A comeback for the UTLA?

November 17, 2014

Los Angeles teachers Randy Childs and Gillian Russom look at the efforts in their union to revive rank-and-file activism, with critical struggles looming ahead.

AFTER SEVERAL demoralizing years of economic crisis, concessions and retreats, members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) want to turn things around.

UTLA's resurgence--exemplified most clearly by the October 16 resignation of despised Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent John Deasy--has come not a moment too soon.

UTLA's 35,000 members face an epic battle with the LAUSD over a new collective bargaining agreement and demands for improvements in the learning and teaching conditions in the second-largest school district in the U.S. UTLA members have worked under an expired contract since 2011. Now the union is organizing an aggressive contract campaign, changing the union's internal structures, developing new leaders and connecting with rank-and-file members in new ways.

UTLA's new direction is being led by a group of that ran together in the union's elections last spring and won. The Union Power slate was composed of several incumbent officers and a new candidate for president: veteran union militant and community organizer Alex Caputo-Pearl.

UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl
UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl (Union Power)

The change in approach to organizing was most evident at the UTLA Leadership Conference in September. This year's attendance at the annual conference for school-site chapter chairs and other rank-and-file UTLA leaders jumped to over 800, more than any such meeting in recent years.

Just as importantly, the speeches, workshops and training sessions at the conference focused on the goal of building a mass citywide movement of educators, students and parents for educational justice. This was in stark contrast to the past several years, when UTLA seemed to have no answers to budget cuts, mass layoffs and a series of attacks on our working conditions in the LAUSD.

Retired UTLA President Wayne Johnson, the leader of UTLA's victorious 1989 strike, set a fiery tone with his keynote address at the conference:

Pressure is the name of the game. You have to understand that when you go out on strike, you put tremendous pressure on yourself...And if you don't put just as much pressure on the district when you walk, you're in trouble. But you can do it. We found out in '89 with 25,000 people on the street. They couldn't beat us!

Caputo-Pearl, for his part, laid out an ambitious organizing plan for the year in his speech at the conference. "We aren't going to win by having a union president make clever arguments in small negotiation rooms," he said. "We're going to win through proactively organizing people into a powerful collective that can't be ignored."

UTLA'S ORGANIZING plan includes aggressive member outreach at schools, tools for chapter chairs to connect their coworkers to union campaigns, plans to make connections with parents and community allies at school sites and in community organizations, increased member involvement in political action, and putting a priority on linking community-based social justice demands to our contract negotiations.

This effort follows the "Schools LA Students Deserve" campaign--modeled after a similar effort by the Chicago Teachers Union several years ago before its 2012 strike--that won support of members in a 2013 union ballot initiative supported by the Progressive Educators for Action caucus (PEAC), the Latino Caucus and the union's eight Area Chairs.

The "Schools LA Students Deserve" effort helped lay the basis for the union election campaign by Caputo-Pearl and the six other officers of the Union Power team. Since taking office July 1, the new leadership team has begun the process of changing the union's internal structures, including hiring an executive director to keep staff connected to the organizing mission of the elected leadership.

In a union that's strapped for cash because of a loss of membership and low dues, UTLA was able to get support from our national affiliates, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), to create four other positions: a field and organizing director, a parent/community organizer, a strategic researcher and a political director.

The new officers knew they had to connect immediately with union members--that things had to "look and feel very different" this school year. Borrowing another tactic from the CTU, the officers, staff and board of directors visited 441 schools in the first six weeks of the school year, speaking directly with thousands of members, presenting plans for an aggressive contract campaign, and listening to teachers' questions and concerns.

The school visit blitz was followed by an issues survey to determine what matters most to members in our contract campaign. The biggest concerns were: a substantial pay raise; class size reduction; fully staffed schools, including counselors, nurses and librarians; a fair evaluation system; safe and clean schools; a more diverse curriculum, including ethnic studies, and arts and elective courses; restoration of early childhood and adult education; and the end of the "teacher jail" policy, in which UTLA members who are the subject of misconduct complaints are presumed guilty until proven innocent, and sidelined for months.

But as significant as all these efforts have been, the heart of UTLA's renaissance has been the union's challenge to the disastrous policies of John Deasy, LAUSD's superintendent, with close ties to Corporate America and billionaire school privatizers Bill Gates and Eli Broad. As Caputo-Pearl explained at the conference:

We needed to create an atmosphere of confidence among members to stimulate their interest in involvement at the grassroots level. With our members having been beaten down for so long, a critical avenue to inspire this kind of confidence was to take on--very directly--the source of a lot of that beat-down. In other words, we had to unapologetically take on John Deasy and his autocratic behavior.

Now, Deasy has been forced to resign, due to a series of administrative scandals and boondoggles stemming from his bullying leadership style.

UTLA'S CONTRACT campaign comes at a time when LAUSD is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding from the state, due to the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and the passage of Proposition 30 by California voters in 2012. Yet Deasy and LAUSD have been playing hardball--and Deasy's successor, whoever that turns out to be, will likely take a similar tact.

UTLA members have gone more than seven years without a raise, yet the district's standing offer since July only guarantees a 2 percent lump sum payment and a 2 percent raise--and even that comes with several strings attached. In exchange for this paltry salary offer, LAUSD wants UTLA to give up any demands around reducing class size, give up the right of teachers to vote on bell schedules, and accept the district's new evaluation system that was never negotiated.

In the face of LAUSD's intransigence, UTLA has begun a new approach to bargaining. On September 3, Caputo-Pearl sent a "demand to bargain" letter to LAUSD School Board President Richard Vladovic, listing 12 different articles of the UTLA/LAUSD contract that need to be renegotiated--and reserving the right to raise more issues more in the future. On October 2, UTLA announced their first set of five bargaining proposals:

1. A 10 percent raise this year followed by immediate negotiations for a further raise next year;

2. Lower class sizes and clear, enforceable class size caps;

3. Establishment of a committee of parents, students and educators to ensure sufficient resources to implement positive behavior support and restorative justice programs, instead of punitive suspensions and expulsions that are part of the racist school-to-prison pipeline;

4. A new article in the contract on "public school accountability" to ensure that all schools--including charters--are accountable for serving all students and respecting parent involvement, union rights and transparency of decision-making; and

5. Compensatory measures for the damage caused by MISIS, a new LAUSD online data-collection system that has thrown schools into chaos, and is one of the fiascos that forced Deasy out.

UTLA will also have rank-and-file members testifying on how contract issues impact schools. This approach follows the examples of teachers unions in Chicago, Portland and St. Paul, which all had representatives at the UTLA Leadership Conference. Moreover, the union is sharing detailed bargaining updates with members in regular reports--a stark contrast to the backroom, one-issue-at-a-time bargaining approach of past leaderships. UTLA will be rolling out more contract proposals in the coming weeks.

In a bid to mobilize members, UTLA leaders are asking for "Big Red Tuesdays--members are being asked to wear red union T-shirts on the days of mandatory school staff meetings to show our unity and our support for the contract campaign. The next step is regional rallies across the city on November 20, as part of a national day of action in conjunction with the AFT and NEA.

We have only begun what is bound to be a long and difficult fight, but the enthusiastic response to the "Schools LA Students Deserve" campaign and the resignation of John Deasy are two early examples of how worthwhile this struggle is.

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