A bold New Deal for our movement

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Let’s push it to the next level in 2019-20.

By Alex Caputo-Pearl

UTLA President

Alex delivered the following State of the Union speech at the 2019 Leadership Conference in July.

 

We will never forget 2018-19. An historic strike with unprecedented wins. The largest public sector strike in a single city of the United States in years. The first large strike since Janus, sending a pro-union message nationwide. The first Red for Ed strike in a blue state, challenging Democrats on their terrible record on funding and privatization. A strike being studied internationally.

Sisters and brothers, our strike put us squarely on the national stage: that’s why we have a candidate for U.S. president at the Leadership Conference: Senator Bernie Sanders. Having Bernie here doesn’t mean UTLA is endorsing him. If we endorse for U.S. president, we have a democratic process for that. Bernie is here because, frankly, he’s always been here. Bernie endorsed Steve Zimmer and Imelda Padilla for LAUSD school board. He was the first presidential candidate to endorse our strike. His organization put boots on the ground during the strike. Bernie’s campaign is based on the same premise as our strike—that we need a movement, not a single leader. And, Bernie is here because his Thurgood Marshall Plan for education most crystallizes our core beliefs—dramatically increase school funding, put a moratorium on charter growth, and support strikes and other actions to get there—and he is driving every other democratic candidate towards these positions.

Alex and the UTLA officers at the Leadership Conference in July.
Alex and the UTLA officers at the Leadership Conference in July.

Sisters and brothers, for the first time in 40 years, there is progressive momentum in public education. But, it is not a time to get self-satisfied. It is a time to get bolder. Our New Deal for Public Schools draws from the New Deal in the 1930s that reconstructed the economy. It draws from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. It is a call to transform public education. There are five clear planks. Nurture the Whole Child. Respect Educators. Respect Students and Parents. Fully Fund Public Schools. Stop Privatization. Our New Deal drives making our contract wins real through enforcement. It frames our upcoming contract reopeners and healthcare bargaining. It supports a strategy to win the school board. It drives the work to pass the Schools and Communities First ballot measure. It shapes the narrative in the U.S. presidential elections.

Strikes work

Let’s talk about how we got here. The most important accomplishment of our strike was the explosion of grassroots leadership.

Chapter chair Rosanne Altin at LA High ran incredible picket lines—so incredible that veteran educator Cristina Lewis said the strike was the most important thing she has done in her career. One of the most important things she’s done in her life.

At Harry Bridges, elementary teacher and chapter chair Phylis Hoffman, with Nataly Santos, Michael Gearin, Luis Mora, and others, did incredible leadership development, including scores of people in roles on the picket line.

At South Gate High, chapter chair Vikki Barkley, and leaders like Fidencio Gallardo, helped members connect with community so deeply that the hot dog place across the street was a strike headquarters.

While you empowered members, our community partners in Reclaim Our Schools LA empowered parents and students. In Central and East Areas, parents Maria Osorio, Noemi Galindo, and others canvassed schools in support of the strike. RFK student Neelima Hossain and others went to UTLA every day of the strike to plan nightly actions at the homes of Monica Garcia, Austin Beutner, and others.

Every movement rises on its ability to develop new leaders, to have more and more people willing to take risks. We did that. Strikes work.

The second accomplishment in the strike is something we’ve talked about for 20 years. We dominated the media, public relations, air waves, and social media. We fundamentally shifted the narrative. Read the LA Times. The LA privatizers know they’ve lost the narrative. Watch the Democratic Party debates. The candidates who have supported privatization most—Booker, Biden, Bennett—they know they’ve lost the narrative. We did that. Strikes work.

The third accomplishment of our strike: We won a broader and deeper agreement than most unions ever dream to. We won 90% of our victories while on strike or in the bounces after the strike.

On class size, we killed Section 1.5 and have enforceable class-size caps at every level, TK through 12. At so many site meetings, our members have said the same thing to me: If killing 1.5 alone is what we had won in the strike, it would have been worth it. But, we got more—the first class-size reduction program we’ve seen in decades, unfolding over the next three years, and paving the way for more. Strikes work.

We won a 6% permanent retroactive pay increase with no cuts to future educators’ healthcare. The district fought for those cuts. They wanted at least one concession. They got no concessions. Strikes work.

On Community Schools, we won almost triple the investment that community groups had demanded at the school board, only to be rejected, six months earlier. Thirty high-needs schools are going through the Community School transformation process, engaging parents, broadening curriculum, building wraparound services, and providing a model for the rest of the district. Strikes work.

