The healthcare victory is our launching pad

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UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl with UTLA members at SOCES in red tee group shit in the auditorium.
Above, Alex stands with UTLA members at SOCES in Valley West Area, in January 2018.

It is crucial you vote, reaffirm membership, and join PACE February 8-15


2018 started on a somber note with Michelle King stepping down as superintendent. I’ve known King for many years, first working with her when I was at Crenshaw High and she was at Local District West. I respect her experience within public schools, her commitment to the civic institution of public education, her groundedness as a classroom educator, and her many accomplishments in the fight for high-quality education for all students.

So many of us have expressed our fullest commitment to stand with King in her current fight against cancer and for her health. Let’s keep Michelle King in our thoughts and prayers as we move forward and as we continue to engage the crucial issues of the day with Interim Superintendent Vivian Ekchian.

The School Board, with its billionaire-bankrolled, pro-privatization majority, will choose our next permanent superintendent. We must continue to work with Reclaim Our Schools LA to challenge Ref Rodriguez, who faces multiple felony counts yet remains the swing vote on the board. It becomes even more important to show unity and strength as UTLA members since Rodriguez shows no desire to do the right thing and step down. 

Certainly it was our unity and strength that won an excellent healthcare tentative agreement. It was achieved through strategic, concerted, and broad escalating actions, and we successfully pushed back district officials and privatizers who threatened to cut our healthcare for months. See the details of the agreement in the cover story and on page 8, showing the actual agreement as well as a summary of the TA and the pro/con statements. 

Why showing and growing our strength is essential now

We now must use the momentum gathered through our recent organizing victory to get California out of 46th place among the 50 states in per-pupil funding. We are fighting for California to stop privatization and the unregulated growth of independent charters that is undermining neighborhood schools and the future of our district as a whole. We are fighting for a visionary Community Schools model and for investments in our neighborhood schools that will reverse the declining enrollment that threatens our students’ learning conditions, our working conditions, our jobs, and our healthcare. We are demanding LAUSD stand up for its own survival, the survival of a public school system that serves all.

We are fighting for LAUSD to get into the above struggles with real might — particularly in the wake of cities like New Orleans and Detroit no longer having true public education systems, but rather loosely networked sets of privatized independent charter schools that do not serve all students, are non-union, and are becoming teacher turnover factories.

With the state and district unable or unwilling to lead, our union is our primary vehicle for these fights — our union and our connections to parents, youth, community organizations, and families.

And, yet at this very moment, the U.S. Supreme Court, with Donald Trump’s appointment creating the majority needed, is readying to level the most fundamental attack on unions in decades. The billionaire-backed Janus v. AFSCME case, which we expect to be decided in June and immediately implemented thereafter, will overturn decades of established law that required workers who decided not to be union members to still contribute to the union financially. That established law makes sense. Those workers who decide not to be union members still, as a matter of law, get the pay raises, the healthcare, the wins on working conditions, the representation when facing discipline or arbitrary bosses, and so on, so it makes sense that they would contribute, and not allow their co-workers to carry the financial load for them. In overturning that established law, Janus is an attempt to financially undermine our union.

Janus will overturn that established law with the clear intent to deal the final blow to unions in the United States — our country has dropped from over 33% union density in the 1960s to density approaching single digits now. The billionaires and anti-union forces behind Janus will use the decision to target the largest and strongest unions. Teachers’ unions nationally will be targets, and UTLA, as the second-largest teacher union local in the country, will be a specific target.

The billionaires will create phone banks to specifically encourage our members to drop their memberships. They will take legal action to wrap us up bureaucratically. They will take legal action to challenge whether or not our old membership forms hold up legally under the new Janus construct and try to establish that we have no or very few members.

While many California Democrats will say publicly that they oppose Janus, privatizers like Antonio Villaraigosa and his longtime colleague Marshall Tuck — both running for state office in 2018 — will do the bidding of their financial backers and secretly push to undermine teacher unions and our right to collectively bargain.

Villaraigosa, candidate for governor, has called teachers’ unions the greatest barrier to making schools successful, supports unregulated charter growth, attempted to do away with democratically elected school boards, has attacked our healthcare and pensions, and supports the idea of tying our pay and evaluation to student test scores. And Marshall Tuck, candidate for state superintendent, rides alongside him on most issues. It is crucial that we defeat Villaraigosa and Tuck in November.

Under the above conditions, it is vital that we show and grow our unity and strength — and use that unity and strength to defend our primary vehicle for the fight, our union, from Janus and to drive our vehicle into the battles ahead to achieve the Schools LA Students Deserve. We have a plan to do exactly that. 


Our plan: The SLASD campaign, the ratification vote, and 'UTLA All In'

The first action we take centers around the school-by-school healthcare ratification vote, which offers a great opportunity to fight back these privatizers by engaging in our membership reaffirmation and PACE (political action fund) membership drive, between February 8 and February 15. The first phase of this plan is based on doubling-down on tried-and-true organizing practices. I’ll give you an example.

In 1997, after having taken a couple of years to focus on community organizing and the master’s program in Urban Planning at UCLA, I entered LAUSD as a decently experienced teacher. I had taught elementary school from 1990 to 1995 in the Compton Unified School District. But, I had not yet had the experience of participating in citywide, school-by-school contract ratification votes the way UTLA does it.

