Our healthcare, our students, our schools, our future

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Above, Alex with members from Le Conte Middle School and 24th Street Elementary.

Our healthcare, our students, our schools, our future: All-out for October 11 and November 16

We live in trying times. We have witnessed tremendous natural disasters, surely exacerbated by global warming, and incredible human violence, which tears at our souls.

With each passing day, the importance of schools is reemphasized, the importance of engaging young people and helping to instill confidence in navigating a complicated world. Maintaining and strengthening the civic institution of public education — one that serves all, not some — is of increasing importance every day.

It is in this context that we, as educators across LA, as members of the second largest teachers’ union in the country, organize behind the Schools LA Students Deserve (SLASD) campaign. As I talk to members at school-site meetings across the city about the campaign, I am so moved by the work you are doing. Here are just a few examples:

— Chapter chair and UTLA Board of Directors member Jennifer McAfee at Dodson Middle School in the Harbor Area was among the first to organize her school’s Contract Action Team (CAT), which, at Dodson, consists of seven co-workers. This is a school-site structure that we need at every school and that is essential to rapid communication about our citywide fight for healthcare and SLASD demands, and that is essential to involving all educators at your school in solving local site problems.

— On Big Red Tuesday, September 26, among the hundreds of photographs that poured in from across the city, Washington Prep High School in South LA and Romer Middle School in the San Fernando Valley showed a flow of red across their staffs that had not been seen for a long time.

— At a meeting last month of the faculty at 28th Street Elementary School, just south of downtown LA, we needed to elect a chapter chair and form a CAT. It was an honor to participate, as Marisa Castaneda broke the ice with her colleagues, calling for the need to be more organized than ever in this year that our healthcare is being attacked. The conversation deepened, the staff voted by acclamation for Eriberto Martinez to be chapter chair, and Marisa and four other co-workers volunteered to be on the CAT, organized by grade level.

Our members are stepping up all over the city. It is crucial that we all step up on October 11, by helping to organize and participating in morning school-site picketing at every worksite in the city, in support of our healthcare, our students, our schools, and funding. This will launch us toward the regional rallies on November 16.


Our fight for healthcare, our fight for our contract

On September 20, LAUSD stated in bargaining with all of the employee unions that it would no longer fully fund our healthcare. While the district eventually could bring a whole host of cuts to the table, the four attacks that they put out first were cutting all dependents off health plans, cutting some dependents off health plans, not covering premiums, and forcing members into low-cost plans.

We will fight against all of these. We will accept no concessions.

The district has thrown down the gauntlet. Our response on October 11, and then on November 16, must be massive.

We are in a critical moment. How we fight right now will affect every bargaining cycle on our contract and healthcare for the next 10 years.

Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos are proposing massive federal cuts to education. California elected officials state that they will be bold under Trump, on issues from climate change to immigration policy. Yet, this boldness has not extended to public education. California, the richest state in the country, remains at 46th among the 50 states in per-student funding. California remains woefully permissive in charter school authorization, allowing constant hemorrhaging of already-inadequate public district school funding.

We know the reasons for this lack of boldness. The $27 million and $13 million, respectively, that the billionaire-backed corporate charter industry put into the 2016 state legislative and 2017 LA School Board races have impacted many elected officials. As billionaire-backed School Board member Ref Rodriguez faces criminal felony charges and has stepped down from the board’s presidency, this same corporate charter industry ensured that Rodriguez’s allies, Monica Garcia and Nick Melvoin, ended up succeeding him in the top spots.

Garcia/Melvoin’s LAUSD is not only attacking our healthcare, but the district bargaining team is also stonewalling common-sense contract proposals we have put across the table.

Our 7% permanent salary increase proposal has been countered with an unacceptable 2% one-time bonus non-offer. The district has not responded to our proposals to reduce class size, increase special education support, and increase crucial staffing such as librarians, nurses, health and human services professionals, arts and electives educators, and those who provide support regarding school climate and student discipline.

LAUSD has not responded to our other working and learning conditions proposals — more accountability for administrators regarding student discipline, more power for local school councils in spending site money and making decisions on school programs, and protection of instructional time through limiting standardized testing. This is a struggle that will be informed by our efforts to push back on elementary workload issues and ensure that our time and professionalism as educators is not disrespected by Schoology implementation.


20 by 20: Winning money for our schools

As we did in our escalating actions of the 2014-15 contract campaign, we will, through pressure in the schools and on the streets, shake money out of LAUSD and reprogram monies within the district to protect our healthcare and take steps forward in the Schools LA Students Deserve campaign.

But, this will not, ultimately, be enough money to meet our students’ needs and ours. If we want to avoid being in the same fights every year — over the scraps from the table of a state that is 46th in per-student funding — then we must win more money for schools out of Sacramento as well. This has dramatic implications for our healthcare, our students, and our schools.

We can’t put this statewide fight for funding off any longer — public school districts in California are set up to fail. And, there are distinct advantages to escalating the struggle as soon as possible. We can use the fact that public education will be a highlighted issue in the 2018 governor’s race. The teachers’ unions in San Diego, San Francisco, and Oakland are also in tough bargaining regarding many issues similar to ours, including a dramatic need for funding. We have coordinated with those locals over the last year, and the next step is coordinating our November 16 action with their actions in the first two weeks of that month. These are unique leverage points intersecting with our SLASD campaign timeline.

