LA Teachers Face the Crisis

Against the Current, No. 142, September/October 2009

interview with UTLA activist

Against the Current interviewed a longtime activist and current leader in the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) about the impact of California’s devastating budget crisis on public services and on education in particular. Our first discussion took place in July before the Governor announced his agreement with the state legislative leadership on a budget package. Even as we go to press, however, the implications for teachers and the education system remain murky as outlined below. We began by asking for an overview of the factors contributing to the crisis.

THE CRISIS, FIRST of all, is of course felt in every state, with declining tax revenues because of the economy. California has its particular reasons for the intensity of the crisis here; relative to the size of the entire state budget, the deficit is the highest percentage in the country.

The immediate reason is the two-thirds majority requirement in the state legislature for passing a budget or increasing taxes, which is an outgrowth of Proposition 13 (passed by voters in 1978) and some followup legislation.

This inability to raise taxes, due to the “anti-tax crusade” of that period, means that even though California is a “blue” state with almost a two-thirds Democratic majority in the legislature, so long as the Republicans remain locked in on an anti-tax program there’s a heavy emphasis on cutting programs to make up the deficit. Basically, which programs to cut becomes the political issue.

Even when taxes are increased, as when a sales tax was put into place, it’s always regressive.

ATC: What does this mean for funding education?

Public education — up through two-year community colleges, what you could call K-14 — makes up 40% of the state budget. Public school funding is through the state, not the districts. The education lobby, frankly, is more powerful than the social services lobby. The primary union, the California Teachers Association (CTA), is well-positioned and well-funded for lobbying. (UTLA is affiliated to CTA, but has greater freedom of action for reasons described below — ed.)

Because education gets such a big share of the budget, what’s being cut to the bone is social services — including aid for blind and disabled people, and health care for kids.

Even so, Los Angeles and other urban districts would be in much worse shape without the federal stimulus money. The LA United School District alone got over a billion stimulus dollars. Still there have been big attacks on public education because of the deficit — over a billion in cuts from the LAUSD budget alone.

It’s complicated, but basically schools are financed through (a) general funds and (b) categorical funds for specific purposes, such as special education and Title 1 allocations for poor kids. The legislature cut half from each. The districts that most heavily rely on categorical funding, like LAUSD, took bigger cuts per pupil than the California average.

ATC: Are teachers going to be scrambling to cash those state IOUs?

No, by law public employees have to be paid regular money. But what we’ve been facing as a union is a problem with health benefits. We negotiated health care caps for the first time this year — we’d always resisted that before now. There’s greater attention to how the District spends its money, and the union has to operate in this context for health benefits.

I think we did about as well as we could, including mass membership mobilizations. We had to prop up the other unions in the bargaining process. The biggest challenge has been the proposal to raise class size, and originally to cut almost 6,000 teachers and another 2,500 classified and other workers.

Negotiations are ongoing for some possible compromise over our seniority pay increases — some kind of “temporary loan” in the form of deferred pay — or maybe “furlough” days. UTLA has been attacked by some of the militants for accepting possible concessions to save jobs and class size. We’ve been anti-concessions all along, but the books are essentially open, the money just ain’t there.

Until we knew that the administrative bureaucracy was being cut, we weren’t going to accept concessions. But inside the union, we think that our members in this economy would see saving jobs and class size as the highest priority. [As of August 6 no agreement is in place as the full extent of the budget gap remains unclear — ed.]

ATC: How did the unions mobilize membership in response to the attacks?

The problem has been in getting any of the unions to fight back. CTA is over 300,000 members, but in a crisis like this, unless it tries to organize its members its lobbying is ineffectual.

The CTA had people wear pink (to symbolize pink slips) to work one Friday. That’s not going to cut it — and this was done to counter growing support for a one-hour statewide strike like UTLA pulled off on June 6 last year. We held a one-hour work stoppage, with thousands of parents and students on the line with us. That action was against budget cuts and calling for progressive taxation.

This year we were moving toward our own one-day strike in Los Angeles for May 15, and we had put forward resolutions in the CTA state council to call for job actions. But we made a mistake in failing to properly prepare for an injunction, which the District was able to get (they failed last year). We made a decision to call off the walkout because we hadn’t got our membership ready to confront the injunction and the consequences.

There’s now great dissatisfaction within the CTA because of the crisis and the fact that the leadership has accepted huge cutbacks. The activists who make up the core of the state council are becoming more disaffected because the leadership isn’t stopping the hemorrhaging in the districts. The point is that there hasn’t been an effective fight by the CTA.

