What Do We Do With A “Historic” UTLA Contract? Stand Up, Fight Back!

Photo by Erin Ploss-Campoamor

For everyone who participated in the recent teachers’ strike in Los Angeles, the whole experience has been an emotional roller coaster.

First, it started with acrimony: two years of bitter contract negotiations between Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).

UTLA wanted a pay raise, but more importantly: smaller class sizes, more nurses, librarians and counselors, and more charter oversight. However, our Superintendent, “Austin Beutner, a notorious union-buster and pro-charter lobbyist, [claimed LAUSD could] not afford UTLA’s demands, even though an independent fact finding team confirmed it [had] $1.9 billion in reserve.

Why did he lie? Because starving public schools of funding [made] them more vulnerable to a corporate, charter takeover. Finally, in December, UTLA announced it was going on strike to defend… public education.

Which brings us to the first day of the strike: Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. As fate would have it, one of the rainiest we’d seen in months.

Still, we were undeterred.

If anything, it strengthened our resolve and made us more inventive.

Photo by Erin Ploss-Campoamor

But then we started to worry.

I’m not a member of UTLA — just an activist/filmmaker/mom — so I don’t know what it felt like to go on strike and sacrifice my wages. But I still remember how anxious I felt that first week, as I walked the picket line every day with my kids’ teachers and counselors. It was stressful not knowing how long the strike would last, or what to expect. Yet even though it continued to rain for four days straight, I could sense our fear becoming… something else.

We started to get excited.

It was obvious we were part of something bigger than we had foreseen.

Photo by Rachel Slowinski

It was thrilling to realize that tens of thousands of UTLA members and families were walking the picket lines, undeterred by the weather. By Thursday, only 84,00 students (about 17% of the total population) were attending school. Our rallies and protests were huge, creative and dynamic, each one drawing more attention than the one before.

So naturally, with each passing day, our expectations grew with them.

Photo taken by a nice lady in the crowd

Now we felt hope.

By Friday, the sun had come out, along with the announcement that negotiations had finally resumed between LAUSD and UTLA. Given all of the previous failed attempts, and Beutner’s dishonest, anti-union tactics, we expected it to be a tough battle right up to the end. Still, we remained hopeful throughout the three day, MLK weekend. When we hadn’t heard of a resolution by Tuesday morning, we returned to the picket lines.

If necessary, we were ready to strike for another week.

Photo by Erin Ploss-Campoamor

Then we were surprised.

We couldn’t believe it when we heard that an agreement had just been reached. Superintendent Austin Beutner, UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl, and Mayor Eric Garcetti held a press conference that morning, to announce the good news.

Then we were confused.

Suddenly, they were saying that UTLA members had to vote that afternoon, on whether or not to ratify the agreement, and go back to work the next day. We were also informed that the protest rally scheduled that day was now a “victory celebration.” Honestly, it felt like the votes didn’t even count, because the outcome was already pre-ordained. The message was: hurry up, celebrate this victory, and get back to work!

Then we read the agreement, and got angry.

We had serious issues with the fact that there was hardly anything in it for special education or counselors, and (at first glance) the class size reductions seemed minimal.

But then I saw people I respected saying this agreement was a “historic win.”

So I became determined to find out more.

I read the agreement again more carefully, and continued to follow the lively discussions on social media, both attacking and defending it.

I reached out to Erika Lynn Jones, one of the brilliant, hardworking members of UTLA’s bargaining team. After exchanging several messages with her, it became apparent that the people who decided to end the strike like this were too enmeshed in the process to realize what it was like for those of us on the outside. Considering she spent multiple marathon sessions negotiating that deal, it’s hard for Erika to understand those of us saying it happened “too fast.” In fact, according to her, the conclusion of this teachers’ strike was actually pretty standard. As she told me in a DM, “Chicago was the only strike [where] they stayed out extra days to read the agreement.”

Although, as I later learned from reading an email that was sent to all UTLA members, this decision was actually intensely debated.