A nurse in every school. A librarian in every secondary school. No cuts to library aide money. A guaranteed student-to-counselor ratio. Work space for all itinerants and HHS workers. A foundation from which to fight for more psychologists and psychiatric social workers, which we’ll do in our contract reopeners in January 2020. Strikes work.

I’m proud that we are the collective UTLA leadership that opened the special education article for the first time in 38 years. We won important first steps. District norms for caseloads. Guarantees on getting caseload information. Release days for educators to do testing. The right to bargain changes in instructional delivery, including inclusion. Special education will combine with mental health staffing as one of our contract re-openers in January 2020. Strikes work.

We won commitments to reduce standardized testing by 50% and to expand ethnic studies. We won working conditions and pay victories in early education, adult education, for ROC/ROP educators, and for substitute educators. Strikes work.

We won victories on local decision-making, winning the right to vote before there is a magnet conversion. Winning increased rights on local budgets. Winning new powers for Local School Leadership Councils in Community Schools. Strikes work.

We set a new standard for the national Bargaining for the Common Good movement. We brought issues to the table that we had no legal right to bargain—and we won. More green space and fewer bungalows. District support for immigrant families, so crucial as we fight Donald Trump’s policies. And, in a victory heard across the country, we contributed to the movement to end random searches by eliminating them at 28 schools. Strikes work.

We won on the two biggest issues of our time: underfunding and privatization. The mayor and LAUSD committed to support the Schools and Communities First ballot initiative in November 2020. The governor is exploring changes to special education and HHS funding formulas. We won contract language forcing the district to inform school communities earlier about possible charter co-location. We won contract language establishing union co-location liaisons with influence over shared-use agreements. And, we won a commitment from the LAUSD board to call on Governor Newsom for a moratorium on new charters. Strikes work.

But, sisters and brothers, we won beyond what we got at the table. Our strike reverberated for months. A week after our strike, the LAUSD board called on Newsom for the charter moratorium. That same week, LA County allocated $10 million to school-based mental health. Still that same week, CTA joined CFT and endorsed Schools and Communities First. And, that same week, our UTLA members at Accelerated Charter won their strike, only the second charter strike in United States history. Two weeks after our strike, Newsom announced a task force studying the impact of charters for the first time since 1992. A month after our strike, LAUSD, the mayor, and city council created Measure EE, the first local school funding measure in decades. And at that very same time, Oakland educators struck for the first time in 20 years and won.

Two months after our strike, Senate Bill 126 passed, the first charter transparency law in years. Three months after our strike, Austin Beutner backed off his “Re: Imagine” portfolio plan. And, four months after our strike, Jackie Goldberg crushed it with over 70% of the vote, fundamentally shifting power on the School Board.

Five months after our strike, four more bounces. The mayor announced free student passes on DASH buses, echoing the Bus Riders Union’s demands and our common good demands. Austin Beutner said the district can afford our agreement, which we knew—but, importantly, this reversed what he had said previously. The school community at Catskill Elementary, inspired by the strike, not only stopped GANAS charter from co-locating, but stopped GANAS from opening, period. This followed a powerful victory led by Eastside Padres Contra la Privatización to stop a mega-KIPP charter school from opening in East LA. And, Students Deserve, Students Not Suspects, Black Lives Matter, UTLA, and others took the final step against random searches, with the LAUSD Board voting to eliminate them entirely by June 2020. Strikes and movements work together.

How we built our power

Sisters and brothers, just as important as what we won are the principles we used to build power. That started over five years ago.

First, in 2014, we defined what a union is. A union is not a third party that simply services members in a one-dimensional way. It is not a fraction of activists doing militant actions. A union is all members acting collectively to force those in power to give us what we and our students deserve.

Second, we committed to organizing. Relentless officer dialogues with members at schools. Establishing Reclaim Our Schools LA. Training chapter leaders on parent organizing. Learning from Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. Organizing with union and non-union charter educators.

Third, we committed to social justice unionism and captured the public narrative. We didn’t just talk about racial justice. We brought racial justice to the bargaining table and won. We communicated relentlessly and made our demands the common-sense demands of the entire city.

Fourth, we knew we needed to be strike-ready from the beginning, and we thought outside the box. Every union should be prepared to use its most powerful weapon. That weapon is strikes where they are legal. And, that weapon is walk-outs where strikes are illegal. We bargained for the common good: bringing random searches, immigrant support, and more to the table.

