Teachers, Parents, Community Together

Against the Current, No. 146, May/June 2010

interview with Joshua Pechthalt

ATC INTERVIEWED JOSHUA Pechthalt, an activist who is Vice President of the United Teachers Los Angeles/American Federation of Teachers and President of AFT Local 1021. He also sits on the Executive Boards of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the California State Federation of Labor.

Against the Current: What relationship did UTLA and other teacher unions have to the March 4 actions around the California education crisis?

Joshua Pechthalt: UTLA played a leadership role in the March 4th activities in Los Angeles. Prior to the actions by University of California students last November, I had begun talking to teacher union leaders in the community colleges, Cal State University system and other K-12 teachers in Southern California about bringing the education community together to discuss our common issues and to see how we could coordinate our activities during this budget crisis.

The March 4th mobilization then became a vehicle for working together. The various education related unions, including K-12, community college faculty and staff, Cal State faculty and staff and UC faculty and staff formed the Southern California Public Education Coalition.

We developed a common piece of literature to distribute and did informational leafleting in the morning followed by a press conference. We then organized or participated in four separate rallies throughout Los Angeles County in the afternoon. All together I would say we mobilized more than 10,000 students, teachers and staff members for the afternoon rallies.

ATC: How is your union affected by the crisis, and what’s the status of your collective bargaining contract? What’s the morale of the membership and their willingness to fight?

JP: Our union, like the public sector unions in general and public education in particular, has been devastated by the budget crisis. California is particularly hard hit because we are one of three states in the nation that require a two-thirds majority to both to adopt a budget and raise taxes. That means that even with a majority Democratic legislature in Sacramento, the far-right Republicans have held the state hostage by refusing to raise revenues through progressive tax measures.

The legislature has slashed funding for public education by $18 billion over the past two years. In the Los Angeles Unified District, we are facing a $600 million deficit in the coming school year.

In March of this year, more than 20,000 permanent public school teachers and health and human service personnel received layoff notices across the state. In our District alone 2800 permanent teachers received layoff notices.

We recently agreed to a contract that restores more than 2000 jobs, maintains class size (the district threatened to raise class size in grades K-3, from the current 24-1 ratio to 29-1) while agreeing to language that would give the union a greater role in developing reform plans for low-performing schools. This language will hopefully slow down the effort to give away our schools to charter school operators.

In return, the union has agreed to accept five furlough days for this year (five fewer days of schools) and seven furlough days for next year. The District has agreed to restore two professional development days for next year, reducing the impact of the cuts.

Each furlough day is the equivalent of about a half a percent pay cut, which means about a 2½% pay cut for this year and next year. While these cuts are painful, we felt that maintaining class size and saving jobs had to be the priority.

In terms of overall morale, I think this is a more complicated question. On the one hand some people want to fight back while others are resigned to the seeming inevitability of cuts. Unfortunately since our local district is not the cause of this crisis an action, like a strike, directed locally would have little impact.

We have to take on the state and right now we don’t have the political strength to make that happen. A real fightback will require patient organizing and sometimes it is difficult to convince our most militant folks that we are not prepared for that struggle right now.

In the absence of that tangible fightback many members have become cynical about everyone and everything. It has become a very difficult atmosphere in which to work — certainly the worst I have seen during my 25 years of union activism.

ATC: What’s the general strategy of UTLA and AFT in California for taking on the budget and education crisis, and where does mass direct action in particular fit in?

JP: First I think it is clear that labor as a whole is struggling to formulate a coherent strategy. The magnitude of this crisis requires taking on the funding priorities and tax policies of the state and that’s not easy. This is coming at a time when labor has the lowest rate of membership since the end of WWII and we have had 30 years of anti-government, pro-market ideology that has put us very much on the defensive.

Having said that, the California Federation of Teachers and UTLA have a strategic outlook that sees coalition building as a central element to building the political strength necessary to challenge at the state level. The CFT in particular has developed a campaign called Fighting for California’s Future that has three tracks: educational, strengthening the political capacity of our locals and finally a direct action component.

The educational work has been directed at first educating our members on progressive tax reform and then looking to organize town hall meetings to engage our parents and community members.

The CFT has also been talking and working with key community organizations about working together on the educational track as well as on the political front. I believe that in the coming months, UTLA will also be doing trainings and organizing town hall meetings to engage parents on the issues.

While mass action must be a key element of our strategy, I think the leadership of both organizations sees that the way out of this crisis requires longterm organizing and planning. As powerful as March 4th was it didn’t change much in terms of the current budget mess.

ATC: What’s the 48-day march to Sacramento about? How did it come together and what level of mobilization has been achieved?

JP: The March to Sacramento came out of a sentiment among leaders throughout the CFT that we needed to develop a statewide strategy that engaged our locals. The March emerged as a way to raise awareness over a period of weeks of the crisis budget, work with other unions and infuse the struggle with a dramatic, moral component. We modeled this march on the powerful marches of Cesar Chavez to bring attention to the plight of the farm workers.

ATC:  What kind of union-community partnership or solidarity exists? Are immigrant communities activated around the education and budget crisis?

JP: UTLA has been working with a number of community organizations over the last few years and I believe that work will deepen in the coming period. In Southern California the immigrant community plays a key role in this but certainly this work needs to be prioritized.

ATC: We assume that any real solution to the crisis has to include real tax reform and getting rid of Proposition 13. Can you explain the problem of taxes in California and what people are trying to do to change that?

JP: Prop 13 is a huge issue. Prop 13 was promoted in the late 1970s by anti-tax forces led by Howard Jarvis. The measure dealt with a real problem that seniors on fixed income were being taxed out of their homes. Prop 13 set limits on how property could be reassessed and taxed.

Without going into all the details, it was a huge boon to corporate interests and provided some relief to homeowners. Once Prop 13 was enacted public education took a huge hit and the state has lost out on billions of dollars in uncollected tax revenues from commercial interests.

The way to amend Prop 13 is to create what we call a split-roll tax initiative that protects individual homeowners while properly assessing commercial property. But there must be ongoing work done to educate the electorate, to prepare and inoculate people prior to an election, because there will be huge money to defeat any progressive reform.

The CFT has been working to put an initiative before the voters in November that would make it a simple majority, rather than a two-thirds majority, of the legislature to adopt a budget. While it doesn’t speak to the revenue issue that would be an important step in restoring the notion of democracy in Sacramento.

ATC: How do teachers and unions in California view the agenda of president Obama and education secretary Arne Duncan, with the “race to the top” and “teacher accountability” mantras, expanding charter schools and so forth?

JP: There is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s education plan, which has been able to move the Bush agenda on public education but in a more effective manner. Unfortunately it mirrors what happened during the Clinton years with “welfare reform.”

Obama’s commitment to pushing market reforms within the public education arena is incredibly destructive on many levels. Ironically Diane Ravitch, a former advisor to the first Bush administration and at one time a proponent of these kinds of reforms, has become a powerful voice in challenging these changes.

In Los Angeles we have been at the center of these attacks but I think we are beginning to see a shift at least around the charter school question. Again, we will have to organize around a vision of public education that is very different than the one being promoted by most of our political leaders.

ATC 146, May-June 2010