Our frame on school funding is simple: Get us to $20,000 in per-student funding by the year 2020. While California is currently at $11,000, several other states, far less wealthy than California, are already at $20,000 per student, or rapidly approaching that level. It only makes sense that the richest state in the country also be at that level. There are multiple paths that help us get to 20 by 20, all of which we are exploring: millionaire income taxes, high-end corporate service taxes, closing commercial property tax loopholes, closing carried interest loopholes, and pressing the federal government to live up to its decades-old promise to fully cover the costs of educating our special education students.

With organizing, coalition-building, and persistence, we can change state policy. When we are focused, united, and active, there are few entities more powerful than our union, 33,000 educators in the state’s largest city, with reach into every single neighborhood. Proof positive of our ability to win in Sacramento was our victory last month in defeating Eli Broad’s state legislation to create his own boutique STEM charter school, thereby opening yet another way to authorize charters. Broad went hard—lining up Mercury Public Relations, other billionaires, highly placed elected officials, and more on his side. We organized our members, built a political coalition in Sacramento, worked hard with allied legislators, and defeated the bill. It was an underdog story—and an illustrative story about our power. We can do this.


Bargaining for the Common Good

As enrollment continues to drop in LAUSD schools, the survival of the civic institution of public education is at stake. If charter incursion on enrollment continues, if the housing crisis in LA continues (which affects enrollment negatively), and if parents continue to have safety concerns about LAUSD schools, or are not attracted to our schools, this will affect all of us. The essential system that serves all students will become less and less viable, and money will continue to be sapped from the institution, which will put our students, our jobs, our contract, and our healthcare in more jeopardy with every passing year.

We must use this moment of leverage — our contract campaign — to fight for the survival and thriving of the public school system. We must bring non-traditional, Common Good proposals to the bargaining table that make our schools more attractive to parents, increase enrollment, and build coalitions. If we don’t, we all suffer.

It was so moving to be at the bargaining table on September 15, when parents and community organizations joined us and presented our Common Good proposals. These had emerged from months of community meetings. Our proposals were powerful, from George Weaver of the Brotherhood Crusade presenting on investing in Community Schools, to Martha Sanchez of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment presenting on removing unused bungalows and expanding green space at our schools, to Cynthia Strathmann of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy presenting on pressing LAUSD to sell its vacant parcels of land to affordable housing developers, to Kahllid Al-Alim and Maricela Lopez of Students Deserve presenting on better ways to keep our schools safe than so-called “random searches” that interfere with instructional time and increase anxiety, to Joseph Villela from Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights presenting on the district establishing a deportation legal defense fund for LAUSD families.

All of these proposals get directly at helping the public school district survive, helping it ultimately thrive —and, ironically enough, do so with a likely positive impact on the district general fund, not a negative impact.


Contract Action Teams and school-site issues

When we escalate our actions as we did in 2014-15, and as we fight aggressively for our healthcare and contract, for 20 by 20, and for our Common Good demands, we will win victories for the here and now while also, crucially, pointing the public school district, our union, and the state funding system in a positive direction for the future.

We are doing the same with organizing our CATs at schools. CATs are crucial for communicating directly and quickly with all 33,000 members about developments in the healthcare and contract fights and about mobilizing those 33,000 members for the escalating actions that are crucial to victory.

Remember, CATs are a simple concept. Map out your school site based on what makes the most sense, by grade level, by department, by lunch period, by floors or rooms. Choose natural leaders (CAT leaders) to work with each part of that map (for example, one leader for first grade, one for second grade, and so on), and then use that approximately 10-to-1 member-to-CAT leader ratio to survey members, pass along information, give updates about the SLASD campaign, organize actions, and more.

Yet, CATs are not just for citywide issues. They are also crucial to winning around school-site issues in the here and now, and if we nurture and maintain these CATs, we will come out of the SLASD campaign more able to address school-site issues than we ever have been before.

For example, even in the last month, we have members on the Westside using their CATs to bring all members and parents into a struggle against a co-located charter’s attempt to take their computer lab. We have chapter chairs using CATs in South LA and the West Valley to survey members about some of the problems with Schoology, to then get to UTLA Secondary VP Daniel Barnhart, because he meets regularly with the district to press on these issues. We have chapter leaders working with UTLA Elementary VP Gloria Martinez to use CATs in East LA to mobilize members to mass email LAUSD Chief Academic Officer Frances Gipson demanding reductions in elementary workload and regional meetings with elementary teachers on the issue. We have members around the district using their CAT structures to move their principals or their Local School Leadership Councils to devote more on-the-district-clock time for educators to deal with elementary workload and Schoology-related work.

We are in a better place than we have been in years in terms of supporting contract enforcement, school-site issues, and local fights for our working conditions. We have reduced the grievance backlog from 3,300 to 1,400 cases, we now have Group Legal Services to provide members with thousands of dollars more for a wider variety of legal situations, we have a representation coordinator who helps us build a strategic approach to school-site issues and contract enforcement, and we have built more ways to address site problems, no longer relying only on grievances (which take far longer to resolve), but now also using contractual informal conferences with principals and tried-and-true organizing approaches, both of which can solve problems quickly.

Nurturing, maintaining, and strengthening our CATs, and making them permanent structures at our schools, will only enhance our ability to take on site issues even more.


Our movement

I am more inspired than ever by our members and our movement. Whether it is Jennifer McAfee, Marisa Castaneda, or Eriberto Martinez, whether it is our parent and community partners who came to the bargaining table with us, whether it is our other leaders across the city organizing around site issues, now is our time — to win in the here and now, and to pave the way for the future.

Let’s do this. Let’s protect our healthcare, support our students, and fund our schools. I’ll see you in the picket circles on October 11 and at the regional rallies on November 16!