The district argued our strike buildup was illegal, saying it was based on these issues, which they claimed were outside the legal scope of bargaining. We pressed forward. We pushed our issues. We struck. And, the district ended up bargaining exactly those issues they said were outside the legal scope. We didn’t just think outside the box—we shattered the box, and we won.

Fifth, we used escalating actions to build structures, work lists, develop leaders, and test our reach. A chapter chair at every school. Contract Action Teams of one leader for every ten members at hundreds of schools. Monthly rosters for chapter chairs. Assessing each member through one-on-ones. Tracking it all on our database. Watching so many leaders blossom into incredible organizers.

We need to ingrain these five power-building principles into our organizational culture. And, sisters and brothers, we need to help other unions across the country use these principles-- so that we have the fighting United States labor movement we need.

The results of this work were amazing: 98% participation on picket lines. 60,000 coming downtown three times in one week. Daily picket line reporting systems. Daily communications. Nightly parent/community actions.

UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl with Mariachi
Alex with Mariachi UTLA—one of two strike-forged music groups, along with the Red 4 Ed Marching Band, that played at the Leadership Conference.

Delevan Elementary students serenading their striking teachers. Carpenter Elementary carpool karaoke. Venice High leading picket line dances. Hands Across Colfax parent action. Students singing, “Mr. Beutner, are you home?” outside his neighborhood’s gates. Bill Maher, Saturday Night Live, and Trevor Noah giving our strike love.

I am so proud to have done this with you. Sisters and brothers, we did this together.

Privatizers push back

We knew there would be counterattacks.

The billionaires’ first post-strike counterattack was doubling down on Janus. Now, canvassers come to your house to try to get you to drop the union.

The billionaires’ second post-strike counterattack was to use the LA Chamber of Commerce to defeat Measure EE. Saying we are overpaid. Attacking public education. Creating racist fear through the image of paying slightly more taxes to go to a district of students of color. While working-class South LA, East LA, Central LA, and parts of the East Valley went strongly for EE, we lost badly elsewhere. Our adversaries reaffirmed that the war over public education is a class war.

And our adversaries always use racism in that class war. Racism that hurts our students, our co-workers, our families, and all of us. But, we will rise. Even with all of this, the Measure EE campaign made us stronger. The mayor, district, and city council are now on our side on school funding. Tens of thousands of voters were identified as supporters of progressive taxation. These are essential building blocks for Schools and Communities First.

The billionaires’ third counterattack was uncovered in secret emails published in the LA Times revealing that charter industry leaders profoundly understand how badly we beat them in the strike. They say UTLA organized for many years to win—they say they want to copy us. They complain that conventional wisdom now sees charters as backed by billionaires. They whine about being neither feared nor loved. But, the emails also outline their chilling plan. Take back the School Board in 2020. Take the mayor’s office in 2022. Keep draining the district of funds through lawsuits. And the last part of their plan in the emails is two simple words: Attack UTLA. They are coming hard after our students, schools, profession, and healthcare.

Sisters and brothers, we face a choice. It is personified by Marshé Doss, a student from Dorsey High. She’s a leader in Students Deserve and ROSLA. Marshé was a powerful voice in the strike, at Beutner’s and Garcia’s houses, on picket lines and in board offices. After the strike, Marshé told me, “I still have the shoes I wore during the strike. They’re still muddy and I haven’t cleaned them, because that’s just something you want to remember.”

Marshé often talks about what motivates her—her little sister, Aleyah, now entering Obama Middle School. Marshé knows that the promise of public education brought her father’s family to Los Angeles from Louisiana, and brought her mother to LA from Texas.

Marshé worries about Aleyah. Obama, in the heart of South LA, is in a community of incredible people, histories, traditions, and organizations. Yet, it is also wracked by poverty, displacement, and the impacts of institutional racism. Marshé wants to make things better for Aleyah­—lower class sizes, a Community School, freedom from dehumanizing random searches. Our strike victories were a revelation to Marshé and Aleyah. They felt their power. They felt incredible hope.

The choice we face, sisters and brothers, is whether we allow those who want to destroy public education to roll back our victories and crush Marshé and Aleyah’s hopes—or whether we aggressively enforce our contract, and fight to win more, shoulder to shoulder with Marshé and Aleyah. Are we going to fight, win, and lift up the dreams of these two young women? Are we going to lift up their dreams, UTLA?

Yes, we are.

Our New Deal for Public Schools

We’re going to do it with five steps in our 2019-20 strategic plan. Each step is energized by Our New Deal for Public Schools.

