Jesse Hagopian talks with Gillian Russom: How Los Angeles Teachers Organized and What They Won

Illustrator: Joe Brusky

Joe Brusky

Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district, was rocked by a six-day strike in January 2019 of more than 34,000 educators who galvanized popular support and won major victories for public education. Rethinking Schools editor Jesse Hagopian, who teaches at Seattle’s Garfield High School and is co-editor of the book Teaching for Black Lives, interviewed Gillian Russom, a history teacher at Roosevelt High School and member of the United Teachers Los Angeles board of directors, about how the strike was organized, the significant gains it made for students, and implications for the ongoing uprising of teachers around the country. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and a slightly different version was first published in The Progressive.

Jesse Hagopian: I want to begin by asking you about the groundwork that made the strike possible. You have been working for years to strengthen the union. Talk about the Union Power caucus you are a part of, and the vision you all had that culminated in this six-day victorious strike.

Gillian Russom: There’s been a long history around the country of progressive caucuses fighting for unions to be more active, and to have a broader vision and a broader set of alliances in our struggles. The Chicago 2012 strike and the work of CORE — Caucus of Rank and File Educators — leading up to that strike really helped to educate so many of us around the country and clarified our direction. I’ve been a teacher and union activist in Los Angeles for 18 years and I studied what worked in Chicago and joined together with others in the Union Power caucus to help bring those lessons here to LA.

In 2013, we pushed for a referendum within our union calling for a campaign for the “Schools LA Students Deserve.” This was modeled off of the Chicago teachers who based their strike around their own “schools our students deserve,” aiming to draw in parents, students, and the community.

Our agenda for union transformation was to move the union from a top-down service model to an organizing model, and to put social justice at the forefront. We were crafting our agenda of union demands in conversation with community allies so that it would draw the active participation of people beyond our own union membership. Also, up until 2014, we still had a model of one union rep for every school, including massive high schools of like 100 teachers.

Hagopian: Only one per school?

Russom: Yes, but then we took the model of Chicago’s Contract Action Teams, where you have leadership that can actually have one-on-one conversations with every single member in the course of a few days. So at my school for example, we have about 115 teachers, and we now had a team of 12 people that would meet once a week, talk about the issues, and then go out and have conversations with folks. And obviously that’s just going to create a completely different level of engagement with the union and the issues that impact our members.

But I think what’s important is not just the structure by itself but the actual conversations that were being had with the membership. And I think a refreshing thing about Union Power was that we said, “We need to talk to members about everything — from the specific building issues to the whole corporate education reform agenda, including the big picture of the privatization of our schools.” So when billionaire education reformer Eli Broad’s plan was leaked saying that they wanted half of Los Angeles students in charter schools within eight years, we were able to immediately go out and talk to members on a deep level about the existential threat that plan was to our schools. So you can see how that conversation, which happened years ago, actually framed the big-picture thinking that was so critical to our ability to wage a successful strike.

Hagopian: No doubt! And that leads me to my next question about how you were able to overcome billionaires like Eli Broad and the Los Angeles Times editorializing against you all, how you were able to win over public support, and especially within communities of color.

Russom: There are a lot of elements to that. One was the strategic decision to fight around a really broad set of demands for the schools our students deserve. And so, we put issues in the forefront such as staffing and class size that connected with what parents were demanding. Parents talk all the time about “Why doesn’t my school have a full-time nurse? Why is our library staying closed because we don’t have a librarian at our school?”

We also took to heart the approach to negotiating called “bargaining for the common good,” which is a strategy designed to actually address a whole range of attacks that the communities where we work are facing.

One of the first issues we incorporated was the fight against random searches, because students of color had been speaking out about being criminalized, being pulled out of class and searched with a metal detector wand. Students pointed out that the schools with the most Black students and schools with Muslim students were experiencing the most searches.

Hagopian: Yes, I saw a video that Students Deserve made about that issue.

Russom: Yes. So we incorporated ending random searches as one of our demands as a racial justice issue. We decided as a union to do an action the day before Trump’s inauguration where we stood in front of every school with signs that said “Shield against racism. Shield against Islamophobia.”

Hagopian: Such a powerful image!

Russom: It wasn’t easy. I will tell you there were some — a minority, but still vocal — who said, “We have members who voted for Trump. Why are we doing this? It’s going to be divisive.” But we made a choice to stand with Eastside Padres Contra La Privatizaci—n, our communities of color, and our immigrant communities, many of whom were in tremendous fear of increased deportations. We reached out to form a new community alliance with “Reclaim Our Schools LA.”

And most importantly, we began to train our school site union chapters to engage in parent outreach and expect that it was a part of their union work. So we asked every chapter to have a parent liaison, and to begin compiling lists of parent allies to explain to them the issues.

And then we have these incredible grassroots parent leaders, particularly who’ve come out of the fight against charter co-location. We began to hold joint meetings with them and support their leadership in the bigger fight against privatization. Those parents became their own proactive organizers to get other parents on board.

