LA Teachers Win in the Streets

Against the Current No. 22, September/October 1989

Joel Jordan

ON THURSDAY, MAY 25, some 15,000 striking Los Angeles teachers jammed into the downtown Sports Arena to hear the terms of a tentative agreement reached early that morning by negotiators for United Teachers-Los Angeles (UTLA) and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Even before a word was spoken from the podium, it was obvious from the boisterous floor demonstrations erupting throughout the arena that the euphoric teachers felt they had already won a great victory—a victory in the streets.

After waging a grueling and frustrating year-long guerrilla campaign against the District, teachers learned through the solidarity developed during the nine day strike that they could successfully take on a bureaucracy which had so long denied them the respect they felt they deserved. This solidarity was expressed in a mass mobilization and militancy reminiscent of the movements of the 1960s, as teachers marched and demonstrated by the thousands, often joined by students, parents, and other unionists.

This mass activity raised the consciousness of everyone involved, making a decent, if not spectacular, settlement possible. While the initial demands of the teachers were focused on salaries, in the course of the strike teachers increasingly began to see their struggle in broader terms—as a struggle against the bureaucracy for real decision making power at the school site. In the process, a foundation was laid for the building of a broad-based grassroots movement for significant educational reform.

Some 13,000 teachers, almost 80%, struck the first day, with 75% staying out until the end. This unity almost eclipsed bitter memories of the last strike in 1970 when only 50% stayed out, unsuccessfully, for almost five weeks, leaving a thick residue of bitterness and resignation which made many teachers cynical about the feasibility of striking again.

The solidarity was reflected in militancy as well as numbers. Mass rallies in parks were held daily by geographic area, often followed by spirited marches through the surrounding communities.

Parent and Student Support

Despite the overwhelming unity and militancy of the teachers, the outcome of the strike might not have been assured were it not for the spontaneous and visible support of parents and students, support that was not enthusiastically solicited by the union leadership.

Nevertheless, many parents, particularly Latinos in the East and Central areas of Los Angeles, actively aided the strike by walking on picket lines, going to marches and demonstrations, calling the School Board demanding a settlement, and keeping their children home from school. After the first day, when it became clear that the strike had effectively shut down education throughout the city, student attendance stayed at about 50% for the duration of the strike. Media polls found overwhelming community sympathy for the strike, despite the opposition of the P.T.A. and the traditional Black leadership.

The most visible support for the teachers came from high school and junior high students. Despite UTLA’s official policy of encouraging students to slay in school and prohibiting them from walking on picket lines, at many schools students organized mass walkouts, joining teachers on the lines and on marches. Students from Belmont High, a large, predominantly Latino school near downtown LA., led frequent marches, with teachers, to the school board.

The student demonstrations supporting teachers actually began in January, when thousands of high school and junior high students throughout the District organized their own rallies and walk-outs, which, for the most part, blamed the District for refusing to meet the teachers’ demands.

While parents and students organized themselves at the various school sites, the UTLA School/Community Relations Committee, a standing committee of teachers actively promoting closer relations between teachers, parents, and other workers, organized district-wide support In just two days, the committee worked with parents to organize a spirited mass rally and march near downtown L.A. attended by some 2,500 parents, students, and teachers.

Contract: Pros and Cons

To most observers, the contract appeared to be a significant victory. At a time when most unions in the private and public sectors are waging uphill defensive battles against concessions, with little success, UTLA was able to win a sizable three year salary settlement8%-8%-8%—making Los Angeles teachers among the highest paid urban school teachers in the nation.

“Shared Decision Making” (SDM) councils were also created, composed of 50% teachers and 50% parent/community, non-certificated school employees, administrators, and, in secondary schools, students. These councils will have decision-making authority in certain areas previously reserved for the principal. UTLA also negotiated an end to yard duty for elementary teachers, affording them a 30-minute duty-free period. A no reprisal agreement applies to parents, students, and other school workers, as well as teachers.

