Los Angeles Teachers Prepare to Strike: An Organizing Drive Long in the Making

LA teachers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, should contract negotiations fail. Each side accusing the other of illegal tactics. However, teachers say this is not mainly about wages, but about improving children’s education. Jane McAlevey explains

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Last week, the United Teachers of Los Angeles voted to call a strike should the negotiations between the union and the City of Los Angeles fail to reach a conclusion by mid October. Here is the union secretary, Arlene Inouye, you giving us the vote tally and the reasons why they may be striking come October.

ARLENE INOUYE: An overwhelming ninety-eight percent voted “yes” to authorize a strike if needed. We feel that there should be a nurse at every school five days a week. I mean, we have kids with asthma, diabetes and so forth that need medical support. Counseling, the social emotional supports, in this time and age with so much trauma, we need counselors, we need psychiatric social workers, PSA Counselors, so we need more supports for students.

SHARMINI PERIES: The Los Angeles school district is the second largest in the country after New York. It has not seen a strike in over thirty years. Also, LA teachers have been working under an expired contract for more than a year now. Should the LA teachers go on strike next month, which seems increasingly likely, this could mean that teachers’ strikes are catching on in more parts of the country following the ones that took place last year in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, North Carolina.

Joining me now to discuss the Los Angeles teachers’ mobilization is Jane McAlevey. Jane is an organizer, author and a scholar and is currently completing her third book for Harper Collins, and the provisional title of this book is Why Unions Still Matter. Another book she’s working on, which will be her fourth book, is titled, Striking Back: Organizing Power and Strategy, forthcoming from Verso press. Thanks for joining us, Jane.

JANE MCALEVEY: My pleasure to be here. Thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Jane, as I mentioned in my intro, last year we saw a number of teachers unions going on strike in West Virginia, in Oklahoma, in Kentucky, in Colorado, Arizona, Washington State. And in fact, just last week in Seattle they managed to avert a strike. Now, today we’re going to talk about LA district. But let’s start with this phenomena of teachers unions across the country finally putting their foot down, saying “enough is enough.”

JANE MCALEVEY: Well, and I think you kind of hit on the head. The finally part is the key word. I mean, look. We are experiencing, in this country- really if we take it back to sort of the Ronald Reagan era and then definitely the Bill Clinton administration, we’ve been experiencing sort of a thirty to really thirty-five year attack on public education. And it’s been pronounced, it’s been specific, it’s been deliberate, it’s well funded.

In my book, No Short Cuts, I analyzed in the chapter where I talk about the Chicago Teachers Union- and let me just say that really we can credit the Chicago Teachers Union with beginning all of this work with their unbelievably historic strike back in 2012. A lot of education workers across the country looked at the Chicago teachers in 2012 and said, “Wow, maybe we should start thinking about doing that,” right? Because Chicago was under tremendous attack at the time from Rahm Emanuel.

So, but what we’ve seen in this country, to make it simple, is what they simply in Europe often refer to as austerity. We tend not to use that word very much in the U.S., but I want to break it down like this: corporations and the super wealthy have steadily paid less, less, less, less and less to the tax base in this country and the rich people are taking more and more away from the public coffers. And in the education sector there is a deliberate strategy to defund public education. It’s funded by Wall Street.

We now have Betsy DeVos, who’s been key to the strategy with her multibillionaire husband, sitting and as Trump’s Secretary of Education. So, now we’ve got sort of the commander in chief of the destruction of public education sitting in the cabinet. And you can take a through line from her to the hedge fund billionaire takeover of the LAUSD, the Los Angeles Unified School District, in last year’s elections. The billionaires and Wall Street- and this has been going on for- you know, it didn’t just start last year, but they took control of the school board. This is very important. They took control the school board, the big money Wall Street folks decided they’d be worth twenty, thirty million, just to to make it the most expensive school board race in history. They installed some folks who have come from the billionaire class, the Eli Broad Foundation and company.

And now they’ve installed a superintendent named Austin Beutner, who all evidence suggests is actually trying to destroy the public school district so that the entire district can look more like what happened to Louisiana after the hurricane, which is to turn it into a private, corporate, charter education system, which frankly is terrifying. Given what we know about the private charter school industry at this point, they forget about the Black people, they forget about the low income kids, they forget about the kids in need, they don’t have any room for children who have special needs of any kind. And this is essentially the agenda that’s being run in Los Angeles.

And when you say, go back to the word finally, when you said the word finally. When we saw the strikes happening in the so-called red states, there was a lot of talk in the liberal media that this was a red state phenomenon and it was because things under Republicans were so bad. And I wrote a story in the nation last Mayc connecting what was happening in the so-called red states and suggesting that when we started the school year this fall, which is exactly what’s happening, we’re actually seeing the movement into the so-called blue states. And what we’re also seeing is a lack of fervent support by many of the same liberal elite who were championing, seemingly championing, strikes in the red states but are suddenly going quiet when it comes to states where Democrats and the Democratic Party are complicit in helping destroy the public education system in this country.

