Our connections with each other make us strong

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Alex Caputo-Pearl at Russell EL
Above, Alex Caputo-Pearl joins members on a site visit at Russell Elementary.

I hope you are having a wonderful and restful winter break, filled with love, happiness, family, and friends. As the people working with our students every day and making great contributions to the city and to society, you deserve rest and rejuvenation.

2017 has been an eventful year, full of our members and our allies taking exciting action — please see the end-of-the-year review on pages 6 and 7 for some of the high points. 2018 will bring even more onto the stage.


The fires and smoke remind us

We don’t have to look too far back into 2017 to be reminded of the importance of our connections with each other, in schools and across schools, and the importance of our union to all of us. Very early in the morning on Tuesday, December 5, we started getting calls and texts from members who were at schools near the Creek fire in Sylmar and from even more schools that were affected dramatically by the air-quality issues resulting from the fire. 


Alex Caputo-Pearl at Verdugo Hills HS

Above, Alex Caputo-Pearl checking on the fire cleanup at Verdugo Hills High School on December 11 with chapter leaders Mark Woodhouse and Aaron Peterson.


As I hustled to get across the San Fernando Valley, I had seen nothing like it—there was heavy smoke for miles. As I visited schools in the region, we redoubled our efforts to advocate to the district, the Air Quality Management District, and others that schools be closed immediately and people be allowed to stay indoors. When the Skirball fire erupted very early the following morning, it deeply affected schools that had already been subject to incredibly bad air quality emanating from the Creek fire.

Our union, in all its essential component parts, worked in this crisis. Members at school sites gave concrete information, photographs, and more that helped the advocacy of officers, area chairs, members of the board of directors, and staff as we pushed for schools to be shut down and later pushed for a full deep-cleaning of all impacted sites and for resources to get to our members in need.

District leadership should have responded to the calls to shut the schools down more quickly, and we will make sure that this is remembered the next time we face a crisis like this. But, there were also many things the district did well. After weekend visits to schools that were being cleaned and on Monday, December 11, when officers visited 24 schools across the closure zones that were reopening for the first time in days, we found our members to be impressed with the cleanup. On that Monday morning, when I visited and talked to chapter chairs and vice chairs — Aaron Peterson and Mark Woodhouse from Verdugo Hills High School, Krystal Wharton from Vinedale Elementary, Maria Zia and John Lucas from Lassen Elementary, Sue Crosby from Sepulveda Middle School, and Kim Uchida from Revere Middle School — it was incredibly helpful to get their assessments of the crisis, the district response, the cleanup, and more. Please see page 8 for an FAQ on issues related to the fires.

Our connections with each other and with our union make us stronger, whether regarding school issues, our healthcare, or responding to natural disasters like the fires and air quality.

Our strategy carries us into 2018

Our strategy over the past few years has been clear: 

  • Organize every school site to be ready for action on school site and citywide issues;
  • Build strong connections with parents and community on school issues and social justice issues;
  • Use our organized power to shape bargaining, politics, and elections; and 
  • Communicate effectively to the public the real stories of our students and members and the real problems with the privatizers, the billionaires, and those in the district who aren’t willing to confront them.

This strategy has been effective over the past few years, and it was most recently effective in getting the district to move from trying to gut our healthcare to offering us a three-year agreement with no increased costs to members. While this is tremendous progress, we are pushing for the best possible agreement, and we continue healthcare negotiations early next month.

Now, our strategy carries us into 2018. We will continue building our Contract Action Teams (CATs) at every single school and escalate pressure on the district around salary, class size, staffing, charter operator accountability, Community Schools, equity for underrepresented groups, and respect for our profession, through addressing overtesting, lack of support for school discipline, and lack of decision-making power for educators and parents at schools. The district continues to be unresponsive to our contract proposals, and we’ve got to increase the public pressure.

In 2018, we will deepen our 20 x 20 campaign — $20,000 per student in school funding by the year 2020 —which continues to capture people’s imagination across the state. Just in the past few days, two steps forward were achieved. On December 15, the statewide, community-labor Make It Fair coalition formally filed for an initiative to be on the ballot in November 2018 (UTLA has been on Make It Fair’s steering committee for three years). If approved by state voters, the initiative would close the loophole that the wealthiest commercial property owners have been jumping through, tax-free, for decades —to the tune of bringing an additional $10 billion into the state budget for schools and social services.

And, our community and parent partners in Reclaim Our Schools LA moved us forward a great deal. After sending a letter in November to a variety of billionaires in Los Angeles who have been funding the privatization of public schools, and after showing up to privatizer-ally Ref Rodriguez’s court date on December 13 to reiterate the call for his resignation, these parent and community leaders showed up at the offices of billionaires on December 19 to get a response to their November letter. The questions they posed were simple. Why are you funding opportunities for some students, but not all? Why are you privatizing and segmenting our schools instead of fighting to fund all of them appropriately? Will you take on the real crisis in California public education, which is being 46th out of 50 among the states in per-pupil funding? They let the billionaires know that if they’re not willing to do that, they need to be prepared to be called out. This is exciting grassroots action.

In 2018, we will also be prepared for what the Supreme Court, fresh off Donald Trump having appointed the swing vote, will give us in June: a decision on Janus v. AFSCME. This case has been funded by a collection of right-wing, anti-union, pro-privatization forces, and it overturns decades of established law. It directly undermines unions by encouraging people to become “free riders.” In other words, people could get the benefits of the union — around healthcare, salary, working conditions, learning conditions, policy advocacy, school funding advocacy, member rights, and so on — without paying dues for it. In essence, the US will become a “right to work” nation for public sector employees, and union members will be encouraged to shirk what is collectively our responsibility and ask their co-workers to handle it for them. Janus is a direct attempt to divide us, and crush our union.

Yet, we will not be stopped by Donald Trump’s Supreme Court and the most existential threat to unions in a generation. Our students, our co-workers, the notion of a truly public school system, and we ourselves depend too much on having a vibrant, fighting union to let that happen. At a January 4 all-city chapter chair meeting (chairs: please send designees if you can’t make it), we will review our six-month reaffirmation and recommitment plan to ensure that we enter the post-Janus world stronger as a union, a profession, and a movement, not weaker. It is possible, and we will do it. 

Some of my favorite times as a teacher at Crenshaw High School were at our staff parties right before the winter break. Our students buzzing about the break, my colleagues singing and playing instruments, feeling accomplishment for the year completed and planning for the year ahead, our warm conversations spilling over into gatherings at my family’s house down the street from the school and allowing opportunities for my co-workers to meet my family. December is a very special time. And, now, I feel lucky to experience these same feelings of warmth at so many schools across the city. We are so powerful together — in our relationships with co-workers and parents, in our collective spirit, and in our union. May you have a holiday season filled with joy, happiness, and love — and come back rejuvenated for a crucial 2018!