It took a week, but the public school teachers of Los Angeles won. Over 30,000 teachers and school staff, members of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) union, went on strike for the first time in 30 years, demanding more resources for their classrooms, nurses and librarians in every school, smaller class sizes and higher wages. In rain and shine, they were joined on their picket lines by students, parents and other allies. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) -- the nation's second-largest school system, with about three-quarters of its students Latino -- agreed to meet the strikers' demands. Classes resumed Wednesday. This major strike also joins a wave of similar labour actions around the country confronting the attempt by corporate interests to privatize public education.
"We went on strike, in one of the largest strikes that the United States has seen in decades," UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said Tuesday night, after a supermajority of union members ratified the agreement. "The creativity and innovation and passion and love and emotion of our members was out on the street, in the communities, in the parks, for everyone to see."
Arlene Inouye, a speech and language specialist with 18 years' experience in the LAUSD, chaired the UTLA's bargaining committee. "This was a historic agreement and gave us more than we expected," Inouye said on the Democracy Now! news hour. All of their principal demands, including a cap on charter schools to reverse the trend toward privatization, were met. Additionally, Inouye explained, "we were also able to bring in some non-mandatory subjects of bargaining into our schools … like green space on campus, stopping the criminalization of youth. We were able to bring in an immigrant defence fund. We're making a statement of our values."
Also speaking on Democracy Now!, investigative journalist Sarah Jaffe, author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, said: "There have been reform currents within the UTLA for at least a decade … going back to the 2008 financial crisis, recession, the layoffs of a lot of teachers. In 2014, the Union Power caucus took charge … teachers like Arlene, with Alex Caputo-Pearl, brought in an organizing department, a research department, a political department, that the union didn't have before. [They] actually voted to raise their own dues in order to … invest in really becoming a fighting, organizing union."
On the picket lines, teachers repeatedly brought up privatization. "Ultimately, this fight is about the privatization of schools," teacher Marianne O'Brien told us. "Superintendent Austin Beutner is pushing to privatize schools. … Our students would be disproportionately hurt by that and not have access to a quality education, if all the funding for public school is pulled into charter schools."
Beutner, a wealthy investment banker, has no background in education. The 2018 LAUSD school board election, Jaffe explained, "had $14.7 million in outside funding spent on it by charter school advocates, big-dollar hedge funds … they got a majority of pro-charter school candidates on there. They put Beutner in." One of Beutner's plans is to break up the LA Unified School District into 32 "portfolio" districts, copying efforts in cities like Detroit and Newark the UTLA says "are riddled with a patchwork of privatization schemes that do not improve student outcomes."
Charter schools can not only fire teachers more easily than public schools can -- they can fire students as well. By choosing high-performing students and rejecting those who have special needs or score poorly on standardized tests, charter schools drain resources from schools in poorer neighborhoods. Another teacher on the picket line, Lilit Azarian, told us, "This is about fighting for communities of color, because those are the communities that are affected by this privatization."
A special election in March to fill a seat on the LAUSD school board, vacated when a member pleaded guilty to felony campaign finance violations, is being hotly contested between charter school advocates and the UTLA and other allies of traditional public schools. "If the teachers want Beutner gone, that's going to be the way to do it," Jaffe said.
A wave of teacher strikes swept the nation last year, but in largely Republican-controlled red states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. Teachers and staff went on strike and achieved remarkable improvements, not only in pay and benefits but by directing more resources to schools and classrooms. Now the teachers are rising up in Democratic strongholds like Los Angeles. On Tuesday, as the UTLA declared victory, ending the strike, the teachers union in Denver, voted overwhelmingly to strike. Unionized teachers in Oakland, California, also are expected to strike, as are teachers in Chicago's community colleges.
If the Los Angeles teachers are any indication of what's to come, the privatizers and their champion in Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump's billionaire Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, may have met their match.
Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Democracy Now.
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