And it’s deep. And you know, I keep explaining to people there was a report in something called the Journal of Private Equity- I’m going to make this one point and then stop, but it’s really the context of Los Angeles right now. There was a report in The Journal of Private Equity in 1995 that I found when I was doing my PhD dissertation research that said that the K through 12 education system, if privatized, would be a five hundred billion dollar profit center for private corporations in the United States. The report suggested that teachers unions were the number one problem. they were the reason why Wall Street couldn’t take over the K to 12 public education system.

They monetized, in the Journal of Private Equity, they monetized pencils, computers, notebooks, laptops, you name it. They had a price tag for everything, which basically was turning children into data points and the entire education system, not into an education system but into children as a profit center for Wall Street. And that is exactly what has pushed the Los Angeles education folks into the brink that we’re at right now, is they’re saying “enough is enough.” They’re at a one teacher to forty six student on average class size. I challenge anyone to try and survive when you’re one teacher with forty six students and trying to deliver the kind of education that teachers want to deliver.

SHARMINI PERIES: Jane, thanks for that context. And I promise you, we are going to dig into that report you found a little further next time we have you on, because I think that’s a very important contextualization for understanding this whole entire privatization phenomina that our education system has undergone in the last few decades. Now, let’s go back to the LA school district.

JANE MCALEVEY: Absolutely.

SHARMINI PERIES: And I understand the district is accusing the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the union, of acting in bad faith. In fact, it’s taken legal action against the union because it went ahead and got strike authorization from the membership before the negotiations even began this time around. Now, why did the union get this authorization and why is it important?

JANE MCALEVEY: Okay, first of all, the district is playing a public relations game, to be perfectly clear. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the authorization. All they’ve done so far is authorized the union leadership to call a strike vote. So, the vote that was taken, it was an incredible strike vote. It was over seven days, conducted in nine hundred and fifty schools. I was personally there witnessing the strike vote in several schools last week. It was methodical, democratic, open. It was really as well run a strike vote- and I’ve run a strike votes- so, it was as well run a strike vote as I’ve seen in a very long time in this country.

There was overwhelming turnout and it resulted in a ninety eight percent approval with more than, last I knew they were still counting last week because there was late ballots coming in, et cetera, the same way that it takes the final vote to come in in US elections sometimes on delay, right, and you have extra ballots coming in, et cetera. So, it was an amazing strike vote. So, let me just be clear. The district is just playing a public relations charade. Importantly, the important legal charges have been filed by the union against the Los Angeles school district. So, there’s what’s called an unfair labor practice charge filed by the UTLA, the teachers union, which is really an educators union, there’s more than just teachers in there. But the teachers union filed charges against the district for their interference in their strike vote.

So, there’s a lot of tension being set. And I should explain, again, as someone who’s led strikes before, it’s not atypical that both sides are filing legal charges at this stage in the campaign. But I can tell you, with some greater assurance based on my life experience and past experience, the district is actually just making up something for a PR charge. So, the reason why they got the strike authorization is this: they’ve been work with an expired contract for over a year, well over a year. But on top of that, when Austin Beutner, the new hedge funded, funded, backed billionaire superintendent who was hired on May 1- so, appreciate this.

This new superintendent is brought in on May 1. He’s clearly got an agenda, given who the board is in LAUSD, which again, it’s a billionaire board at this point, and whose kids do not go to the LA public schools, right. So, what they do do is invest in private charter schools. That’s why they want the school district there. So, they hire a new superintendent, in some moment of irony he begins his job on May Day, on May 1 of this year, 2018. He immediately goes to work hiring a Wall Street consulting firm called ERS to do an assessment of the finances and the overall health of the school district.

Now, this is May 1. By June, the school district, so management, issues a report called “Hard Choices.” “Hard Choices,” one, has already been found to have incredibly flawed data. And there’s some great back and forth about this, the teachers union did a terrific analysis of it, they called it “False Choices.” The district put out a report called “Hard Choices.” But let me just give you some highlights from what a man who had been on the job for one month called for. This in the context of a contract that had already been expired for a year, it expired in June of 2017, in June of 2018 you have a brand new superintendent of schools who announces what? He says there’s an analysis of a financial Wall Street firm that says teachers are overpaid by seventeen percent. I have to tell you there’s not a teacher in this country who’s overpaid. And it’s certainly not true in Los Angeles.

So, that the report actually says, put out by ERS Management consultants, that the teachers are overpaid by seventeen per cent, which- it’s is not even laughable, it’s astounding that someone would say that about Los Angeles teachers. That’s number one. Secondly, the report said that their health care benefits cost forty-four percent too much. Again, these are teachers who are working on a shoestrin, who are buying, as one teacher said to me and I wrote about in In These Times last week, who are stockpiling not just pencils and pens, but things like menstrual pads for their students because there’s no school nurses. The school nurses have been cut and teachers are spending out of pocket bringing school supplies into the LA schools.