Despite these gains, there was still a sizable NO vote (no hard numbers are available because only a voice vote was taken: ballots were distributed but never counted). This vote mainly reflected dissatisfaction with two aspects of the contract salary and docked pay.

The strike was triggered by differences over salary raises, not the other issues which had mostly been resolved. The District’s last offer was 8%-5.5%-8% with a formula to raise the 5.5% depending on state funding levels. UTLA demanded a two-year contract with 11%10%, arguing that the District was hiding enough money in its budget to pay double digit raises. When the State announced during the strike a $2.5 billion surplus, much of which was to be targeted for education as a result of the passage of Proposition 98 last November, many teachers expected a higher raise than they received.

The docked-pay issue was particularly galling. Throughout the school year, teachers had boycotted various unpaid duties to pressure the District during contract negotiations. These duties included yard duty, staff meetings, and after school parent conferences and meetings, such as Back to School Night Most important, UTLA asked teachers not to turn in their grades to the District, and instead give them directly to the students and parents.

In response to these boycotts, LAUSD Superintendent Leonard Britton decided to dock teachers for certain boycott activities. Defiant, UTLA President Wayne Johnson promised teachers that no contract would be signed unless all the docked pay was returned. When Johnson announced that teachers would only be reimbursed a little more than half their docked pay, thousands of teachers groaned their disappointment.

Bargaining Position and Strategy

The contract reflected both the relative strengths and weaknesses of IJTLA’s bargaining position, as well as of the political vision and strategy of its leaders, especially President Wayne Johnson.

First, the national attention given to upgrading the educational system to improve the economic competitiveness of the United States has generally helped to create a more favorable political climate for teachers in contract negotiations. This, as well as the acute national teacher shortage, has prompted many commission reports to call for greatly increased teacher salaries and more decision-making authority for teachers at the school-site level.

Over the past several years, moreover, California (unlike many other states) has enjoyed relative prosperity, enough to provide the material basis for some important reform legislation, such as the passage of Senate Bill 813 in 1983, which significantly raised the entry level salaries of teachers throughout the state.

Other factors have particularly enhanced the bargaining position of Los Angeles teachers. The teacher shortage, while serious everywhere, is especially severe in Los Angeles, where widespread immigration has raised the student population significantly.

At the same time, the social dislocation resulting from this immigration, combined with the worsening conditions of Black and Latino working-class and poor families, has had a devastating effect on teaching and learning conditions in the inner city. Gangs, drugs, teen-age pregnancies, and a 39% dropout rate are only the most publicized manifestations of the hopelessness experienced by thousands of young people Each year, hundreds of teachers leave the District, overwhelmed by students with vast unmet needs and by an unresponsive school-site, regional, and District administration.

Ironically, then, the very failure of society and the school system in particular has helped put Los Angeles teachers in a strong negotiating position. Wayne Johnson took full advantage of these favorable conditions, striking a militant, confrontational stance with the school board and district administration, mainly around salary demands, and mobilizing the membership in support.

In 1984, when Johnson was elected President, he and other UTLA officers began an aggressive recruitment campaign to raise union membership which had languished for some time around 16,000, or just over half the bargaining unit. In four years, UTLA’s membership topped 20,000. A “cluster system” was put into place which facilitated quick communication between the UTLA top leadership and the more than 600 chapter chairs (the equivalent of shop stewards). A more systematic chapter chair training program was undertaken.

At the same time, the limits of Johnson’s vision were also clear. Teachers could accomplish anything, he said, if they only hung together. Johnson did not oppose alliances with parents, but they were not a priority either. Moreover, he saw the issues of salary and “professionalization” (increased teacher role in decision making) as the main ones, downplaying the importance of non-pragmatic education reform demands, such as lower class size, which directly improve education and not just the socioeconomic position of teachers.
Prelude to the Strike

Beginning in the fall of 1986, UTLA began a campaign to win a double-digit salary increase which taught teachers that by fighting together, they could force the Board to make concessions. The campaign culminated in a one-day work stoppage on April 5, 1987, in which an unprecedented 80% of the teachers participated, giving them a glimpse of their collective power. During the course of the year, UTLA had been able to pressure the District to raise its salary offer from 2% to 8% with the union holding firm on a “double-digit” (read: 10%) raise.