UTLA felt like they had three options: 1) Ratify the contract without a vote, 2) Delay the vote, or 3) Take just one day to vote and get back to work as soon as possible: “None of the three options were perfect — each had dilemmas. After thinking about this deeply, but quickly given the urgency, we chose option 3 as we felt that it was the approach that best balanced both democracy and efficiency.”

Still, even though I understand why they felt this was the best option available, I disagree.

I believe there was a lot more goodwill for the strike than they realized. People would have accepted missing another day of school, if it gave UTLA members more time to vote. And most importantly, I think those voting would have been much more forgiving of the agreement’s shortcomings, if they hadn’t felt strong-armed into voting “yes.” If there is anything being a filmmaker has taught me, it’s that people will accept all sorts of flaws in a narrative as long as the ending is satisfying.

Although describing the agreement as “flawed” fails to recognize an important truth…

This agreement really is a historic win.

It helped save public education.

Photo by Rachel Slowinski

How did it do this? By stopping the charter lobby in its tracks, with a few key wins.

Most significantly, this agreement eliminated clause 1.5, which up until then had allowed LAUSD to ignore “class size restrictions” whenever they claimed there were “funding limitations” (which, according to them, was always). As Erika explained in a Facebook comment, “What [this agreement] does is make the averages and caps enforceable. For example, I had 29 kinders starting, with elimination of 1.5 I should start with 24.”

Or as a teacher named Jeffrey Cabauatan explained in another Facebook comment, “It’s a hard cap meaning [the district] can’t go over it. [Look] for example at the 39–1 ratio [in high school]. If it goes to 40 students then the school will need to provide another teacher and now the average is 20 students each. Again using the 39–1 ratio. Let’s say a school has 80 kids, in the old contract that just means 2 teacher will have 40 kids. But with our new contract and hard cap it will be 3 teachers with 26–27 kids. Get this though, if a 39 hard cap can reduce class size to 27, think what a hard cap of 35 would do in 3 years to our high school teachers.”

He’s referring in that last part to another significant win: every year for the next three years, that maximum class size will go down one student. And in certain high needs schools, it will go down by two.

Obviously, having smaller classes is a huge win for students, and yet, according to those involved, this was always one of the most contentious issues throughout negotiations. “Why?,” asks Jackie Goldberg, a current School Board candidate, in an op-ed for the LA Times. “Because if the district were to reduce class sizes by hiring 2,000 additional teachers, it would need to provide 2,000 classrooms to those new teachers — classrooms that some charter-school advocates are eyeing for themselves.

And as I mentioned in one of my previous articles, “Aside from wanting to co-locate charters on public school property, there is another, more nefarious reason to resist hiring more teachers. California is currently 45th in the nation in terms of pupil-teacher ratios. In Los Angeles, there are middle and high school classes with as many as 45 students. These unacceptably over-sized classes are one of the main reasons why families are fleeing public schools in record numbers, and sending their children to charter schools instead. Other reasons families are leaving? The lack of basic resources, like librarians and nurses.”

Which brings us to our next win: more librarians, nurses… and counselors!

According to Kyle Stokes at LAist, “LAUSD agreed to hire 300 more school nurses over the next two school years… UTLA officials say that’s enough to fully meet their demand for a “full-time nurse at every school five days a week. Another 78 librarians would be added… enough, union officials claim, to fully meet their demand for a full-time librarian in every middle and high school. The district also agreed to hire [77] counselors… enough to guarantee a student-to-counselor ratio of 500-to-1 in LAUSD middle- and high schools.

Obviously, these numbers are still not good enough, but it’s a significant step in the right direction.

Additional wins: more green space, a guarantee that schools would receive advance notice of potential charter co-locations, and an agreement from the School Board to pass a resolution asking the state to impose a moratorium on charters.

This is important, because all of the above will help curtail charter expansion in Los Angeles. More green space means less room for them to co-locate. Advance notice of co-location means public schools get more time to appeal the decision. And a moratorium means just that: no more new charters, until we figure out what to do with the ones we already have.