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Hagopian: I got to go to the last big rally you all had on Friday, Feb. 18, and it’s hard to put into words. There were some 60,000 people in a sea of red, chanting for education justice, and it just blew me away. Can you describe your experience with the teachers on the picket lines and at the rallies, and also how the people who participated in the strike were changed by that experience?

Russom: It’s really hard to overstate the incredible feeling of empowerment, solidarity, and joy that you saw in school site picket lines and at the massive rallies that we held every single day.

The very first day on my school’s picket line, before we could even set up, we had three tables overflowing with donations. On that first day I was the only one on my picket line who wanted to lead chants. And every single day, more people started leading chants. People came up with their own creative chants. We started learning sign language so we could do the American Sign Language chant. People made up their own hip-hop chants.

And the chants are not just about “Hey, let’s get a raise,” the chants were about freedom and justice. At my picket line, my co-workers started singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

On the second day, Ozomatli performed, and people felt like “Wow, all these folks are supporting us. We’re on a mission here. And a lot of people are watching.” This was reinforced when the “Tacos for Teachers” was launched — and it raised more than $40,000 and fed thousands of hungry teachers on the picket lines!

Hagopian: Wasn’t there a poll that showed 80 percent of LA supported the strike?

Russom: Yes! Loyola Marymount University did a poll of households that have kids in public school, and 82 percent were supportive of us.
There was a regional rally I thought was going to be small because it was pouring down rain, but we had so many teachers that we just spontaneously took over the street, a huge thoroughfare. The DJ started playing “Fight the Power” and my co-worker turned to me and said, “This feels like freedom.”

Hagopian: That’s truly beautiful.

Russom: What I realized that day was that for the first time in our adult lives we were truly working for each other, for ourselves, and our communities. It was tiring and exhausting, but also an exhilarating feeling of being in a collective struggle where we were making our own future and finally standing up for ourselves.

I’ll just say one more thing about it. Teachers put up with so much, and teachers sacrifice so much for the kids. But if you give teachers the ability to stand up for students in a different kind of way, you will see that same incredible dedication channeled into struggle.

Hagopian: I know exactly what you mean from our strike here in Seattle in 2015. Our strike had that same dynamic. We sacrifice for our kids every day, but now we actually had a way to fight for them collectively and it was amazing to see the outpouring of energy educators had when given the opportunity.

Russom: There you go. That’s exactly what I was trying to say.

Hagopian: So what did you win in the strike? And what’s left to fight for?

Russom: Probably at the top of the list — and the thing that was the hardest to get — was that we finally got rid of the clause in our contract that gives the district leeway to change class size when they see fit.

Because of that clause, no matter what numbers we fought for in the past, there was no way to enforce them. Now we have the ability to actually enforce class size and force the district to hire more teachers for the first time in our union’s history. We did get class size reduction in most grade levels, and it looks like it’s going to force the district to hire about 2,000 new teachers next year.

But keep in mind we’re starting from terrible numbers. So we’re going to reduce English and math class size in high schools by seven kids next year. But what that looks like is going from 46 to 39. So when you ask what there still is to fight for, we now have the ability to enforce class size, but we have to go get a bunch of money from the state to bring our class sizes anywhere near what’s reasonable and what our kids deserve.

We also won a full-time nurse in every school! The district is going to hire 300 more nurses in the next two years. And that was one of the most high-profile demands and something that parents care about a lot. We also forced the district to hire 82 librarians so that there will now be a full-time librarian at every middle and high school. And to bring down the student-to-counselor ratio to 500:1. Now, again, that’s still an outrageous number, but before the strike it was 700:1.

There were also a bunch of areas of our contract where the district did not legally have to negotiate with us. However, because of the overwhelming solidarity we received we won some major victories. This includes forcing the district to hire a dedicated attorney and create a hotline for our immigrant families to get legal support fighting deportation. We did not eliminate all random searches, but we increased up to 28 the number of schools that are going to be in a pilot program in which there are no random searches at those schools. And that’s going to improve the lives of a lot of kids of color.

(Note: In June, the school board, including newly elected members endorsed by the union, voted to end random searches in all LAUSD schools by 2020.)

We also won a task force between the union and the district that has to come up with a plan in the next year to cut standardized testing by 50 percent in our district.

Hagopian: It’s so great that you are showing the country how to stop the extreme over-testing of our students. That’s an issue that I have been fighting around for some time.

Russom: We also got the Board of Education, including members who don’t usually support the union, to offer a resolution calling on the state to cap charter schools. Nothing will happen overnight, but it’s going to increase political pressure on the state.

One of the most important lessons of this strike for the rest of the labor movement is that they will make all kinds of excuses as to why you cannot bargain for the common good, but if you build enough power, you can win those demands, even if they’re totally outside the scope of bargaining. And that sends a powerful message to our community allies that we weren’t just talking the talk. We actually were willing to fight.