UTLA took a strike authorization vote in late May, whereupon with some eleventh hour state aid, the District agreed to a l0% raise.

After a quick settlement the follow-mg year, UTLA began gearing up to negotiate a new contract for 1988-89. When it became clear that the District was smiling in negotiations, UTLA initiated its boycott strategy, a version of the “inside game” strategy promoted by the Industrial Union Department of the AFL, CIO. The centerpiece of the strategy was the grade boycott: teachers would give grades directly to the students but not to the District Johnson predicted that the District would fold” if teachers boycotted the first semester grades.

Citing the failure of the Chicago strike in the fall, when teachers struck for three weeks and settled for the school board’s original 4% salary offer, Johnson explicitly ruled out striking as an option.

By the end of the first semester, however, it was clear that the grade boycott was inadequate, even with the unsolicited student demonstrations. In fact, the threatened grade boycott seemed to strengthen the hand of Superintendent Leonard Britton, who confidently threatened to withhold the next pay check if teachers carried through the boycott. In doing so, he appealed to parents and the public, charging UTLA with holding the children “hostage.” Unprepared to call a strike at that time, UTLA called off the boycott.

Since negotiations went nowhere, LJTLA was forced to organize for a strike in any case. Johnson continued to argue that UTLA’s most potent weapon was not to give final grades by means of an end of the school year strike, affecting graduation, proms, college transcripts In preparation for this tactic, Johnson set a May 31 strike deadline and told teachers to boycott the ten-week grades, in order not to give the District any basis for giving out second-semester grades. Again, Britton retaliated by threatening to withhold the May paychecks if teachers refused to turn in their grades. This forced LJTLA to begin the strike two weeks early, on May 15.

Ironically, Britton’s move probably worked to UTLA’s advantage. Without the expected May paycheck and without a strike fund, teachers could not be expected to strike for the six weeks it would take to withhold final semester grades. With a grade boycott unlikely, Britton would have a much harder job whipping up anti-teacher sentiment among parents and students, who were otherwise sympathetic to the teachers’ demands.

UTLA and Parent Concerns

The boycott strategy reflected both the strengths and weaknesses of UTLA’s overall bargaining approach. As a unity-building activity on the school site, most of the boycotts were highly successful. In particular, teachers were delighted to refuse to attend after-school staff meetings, which in most schools are irrelevant, principal-run listening sessions. Ditto with the boycott of lunch-time yard duty, another demeaning reminder of the near baby-sitter status of teachers.

At the same time, the boycott of after-school parent conferences and Back-to School night, while popular with many teachers, sent a clear, if unintended, message to parents that teachers did not want to meet with them. These boycotts were particularly unpopular among parent activists trying to involve more parents in school affairs.

Two other issues also bothered parents. UTLA’s bargaining position on shared decision making was that new school site governing councils should be created with teachers making up at least 51% of the councils. Agreeing that these councils should have decision-making power, parent activists objected to the 51% demand, seeing it as a power play.

Also, many Latino parents were upset with UTLA’s position against bilingual education. In the summer of ’88, an group of LAUSD teachers called LEAD, who oppose bilingual education, submitted a referendum to UTLA members calling for English immersion instead of bilingual education. In addition, the referendum called for the elimination of the hated “waivers,” whereby teachers were forced either to commit themselves to becoming bilingual, by taking foreign-language classes (usually Spanish), or be transferred to another school.

Aided by widespread dissatisfaction with this punitive policy, the referendum was passed overwhelmingly. This alienated many Latino parents, who organized demonstrations and press conferences denouncing UTLA and especially Wayne Johnson, who had refused to take a position on the referendum.

