“This Is Our Time, This is Our Moment”: Los Angeles Teachers Are Ready to Strike

An interview with Arlene Inouye, chair of UTLA’s bargaining committee
By Ari Bloomekatz

Mediation between the Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers Los Angeles failed in mid-October, and now we’re closer than ever to seeing 33,000 educators walk off the job and strike for better pay, smaller class sizes, and substantive investments in student health among other services.

“The district thinks they can buy us off with a modest pay raise, but our fight has never been just about salary,” UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said in a statement. “What’s driving educators is the absolute need to fix what we see every day: too many overcrowded classrooms where kids have to share desks, schools with a nurse only one day a week, and overloaded psychologists and counselors doing their best to triage the socio-emotional needs of our students.”

UTLA members say they also want to reduce the number of mandated standardized tests, hold charter schools accountable, improve school safety, and ensure that public education in L.A. is sustained for the next generation.

Both the LAUSD and UTLA are of course claiming the other negotiated in bad faith. And the next step in the process after mediation is fact-finding — the Public Employment Relations Board will assemble a three-member panel (the board appoints the chair and both the union and the district get a seat) that will issue a report and recommendations. After this report is made public, the choice is to either accept the recommendations, or LAUSD can offer their last and best final offer, or the union will strike.

According to the Los Angeles Times, that process could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

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The two sides have been negotiating for around a year and a half and if there was ever any question if the 33,000-member UTLA was ready to strike, that notion was shattered right as the school year began when an unprecedented 83 percent of United Teachers Los Angeles — roughly 27,000 of 33,000 total members — voted almost unanimously (98 percent to be specific) to authorize a strike if negotiations ultimately proved futile.

“After 17 months of bargaining with LAUSD, educators are frustrated and angry,” Arlene Inouye, chair of the UTLA bargaining committee, said at the time. “We want a district that partners with us — not fights us — on critical issues like lower class sizes, fair pay, and bringing more staff to work with our students.”

I sat down with Inouye in September to talk about the prospects of a strike and how UTLA was preparing and able to get so many members on board.

For Inouye, the ground for this impending strike was sown several years ago, starting with a new slate of union leadership that was elected in 2014. Then there was the building of robust research, organizing, political, and communications departments, they won an initial increase in salary for members, and later won an increase in membership dues so the union could raise the money to go to battle with LAUSD and push back against privatization (the campaign was aptly called “Build the future. Fund the fight.”).

“Our approach was to be honest and frank with our members, telling them what the situation is and how we are fighting billionaires such as Eli Broad who reported that he wanted to dramatically increase the number of charter schools in LAUSD. These are serious times and instead of using gimmicks such as comparing the dues increase to the cost of a cup of coffee, we instead focused our members on the choice to invest in UTLA,” Inouye said, adding that state and national affiliates of the NEA and AFT (UTLA is made up of both NEA and AFT) provided support and resources for the dues campaign.

“Our members believed in the vision of a quality public education system for every student at every school along with a democratic and collaborative leadership team. They understood that Los Angeles is ground zero for privatization, and if we didn’t take on the billionaires and fight back, California and the nation would lose,” she said. “And so we organized to have a chapter chair at every school. We have 850 out of 900 schools, the highest ever, plus teams at every school (called Contract Action Teams) so that there is a communication structure at the school site and many more people are involved in UTLA.”

“I remember when I first started visiting schools in 2012, members did not understand the bigger fight for public education,” Inouye said. “They felt victimized and would say things like ‘Why do they hate us so much? Why are teachers being demonized?’ Today our members understand why public education is under attack and the profit motive behind the privatization agenda. Our members get it. They can tell you very accurately what issues we’re facing, why, who the villains are, because we have been building that up. So that was so exciting to see that change.”

Speaking of villains, the main target of derision by UTLA is Superintendent Austin Beutner, who Inouye says was hired by a largely pro-charter board and who has “been brought in to privatize the school district.” In his first months as Superintendent, Beutner brought Rebecca Kockler to L.A. from New Orleans, where she helped privatize that school district after Katrina, and Cami Anderson from New Jersey.

Inouye says that UTLA members understand how critical the issue of privatization is in this moment.

“Our members do understand that, because the way we explained our bargaining proposal is that it’s much more than salary and benefits … it’s about our students and it’s about the sustainability of public education, so we have to address the charter school/privatization issue,” Inouye said. “We will not exist past 5 years if we don’t’ do something, and what good is a salary increase if you don’t have a job next year.”

She rattled off statistics about charters and privatization including that LAUSD loses $600 million to charters a year and that charters have grown 287 percent over 10 years.

“These statistics are astounding, we cannot keep going in that direction, we have to do something about this, and if we don’t do it as educators, then who is? We’re the ones to stand up for our students, we’re the ones to stand up for our profession and ourselves, we’re the ones to stand up for public education,” Inouye said.

She said the teacher rebellion around the nation has also fueled members and that the union is getting so much support in anticipation of the strike they barely can keep up.

“This is our time,” Inouye said, “this is our moment to really take a stand.”

Ari Bloomekatz is managing editor of Rethinking Schools. If your organization wants to sign on in support of UTLA’s strike, visit: https://www.utla.net/sites/default/files/rosla_sign_on_check_off_09_14_18.pdf