And UTLA members managed to secure a modest 6% raise for themselves, without any contingencies or strings attached (unlike the previous offer which made it “harder to qualify for healthcare in retirement and [required] more work hours.”)

In these UTLA flyers, which were distributed this week, they list some of the most significant wins:

Source UTLA.net
Source UTLA.net

But, again, this is about more than any individual win.

As Rebecca Klein reported in the Huffington Post, “This is much more than just a narrow labor agreement, it’s a broad compact,” Caputo-Pearl said at the news conference, noting the agreement also addresses issues of social and racial justice. It includes a dedicated attorney for immigrant families and support for implementation of an ethnic studies curriculum.

I agree: these are the kinds of things that make this agreement more than just a labor contract.

It’s also what helped UTLA win in the court of public opinion. As Miriam Pawell pointed out in the New York Times, “They defined the narrative as not just about salaries but rather for the public good in Los Angeles. It’s a clear moral victory if nothing else.

But more than anything, it helped shift the public school narrative.

As Ryan Erlbaum, a teacher, said on Facebook, “It’s good to remember how we got here. In 2008, privatizers likes Bill Gates didn’t put charters on [the] ballot, or eat up 20% of our students overnight. These guys played the long game. And their first step was changing the narrative. Remember Michelle Rhee? Waiting for Superman? The idea that all unions did was protect bad teachers? Those narratives paved the way for everything we are living. A “story” is not a tangible benefit. It’s not something you can point to and measure. But narratives are the ground in which policy grows. Prop 39 [a bill allowing charters to co-locate at public schools] was birthed from an anti-teacher narrative. Charter schools in general were born from anti-union stories…”

To me, our biggest win is that we won the hearts and minds of Los Angeles. An employee at T-Mobile said to me the other day, “What’s up with those DeVos driven charter schools?” — and he wasn’t related to or close to a teacher. He just knew it because of the strike. Don’t underestimate the power of winning the narrative. We do have good, tangible wins, and others will be possible *because* we changed the story around education.”

Or as Lisa Walco, mother of an LAUSD student, observed in the Facebook group Parents Supporting Teachers, “This is only one frame of a full-length movie. First is the strike. UTLA got as much as they could at this stage of things. And we, the community, helped to get the word out and put public education back on the map. It was a huge wake-up call. It has made it a priority again in the minds of parents, students, teachers, administrators, government officials, and will not easily be forgotten.”

That being said, we need to work on the upcoming school board election, followed by the ballot initiative to increase state funding to schools, followed by the next… election and the next. As well as staying engaged and on point with our legislators, and holding LAUSD accountable... This is not a one and done fight. This is the reshaping of public education as we know it. It took us a long time to make this mess and it is going to take a while to clean it up. Would it have been nice to miraculously have had a 10 year contract with 20:1 student-teacher ratios? Of course. But there is no way that that could have happened. Realistically, we have to… roll up our sleeves and figure out how to change the system for the better.”

In other words, the end of the strike doesn’t mean we’re done. There is still a lot left to this story.

If we really want to save public education, we need to keep fighting.

Photo by Erin Ploss-Campoamor

How Can You Help?

  1. If you are a resident of Board District 5 in Los Angeles, help us elect Jackie Goldberg to the School Board on March 5. She is a fierce advocate for public education, the candidate with the most experience, and endorsed by UTLA.
  2. If you are a resident of Los Angeles, call the School Board and tell them you support board-member Dr. Vladovic’s resolution to put a temporary moratorium on new charter schools in L.A.: (213) 241–7000
  3. Also, sign this petition asking LAUSD to support the temporary moratorium on new charter schools in L.A.: http://bit.ly/CharterCap
  4. If you are a resident of California, support the 2020 Funding Initiative for Education. Vote for it. Tell your elected officials to support it.
  5. No matter where you live, please support our schools. Public education is a public good. Help defend it.

Our future depends on it.