states in per-pupil funding.
Our work with the statewide coalition behind the Schools and Communities First initiative is a crucial part of our 20 by 20 state funding campaign to reach $20,000 per pupil by 2020. The initiative seeks to reform Proposition 13 by closing a corporate tax loophole, by making the wealthiest commercial property owners actually pay their fair share. It would bring $11 billion more to schools and communities annually. The initiative does not affect residential property at all.
When the statewide coalition filed in December 2017 to collect signatures to get Schools and Communities First on the November 2018 ballot, we knew it would be a heavy lift. After all, Prop. 13 has been called “the third rail of California politics” and there has been no real attempt at reforming it in 40 years.
Since December 2017, we, as the coalition, have met some key benchmarks. More than 300,000 signatures have been gathered (585,000 valid ones are required). Media stories has been good, the coalition has broadened (207 supporting organizations, 70 supporting elected officials, 16 local unions), and new potential sources of funding have been identified.
But, we have more work to do on other benchmarks. For example, the polling is very positive, but we need more time to educate voters and to build the polling even stronger. So, the coalition has decided to continue collecting signatures now, which UTLA has been key to, but to aim at getting on the 2020 ballot instead of the 2018 ballot. This is allowed constitutionally, and extends our signature deadline to August 15, with the campaign’s internal deadline being June 30. We need to keep bringing those signature petitions in! Our members are doing inspiring work on this, like Michael Gearin of Harry Bridges SPAN school in Harbor Area. He is a fierce advocate and a great signature-gatherer. If you haven’t signed an official Schools and Communities First petition yet, make sure you do. Every signature counts.
To win the Schools LA Students Deserve and to avoid a tipping point for public education in LA, we need to do this. We can do this. With leaders like Lisa, Don, Laura, Carlos, Deirdre, Krystal, Rebecca, Cynthia, Michael, and you, we will do this. Keep up your great work, thank you for everything you do for students, and I’ll see you on April 19, at the boycotts, and on May 24!