At my new LAUSD school, Muir Middle School in South LA, my chapter chair, Carol Jordan, made sure that the election station during ratification votes was prominent and that educators didn’t take for granted the fact that we were voting — a right that people in society have fought and died for more broadly, and a right at workplaces with unions that we should not take for granted as the United States has steadily become a more non-union environment since the 1960s.

Carol had put together an informal team of leaders across campus, and together, they hustled around the school to make sure that everyone was reminded to vote. Carol’s strategy is grounded in what we are building now at each school site: our Contract Action Team, which we have formed at hundreds of our schools. I always have thought of Carol as the kind of person who is the backbone of UTLA — a leader who motivates a core of other leaders to then reach into every corner of the school, to every member.

Carol used the TA vote as an organizing tool: a way to connect and build power among her colleagues. Now, we must double down on Carol Jordan’s approach and get as many of our members to participate in the UTLA All In campaign to: 1) ratify our healthcare TA; 2) get everyone to sign new membership cards that will be stronger legally in a Janus environment; and 3) get everyone contributing to PACE, which legally must be a separate, voluntary fund, to defeat Villaraigosa and Tuck. 

By using the unique, citywide opportunity and engagement of a ratification vote, and by using our Contract Action Teams at our sites to engage our co-workers in conversations and to ensure everyone participates in the process, we build our strength and unity through five actions:

  1. Massive voter turnout. As privatizer Nick Melvoin publicly criticizes the healthcare tentative agreement, saying the district should have gone stronger for cuts, we reemphasize the crucial importance of healthcare for the long-term, through a massive turnout for this ratification vote. 
  2. Organize. As we reiterate to our co-workers that we won the healthcare tentative agreement through building CATs, organizing coalitions, and doing escalating public actions, we educate them on the crucial need to now, in turn, escalate our contract campaign in exactly the way we escalated to win on healthcare — through Big Red Tuesdays, school-site actions like picketing, regional rallies, and more.
    • The district is stonewalling on issues that are fundamental to saving LAUSD: salaries during a teacher shortage, class-size limits and school discipline to attract parents, local decision-making instead of principal-only decision-making, staffing such as nurses and librarians, cutting top-down mandates and testing, common-sense independent charter accountability, and building support for Community Schools. Our goal is to reach an agreement this school year.

      As we escalate and build to major actions in May, we will be increasing our strike readiness. If the district isn’t willing to take care of the most basic building blocks for its own survival and isn’t committed to not going the way of New Orleans and Detroit, we will be ready to take the actions necessary to save our schools.

      This escalation doesn’t just help pressure the district — it helps move our campaign for 20 x 20 and state funding around California, as we challenge the state to correct its dismal 46 out of 50 ranking in per-pupil funding. 
  3. Recommit. As we reiterate to our co-workers that it was our union that won a great healthcare TA and that our union is the best vehicle for saving public education for the above fights, we use the ratification process to talk with every member about signing a new, updated-for-Janus membership card to defend our union and our ability to fight. It is a huge opportunity to get those cards signed during the ratification process between February 8 and February 15. 
  4. Educate. As we engage with our colleagues during this healthcare ratification vote, we systematically use the opportunity to increase the number of members who contribute to PACE, the voluntary political action fund, and encourage those who already contribute to up their contribution. Villaraigosa and Tuck will have tens of millions of dollars behind them, and while we cannot match that, we need as much political funding as possible to stay in the ring with them. PACE contributions are crucial because we cannot spend regular dues money on political campaigns — it must be through members signing up for voluntary contributions under PACE. We have a huge opportunity to strengthen PACE during the ratification vote of February 8 to February 15.
  5. Build power. Crucially, we must use the ratification vote, membership, and PACE process outlined above to strengthen our school-site structures between February 8 and February 15 — in the same way Carol Jordan did at Muir Middle School back in the 1990s.
    • Those of our schools with established Contract Action Teams: use the process of voting, reminding people to vote, the membership card and PACE process, etc., to strengthen those CAT leaders and CATs.

      Give CAT leaders responsibilities in getting folks to the election/membership/PACE stations and give them support to help them succeed. Those of our schools without CATs: use this process of setting up the election/membership/PACE stations, having dialogues with members, and encouraging people to vote, recommit, and sign up, as a way to identify CAT leaders, and help them follow through on concrete work, so that by the end of the process, you have an ongoing CAT.

      Remember, CATs help with everything—getting your members involved in taking on school site issues, contract enforcement, citywide issues, and more.

Educators are used to struggling, and we can win. At the height of John Deasy’s reign at LAUSD, there were people who thought that he would never be removed and that educators and students would remain under him and his policies forever. We organized and got rid of him. Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago tried to shut down dozens of schools in that city, but communities and educators fought back and didn’t let him get what he wanted. 

We can face the challenges of 2018 together, and we can win. As Jennifer Ritz, chapter chair at San Pedro High School, said, “In the coming weeks, I’m going to make sure that my members stand up, re-commit, and say ‘In your face’ to the privatizers who don’t think we get it.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. It is wonderful working with you.

Keep up your great work with the students of LA every day, and let’s make February 8 to February 15 a week that goes down in history as one of the most active, positive, reaffirming weeks in the history of teacher unions. Together, we can do this.