In LA we’re in better shape because UTLA is affiliated with both the AFT and NEA (the national teacher unions). Our staff is responsible to our local, not to the CTA machinery which staffs the smaller locals.

ATC: How did you prepare for May 15? What’s the mood among teachers these days?

We were concerned about organizing at the school level, which we couldn’t do as effectively as we’d like. But 80% participated in last year’s one-hour stoppage. This year’s action would have been very successful had it gone ahead without the injunction. The cancellation was demoralizing, especially for those who stood to lose their jobs with the layoffs and were doing fantastic organizing.

There’s a whole new layer of activists who are emerging in the union through this crisis — many of whom actually felt this action would bring the District to its knees, but we understand that’s not real.

The District voted in April to increase class size, by four in K-3 and two in other grades. We are negotiating around this now, especially the sharp increase in K-3. We’ve also been demanding to spend more Title I stimulus money centrally, to hire teachers. Instead it was allocated to school site councils, many of which are manipulated by administrators and bureaucrats. As a result more than 1,000 out-of-classroom people were hired rather than classroom teachers.

[As of early August] the mood among teachers varies, but there’s a lot of fear. The agreement we’d thought would be in place by now may be going south again. There isn’t complete trust in the union leadership. Some members fear we’re not going far enough in making accommodations, while for others, especially younger teachers, calling off the one-day action was an unfortunate development that demoralized a lot of them because they had staked so much on the work stoppage. By and large, however, the broader rank and felt a lot of relief.

I’d say there’s a certain amount of cynicism on the part of the younger teachers. But this summer there’s organizing going on among groups of younger teachers, both to put pressure on the union leadership or even possibly to act independently when necessary. My own take is that they aren’t paying enough attention to the opportunities to make things happen within the union.

What PEAC (Progressive Educators Action Coalition, the rank-and-file caucus that founded the coalition which took power in the union in 2005) and UTLA want to do is bring them around. We’re holding meetings in early September to give them a sense of the union’s perspective, and how we need them engaged. PEAC itself has grown over the course of this crisis.

ATC: Where do things stand as we go to press?

[As of August 10] The whole deal we thought we’d have may be off. The budget hole is so large that it isn’t even a matter of concessions to save jobs, but to fill that hole. We don’t even know whether there’s a new hole, what I call the “October hole.”

It’s complicated, but there’s a program called QEIA — Quality Education Investment Act — which was negotiated with the CTA as a seven-year agreement to lower class sizes in the highest-need schools in the state. There are actually 88 of these schools in the LA District.

Because of the crisis there’s a move to suspend that program and use those funds to close the budget gap. The plan is apparently to take money from QEIA and somehow “backfill” it, i.e. put the money back into the schools through another mechanism. CTA says “details still to be worked out,” with no hit to the school districts. But the LA District superintendent says the money is actually coming out of the District budget, robbing Peter to pay Paul.

All this is now in the hands of various departments of the state government, possibly even the federal government. We don’t even know that yet.

ATC: What’s the perspective in California? This recession isn’t ending tomorrow…

Going forward, even if we’re able to save all these teacher jobs through negotiations, if there’s not another stimulus we’re in even worse shape next year. The budget for 2010-11 is a catastrophe. What some districts are doing are local parcel taxes (a form of property tax)  — San Francisco passed one, for example — which can be horribly regressive but doesn’t have to be (if it’s assessed on a square footage basis, for example).

Then we need a longer-term campaign to change the two-thirds requirement. The Democrats are putting forward an initiative for November 2010 to change the two-thirds budget vote requirement, but not the tax increase requirement.

Even Republican voters support progressive taxation when it’s properly explained, because most of them aren’t millionaires — but that campaign has never been waged. We want to start a campaign for progressive taxation, in coalition with ACORN and various community organizations and groups, but the strategy for how to do this isn’t clear yet.

On the community-parent-teacher solidarity front, a lot of forums were held by teachers during the spring fight, and community organizations like the Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) held some too. There was a lot of enthusiasm among parents and students for a fightback.

Sustaining this, however, is very difficult because it can only be done either through existing community organizations, which don’t have enough capacity, or through direct teacher work at the schools, which is what I used to argue for until I saw in practice how difficult it is to maintain.

In short there’s potential for mobilization, but sustained organization is much harder. What’s really missing here, more than anything, is the left — an organized left. Some of us are going to try to construct a left strategy group rooted in work that people are doing, and recognizes that we are in a very deep crisis. This wouldn’t just be for unionists but also for people doing community organizing. We need to move forward — we have never faced a situation like this in our lifetime.

ATC 142, September-October 2009