Just before the strike, however, UTLA was able to regain some credibility among Latinos. Since the adoption of the referendum, the District dropped the “stick,” instead offering teachers the “carrot’ of financial incentives, as much as $5,000 a year, to teachers who learn another language. In the midst of negotiations between UTLA and the District, LEAD proposed a new referendum calling for no incentives.

This time, Johnson, the UTLA Board of Directors and the House of Representatives voted almost unanimously to oppose the referendum, primarily on the grounds that it would disrupt negotiations and further enflame the Latino community just before a possible strike. UTLA leaders, including Johnson, met with progressive Latino community activists to help publicize the opposition of UTLA’s leadership (the ballots were impounded due to an irregularity in the election).

The ambivalence demonstrated by UTLA toward parent participation and activism is rooted in the contradictory relationship between parents and teachers in the school system, and not just the narrow “contract unionism” of UTLA’s leadership. Within a deteriorating system in which parents and teachers are both powerless, it is not surprising that each should blame the other.

Teachers often hold parents responsible for a student’s lack of self-discipline and motivation, just as parents deride teachers for a lack of sensitivity to their child’s special needs. These conflicts are widened considerably in the primarily minority, working-class schools which make up the majority of the LAUSD. Principals frequently exploit these differences to develop their own power base.

At the same time, teachers and parents also realize that cooperation between them is in the best interests of children and education in general. Teachers often think that many parents are doing their best under difficult circumstances and vise versa. In some school districts in recent years teachers were able to win contract struggles as a direct result of parent involvement or the threat of it.

Four years ago, in Oakland, California, teachers won a sizable salary increase after a three-week strike due to massive parent support Around the same time, the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers won a decent contract after conscious appeals to parents by making class size a bargaining issue, inviting them to join teachers in demonstrating for quality education. Alliances of teachers and parents are essential to generate the necessary political power to make significant changes in public education.

Shared Decisions: Trap or Opening?

Throughout the year-long contract campaign, as well as two years before, UTLA leaders had framed the issues with anti-bureaucratic rhetoric and propaganda that “turned on” teachers.

UTLA published the outrageously high salaries of all top administrators (Britton makes over $140,000) and demanded to know what they did to earn them. Johnson used the media effectively to attack the District for hiding money in various accounts which could go directly to the classroom.

Before the strike, this rhetoric was mainly used to defend UTLA’s salary demands. But during the strike, as teach-era felt their collective power and saw the support they were receiving, they began to see the school governance issue as equally important Now, the struggle against the bureaucracy was for real: teachers would be able to exercise genuine authority on the new Shared Decision Making (SDM) councils, and even outvote the principal if necessary.

After the strike, striking U1’LA members prepared slates for the new councils at most schools, winning the overwhelming majority of the teacher seats. Many strike-tested teachers were elected as new chapter chairs, reflecting a higher Level of activism in the schools. Teacher interest in working with parents and students has also increased dramatically.

At its first meeting after the strike, the IJTLA School/Community Relations Committee attracted over sixty teachers to discuss using the councils to better communicate with parents.

These councils, however, have a number of obstacles to overcome. For one thing, the time allotted for council meetings is minimal: two one-hour meetings per month, making effective decision-making difficult. For another, the District insisted that parent/community representatives could be District employees (but not teachers) who are typically under the control of the principal.

While UTLA fought for and won the right of the councils to make decisions by majority vote without administrative veto, the parameters of their authority, at least at present, are limited to staff development, student discipline, special scheduling and activities, use of school equipment, and school expenditures.

Control over hiring and firing, curriculum, day-to-day scheduling, and other key spending decisions are still in the hands of the principals, many of whom will continue to make unilateral decisions and by-pass the councils unless pressured to do otherwise.

Teachers and parents are likely to encounter resistance if they press to use the councils as an instrument of genuine school reform. According to the contract, each council is also expected to submit a “School-Based Management” (SBM) plan to restructure the school in any legal way deemed beneficial to the students.