First, building strength member by member. We have maintained membership density in the age of Janus at 95% and we’re going to go higher, through chapter chairs approaching nonmembers, home visits to nonmembers, and presentations at new employee workshops.

Moreover, we’re at the highest rate of PACE members we’ve been at for decades, but we’re still under 50%. We need chapter chairs getting commitments for PACE, officers visiting schools about the board elections, and retirees continuing their incredible momentum giving to PACE. That’s doubling down on our New Deal.

Second, we’re launching a school-by-school contract enforcement program. We won our strike—now we make our victories real. We enforce every single aspect.

We’ve created a comprehensive strategy for winning contract enforcement. At the second area meeting, in August, we’ll dive even deeper on contract enforcement.

Also on contract enforcement, our Contract Action Teams will become superpowered Chapter Action Teams. These structures of one leader to every 10 members set up systems for action around local contract issues, as well as citywide issues. And now we connect them to neighborhoods to involve parents in contract enforcement, elections, and actions on elected officials. Our new Political Action and Community Organizing department will be crucial.

Finally, we are excited to unveil a comprehensive chapter leader training program. Our chapter leaders will get ongoing training through four modules: on representing members, common contract violations, local councils, organizing around site issues, organizing around citywide issues, working lists, building CATs, understanding the big picture fight, and organizing with parents. You will be the worst nightmare for bad principals and privatizers, and the best hope for our students. That’s doubling down on our New Deal.

Third, we organize behind contract reopeners in January 2020 and renewal of healthcare by December 2020. We can reopen on salary and two items. Sisters and brothers, one of the items we will reopen will be continuing the battle for our most vulnerable students, fighting for special education. Fighting for school psychologists and psychiatric social workers. So many of us are touched by special education and mental health issues. It’s close to our hearts and homes. We opened this special education battle for the first time in 38 years with our strike last year—and we’re going right back at it this year.

And, when the charter industry writes “Attack UTLA,” they mean attack healthcare. Ben Austin, a high-priced lawyer, and his wife, who made triple digits working for a few months to kill Measure EE—these are the people attacking our healthcare. Ben Austin should teach for 20 years, come back in 2039 and tell us whether educators deserve good healthcare. Remember, sisters and brothers, on that last early morning of the strike, the district tried with all their might to do two things: hold on to Section 1.5 and get cuts to healthcare. They got neither. We beat them on both. We will do it again when we protect healthcare in 2020. That’s doubling down on our New Deal.

Fourth, we keep moving state and national policy. Maria Elena Durazo and Cristy Smith, two legislators willing to take on the charter industry, will be with us tomorrow at the PACE reception. And, Patrick O’Donnell has sponsored California Assembly Bill 1505, with the support of CTA and CFT. It gives school districts discretion to reject new charters if public school programs are undermined. It passed the Assembly. It was watered down some by amendments in the Senate. Some corporate Democrats are calling for even more amendments. Let’s be clear. Keep 1505 as it is. Democrats who don’t think public school districts should be able to protect their own programs, shame on you. Expect your votes to be broadcast to the world.

On the national level, we use the fact that almost every candidate for U.S. president supported our strike. This doesn’t mean they agree with our demands, although some do. It means that our strike and demands were popular, and they had to get behind us. But more, we use the fact that UTLA has been a driving force in the national Fund Our Future campaign. This campaign has legislation in the U.S. Congress now calling for the federal government to follow through on its Title I and IDEA promises. Fund students in poverty and in special education at the rates you promised in the 1960s and 1970s. The payback for decades of broken promises comes to hundreds of billions of dollars.

Sisters and brothers, speaking of national politics, Donald Trump is dangerous, he’s a racist, and he’s a sexist. We must defeat him. But, that cannot mean that movements don’t challenge Democrats. That would be cutting off our nose to spite our face. Democrats are guilty too of enabling racism and sexism. Presiding over the richest state in the country, with the highest percentage of students of color, and one of the lowest per-pupil funding levels—that’s enabling institutional racism. Supporting the charter industry’s attacks on public school teachers’ jobs, in a job sector dominated by women—that’s enabling institutional sexism. We must insist that AFT and NEA endorse a candidate for U.S. president who unapologetically supports a moratorium on charters and a massive infusion into Title I and IDEA. We call on other teacher unions to follow UTLA’s lead and invite candidates and make them address these issues. That’s doubling down on our New Deal.

