Landscape | Spring 2019 Issue

Los Angeles teachers strike and win

The public backs teachers, and charter schools may suffer.

By Jim Newton

When the Los Angeles Unified School District confronted threats of a teachers strike earlier this year, district leaders intimated that any walkout would likely be brief, that teachers would cave quickly and realize they had to settle for modest pay increases and nothing else.

Wrong.

Instead, the strike achieved more than what most teachers could have imagined.

Not only did they win long overdue salary hikes – 3 percent retroactive to last year and another 3 percent retroactive to the beginning of the current school year – but they also made gains in their effort to reduce class sizes. They negotiated staffing increases for nurses and librarians. And they raised new doubts about charter schools, which the United Teachers Los Angeles and some other teacher unions view as threatening to their hegemony.

In a significant bonus, the UTLA vastly strengthened its morale and bargaining power and dealt a public relations blow to the region’s burgeoning charter school movement.

Teachers marched in the rain, and the public responded.

Charter schools, the large majority of which are not unionized, have been the subject of continuing criticism during and since the strike, deepening a divide between the district and its teachers over the future of the charter alternatives to conventional public schools. The new agreement between the UTLA and the district doesn’t do much to limit charters directly, but it requires the district board to consider a resolution regarding a possible cap on charters. This comes as teachers are using their clout nationally to challenge the growth of these schools.

Moreover, the teachers emerged from their strike with well-positioned allies in Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and new California Governor Gavin Newsom. Garcetti helped negotiate the end of the strike, eclipsing his one-time rival, LAUSD chief Austin Beutner, who considered a run for mayor in 2013 but could not match Garcetti’s political strength.

The union’s power was evident from the beginning. A poll by Loyola Marymount University concluded that 80 percent of Los Angeles County residents supported teachers either “strongly” or “somewhat,” and only 18 percent of parents with school-age children opposed the strike. Once the walkout began, students stayed away from school by the hundreds of thousands, costing the district attendance funding and demonstrating broad support for teachers.

In the future, the district may feel the union’s strength even more directly. The LAUSD board has passed a parcel tax proposal to send to district voters; it will almost certainly need union support to win approval. And in the race for an open seat on the board, the heavy favorite is Jackie Goldberg, who nearly won in the first round of voting and is running with strong support from the union.

All of this manifests a clean victory for the UTLA and a resounding loss for district officials who thought a strike might turn parents against teachers. Instead, the LAUSD enters the next phase of its long and difficult job with an emboldened union – armed with well-placed allies, demonstrable public support and a new determination to thwart the growth of charter schools.

Jim Newton

Jim Newton

Jim Newton is a veteran author and journalist who spent 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief, editorial page editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of three critically acclaimed books of biography and history, and he teaches at UCLA.

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