Principals, however, have a veto over these proposals. If agreement is reached at the school-site, it then has to be approved by an undemocratically constituted district-wide Central Council composed of equal numbers of UTLA and District appointees in which parent representatives are appointed by the District Even then, the Board of Education can veto any proposal.

From the District’s standpoint, then, the purposes of the councils are both cooptive and cosmetic, designed to give teachers only an illusion of genuine decision-making authority. In this sense, it is an application of the “Team Concept” in the field of education whereby workers (the teachers) and bosses (the principal) presumably work together to produce a better and cheaper product (the students), by deciding how best to implement management decisions made at higher levels.

What makes this concept more problematic for school management than for their counterparts in private industry, however, is the lack of a competitive whip to prevent teachers from going beyond management prerogatives.

Schools are not profit-nuking institutions and do not compete with one another for resources. In the private sector, the goal of “team” efforts is explicit and obvious: to raise productivity so as to improve the firm’s competitive position. No such self-limiting goal need pervade “team” efforts in education.

The councils could play an important role as a focal point for struggles to improve education. But such struggles would require alliances between teachers and parents which would have to be based on an appreciation of each group’s distinct, as well as mutual, concerns.

The councils could be the terrain for first ever discussions on school reform and could serve as the foundation upon which a district-wide alliance for educational reform could be built, including teachers, parents, students, and other school employees.

Such a district-wide alliance is a logical next step. The most important decisions affecting schools are not made at the school site, but elsewhere: at the District and, increasingly, at the state levels.

School funding, which determines class size, salaries, building construction and repair, etc., is provided in California by the State Legislature and the Governor. The state also controls school curricula: setting graduation requirements and standards for course content and methods, including the adoption of textbooks and reading lists.

These and other key decisions are made by politicians and state agencies whose priorities and aims are class and race biased toward white suburban children, rather than toward most of the students served by the LAUSD. Even the Board of Education, whose members are more accessible to their constituents, cannot consistently defend their interests. School board members tend to be dependent on the information and analysis supplied by the District bureaucracy as well as the budgetary limits set by the state government.

This lesson was well illustrated this past school year. Three of the seven school board member—Jackie Goldberg, Julie Korenstein, and Warren Furutani—had been elected with UTLA support and are generally regarded as political progressives. While it is true that the board was split during negotiations, with these three more inclined to compromise with the union, nevertheless, the differences within the board were limited and rarely publicly aired.

Before the strike, Goldberg publicly tried to sell teachers on the District’s offer. The entire board, without dissent, presided over several sessions of budget slashing just before the strike which were designed to make UTLA’s salary demands appear excessive and responsible for cuts in school programs. LTFLA continues, however, to put significant resources into electing “pm-teacher” candidates. After UTLA-backed candidates won their elections this spring, UTLA leaders now claim that a majority of the Board is “pro-teacher.”

Many teachers are more skeptical. Already, the new Board voted unanimously to extend Britton’s contract for another year over UTLA’s vehement objections.

But the problem that UTLA faces is structural. Board members invariably sell out,’ to a greater or lesser degree, but not because of personal failings. Regardless of their intent, they tend to become an appendage to the bureaucratic apparatus precisely because they have no active, independent mass base in the schools with which to challenge that apparatus. Lacking an alternative to this structure, UTLA has little choice but to work to elect Board members who at least are not out to break the union.

What is needed is an alternative, democratic structure for the governing of a school district based on active councils at the school site with regional and district councils made u, of democratically-elected representatives from each school.

Since the strike, the UTLA School/ Community Relations Committee is working with active parents to put on a District-wide conference aimed at sharing different council experiences and at developing networking between active council members. It is also encouraging parents of trade unionists to take an active part in the councils.

In this way, the committee hopes to play a role in building an independent, grassroots pm-union, pm-parent, and pm-student movement which can begin to pose an alternative school reform agenda to those of the various commissions and business roundtables. Such a development would give a fantastic boost to the struggle for fundamental change in the nation’s schools.

September-October 1989, ATC 22