Fifth and finally, 2020 is crucial for local and state elections. So many youth, parents, community members, and union members went from our picket lines to our precinct walks for Jackie and EE. We need to deepen that connection. Four school board elections—districts 1, 3, 5, and 7—will be decided in 2020 on a new cycle. For the first time, board elections are lined up with U.S. presidential elections. Voting centers will be open longer and turnout will be higher. We can win over half the school board. We will use Our New Deal pledge with candidates and elected officials. And, make no mistake, the billionaires will break their 2017 record. They will make 2020 the most expensive school board race in United States history.

But, there’s more. As we move closer to putting one piece of the school-to-prison pipeline into the dustbin—random searches—and as we fight for special education, we will also vote in March 2020 on the Reform LA initiative. This would start the long overdue process of taking funding from county jails and putting it into county services for the mentally ill and homeless.

And, then, sisters and brothers, a landmark election on school funding. In 2018, we worked with California Calls to gather signatures to put the Schools and Communities First measure on the November 2020 state ballot. SCF challenges the corporate loophole in Prop. 13 for the first time in 40 years. It is a purely progressive tax, not hitting homeowners, renters, or small businesses. It raises taxes only on the wealthiest corporations. Corporations that have had their property taxes frozen for decades, robbing schools and services of over $11 billion per year. This has allowed those corporations to use their extra money to push anti-union and anti-funding legislation. Sisters and brothers, the chronic underfunding that has characterized our entire careers—from spending thousands out of our pockets to not having enough school staff—we can land a huge blow against that with SCF. Props. 30 and 55 kept our heads above water. SCF moves us forward. Let’s win this in 2020.

You’ll learn tomorrow that political games are always played. Especially when Democrats are afraid of their own shadow on taxes, even purely progressive taxes. So, even though we are currently on the ballot, some technicalities may be used to undermine the current version of SCF. But, no problem. After the LA and Oakland strikes, our SCF coalition is stronger than ever. We’ll just collect signatures again, use it to build more momentum, and show that the richest state in the nation should close corporate tax loopholes. That’s doubling down on our New Deal.

Own your leadership

Sisters and brothers, we all need to lead over the next 16 months. You are amazing leaders. You all have your own leadership stories. I’ll close by telling you one of them.

Velia Casillas was chapter chair at Canoga Park Elementary in the buildup to the strike, and during the strike. Through the consistent euphoric moments and the occasional low moments of the strike, she did an incredible job. Velia’s father came to the U.S. as a migrant worker in the late 1960s. Each summer, he visited his family in Mexico. Velia’s mother was pregnant with her when the whole family came to the U.S. Velia grew up in working-class communities in the Valley, mostly Canoga Park. She went to LAUSD schools and graduated from Reseda High. While attending CSUN, she was a teaching assistant at her old elementary school. When she graduated, Velia became the first person in her family with a college degree.

Velia got a teaching job at Canoga Park Elementary, around the corner from where she grew up. She’s taught there for 18 years. It can be difficult, but she loves it. Velia’s own children attend LAUSD schools. She goes to church in the neighborhood and works at the local park. She sees her students and their families all the time. Velia told me that she owes her leadership skills to UTLA, and that through her family and union work, she finds meaning and purpose. Velia’s picket lines at Canoga Park were rooted, crowded, emotional, fierce, unbreakable, unbeatable. And, Velia has now given us something only a great organizer can—a new leader, Wendy Lozano, who will take over as chapter chair, while Velia deepens the parent work.

Sisters and brothers, we are all Velia in our own ways. We have always done some of the most important work in the world as educators. And, at this point in history, we are doing the most important movement-building work in the world. Our strike declared that to the world. You led that.

Sisters and brothers, own your leadership story. Bottle that feeling you had when you took the reins and organized your picket line. Nurture that feeling with pride.

Use that bottled feeling to push it to the next level in 2019-20. Embrace your leadership. Long-term leadership. Movement leadership. Collective leadership. Loving leadership. Leadership that joins Marshé, Aleyah, and Velia. Leadership for Our New Deal.

Sisters and brothers, we made history with our strike and we’re going to make it again. We will enforce our contract. Increase our membership. Win contract reopeners. Protect our healthcare. Regulate charters. Shape the U.S. presidential race. Win four school board seats. Win Reform LA. Fight for Title I and IDEA. We will be the ones who end the corporate loophole in Prop. 13 and win Schools and Communities First. We made history in 2018-19. Let’s double-down and make history in 2019-20 with Our New Deal. You are wonderful, UTLA. I love you, UTLA. Keep up your organizing, UTLA. Let’s do this!