So, you can imagine what the reaction was. They were a year into an expired contract, not much is happening at the negotiations table, and here comes a Wall Street backed superintendent with zero education experience, that’s zero. There’s a lot of brilliant educators who could be a very good superintendent of schools in LA, and I wish there was one in that seat right now but instead we have a Wall Street executive with basically no education experience, who issues a report that is the biggest slap in the face to parents, students and the education workers in Los Angeles.

I would say that that would be a very good reason why, when they started the school year still with no negotiations, still with no contract happening, that they finally said, “It’s time for us to take a strike authorization vote.” So, the vote was an authorization to strike, and even more importantly, last Spring, and I reported on this in a May article in The Nation magazine when I was writing about it, because I’ve been following what the LA teachers are doing for some time. They’re a very dynamic union. They’re run by, they have very good teachers union leadership. The membership is very engaged in the union right now.

You see that in it in a strike authorization vote that exceeded eighty-four percent turnout. That’s an extraordinary number, as someone who’s run strike votes. So, they had they had eighty-four percent or more, I haven’t seen the latest number, turn out, and ninety-eight percent say yes. And that is because you saw the actions that were a superintendent walking in and literally just slapping people in the face. But last Spring, in in April, they were running what I call a “structure test” in April. And this “structure test,” meaning they were testing what was the readiness of workers to take action, to demand a better contract, to save the education system, to save public education in Los Angeles?

And last Spring, they already essentially did an informal assessment of the many thousands of their members, tens of thousands, and asked them, “If we start school and there’s no contract yet, should we take an authorization vote?” Meaning they already asked the teachers last Spring, “Do you think it makes sense,” just an opinion question, “Do think it makes sense that if you come back to school and there’s still no contract in place and the district is still stalling and doing a whole lot of nothing, should we actually take the strike authorization vote?” So, that’s all they’ve done at this point. They now do have the authorization to call a strike if they cannot, through mediation, find an agreement.

And the legal process will take them until at least mid October. They have to go through mediation, factfinding, that’s a legal process in California and many public sector states, they have a process like that. So, I would say that when you’ve been at the table with no progress for a year and a new Wall Street funded superintendent comes in and says you’re seventeenn percent overpaid, your benefits costs forty-four percent too much, and he additionally called for attacks on their pension, further cuts in the classroom. The report was just astounding. So, to expect anything but the education workers to say, “It’s time for us to act in defense of our students, our education system,” that would’ve been wishful thinking on the part of that superintendent.

SHARMINI PERIES: Yeah, students, our teachers, our communities and more. And the future of all us as well, because well-educated students will suddenly produce good citizens in the future.

JANE MCALEVEY: Absolutely.

SHARMINI PERIES: Jane, before I leave just quickly for me wrap up what the teachers are demanding in this strike.

JANE MCALEVEY: Oh my God, yeah, absolutely. I would say the thing that I heard the most when I was interviewing the education workers there is class size. So, number one would be class size. There’s something called section one point five of the contract. And section one point five of the contract is what is allowing them to have a one teacher to forty-two student ratio, and then under some emergency provision they’re allowed to go four above that. So, most of the teachers that I interviewed last week during the strike vote were actually sitting at forty-two, forty-three, forty-four, forty-five or forty-six students in their classroom with no assistance, right. This is K through 12. That’s that’s an awful lot of people in your classroom with no assistance. I think that’s number one.

Number two would be per people funding. Los Angeles School District is forty-three out of fifty in per pupil funding. That that puts rich, super rich, fancy Los Angeles next to basically Mississippi, Alabama and a bunch of states that you would be shocked to compare them to in per people spending. So, they want less testing and more teaching. They want reduced class sizes. And importantly, every single time I said one of the teachers, “So let’s just say the school district came back and said you can have the wage increase that you were asking for?” Because the media generally is trying to make this, and the district is trying to make this about wages.

It is not about wages. Every teacher I interviewed, I said to them, “If the district met your exact wage proposals, do you still think that a strike would be on the table?” And every teacher looked at me without blinking an eye and said, “This isn’t about wages, and we would definitely still walk out, this is about the defense of public education and our students’ right to get a good education, defending low income students’ right to have a good education.” That’s what’s at issue in Los Angeles.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Jane. I should remind people that we are talking, what, the fifth largest economy in the world pinching its teachers.

JANE MCALEVEY: Right.

SHARMINI PERIES: I mean, and their students and families. Jane, it is so great to have you on. We’ll definitely have you back on the privatization of education in this country. And then of course we’ll be following this strike and negotiations that are going on into the next month for sure. So, I look forward to having you back. Thank you so much.

JANE MCALEVEY: Teriffic. Thank You.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.