To the Teacher:
Please also see our previous lessons on the LA teachers' strike, posted before the walkout ended:
- Why Did LA Teachers Go on Strike? Students read short quotes from the news to better understand the issues at stake, and discuss the issues from their own perspective as students.
- Roleplaying a Teachers' Strike. Students play the role of striking teachers in order to explore the reasons and strategies behind recent teacher strikes.
What have you heard about the strike by teachers in Los Angeles, which ended on January 22, 2019?
Elicit or explain that:
- The strike by 30,000 Los Angeles public school teachers, which lasted six days, virtually shut down public education for about 500,000 students at 900 schools in LA, the nation’s second largest school district.
- The strike was unusual in the level of support teachers received from parents and community members. This was partly because the strikers’ demands focused on improving schools and increasing support for students and their families more than on on teachers’ wages and benefits.
- The strike forced school district leaders to agree to many of the teachers’ demands. It was a major victory for the teachers and their allies, including parents and the Los Angeles communities that supported the strike.
- Teachers in other cities hope that the victory in LA signals growing growing support for public education nationwide. Union activists see the strike, and other successful teacher strikes, as a hopeful sign for the labor movement as a whole.
Context of the Strike
Union membership in the United States has been falling since the 1950s. At that time, the percentage of workers who were organized into unions in the U.S. stood at about 35 percent. It now stands at 10.5 percent. During this long period of union decline, wages in the U.S. have stagnated, even as the wealthy have gotten much wealthier.
Reasons for this decline include:
- automation in industries that are highly unionized (like auto and other manufacturing)
- moving of industries that are highly unionized to low-wage and mostly non-union states or countries
- passage of legislation that is unfavorable to unions
- passage of court decisions that are unfavorable to unions
- the growth of the “new economy” or “gig economy,” which relies on contract workers rather than full time employees
- the opposition to unionization by companies that wield immense economic, legal, and political power
Most of the decrease in unionization has been in private industry. Among public employees (those working for various governments), the unionization rate has only fallen slightly—from a peak of 37 percent in 1994. However, a recent decision by the Supreme Court, Janus v. AFSCME, will give public employees the freedom to quit their union and still get the benefits of union representation, probably leading to reduced union membership.
Strikes by government workers are illegal in most states and strictly regulated in virtually all states. The ability of a public sector union to win a strike (and avoid negative consequences for an “illegal” strike) depends on solidarity within the union and also on winning the sympathy of the community that employs the public workers.
2018 saw teacher strikes, walkouts, “walk-ins” and sick-outs in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, North Carolina and Colorado. The actions were in response to some of the lowest teacher salaries in the country and attempts to lower teachers’ pensions and benefits. This “red state revolt” is notable for its largely rank-and-file momentum—in some cases, teachers walked out in the absence of union leadership and several in defiance of union leadership.
Quiz: What Did the Los Angeles Teachers Want?
1. Which of the following was a demand of the Los Angeles teacher in their recent strike?
a) A doctor in every school with 500 or more students
b) Free lunch
c) A librarian in every school
d) A librarian in every secondary school
e) A librarian in every classroom
2. One of the major issues in the teachers’ strike was the privatization of education.
3. In the 2017 elections, billionaire funders spent 9.7 million dollars to support pro-charter schools candidates for the Los Angeles Board of Education.
4. The Los Angeles teachers are asking for:
a) An increase of 12 charter schools each year for the next 5 years.
b) A requirement that charter school names end in “Inc.” as in Academies of the Antelope Valley, Inc.
c) A cap on the number of charter schools.
d) Charter schools to be located together with regular schools.
5. California ranks in the top ten states for median income, median home prices, and number of millionaires per capita. What is California’s rank in spending per pupil on education?
f) all of the above
5. f. There are different ways to calculate per-pupil spending. The lower rankings take into account that a dollar doesn’t go as far in higher cost cities.
A charter school is a school that receives government funding but operates independently of the established state school system in which it is located. Teachers in charter schools are much less likely to be unionized than teachers in public schools.
LA Teachers’ Strike Issues & Organizing
In 2014, LA teachers voted for new leadership of their union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles, or UTLA. The new leaders were part of an activist coalition within UTLA. Their stated mission was to make gains that were not just limited to teachers’ salary and benefits. Their organizing encompassed a set of goals that connect directly and indirectly to the quality of education for Los Angeles public school students. These included class size, school staffing, and perhaps most challenging of all, the issue of privatization of education. The union’s broad goals made it easier to build alliances with parents and community groups.
In this, the LA strike has much in common with a successful 7-day strike by Chicago teachers in 2012. That strike was also led by a new, activist union leadership. Chicago teachers struck over some of the same issues as in LA – issues that are important to students and their families, as well as teachers.
Before the strike, UTLA spent months not only developing the leadership capacity of their own members, but building alliances in the community. They made it clear that they were not just fighting for more pay, but for a new vision of education that would benefit the community as a whole. They called for more funding for public schools and pointed to the inequalities inherent in the privatization model.
The union clearly articulated the need for racial equity in school funding. They noted that as the percentage of Black and brown students in the school system increased, the funding for schools dropped dramatically.
The focus on class size and additional staffing energized parents and students to actively support the strike. Teacher picket lines almost always included students and their families, members of other unions, and members of the community. Many local businesses brought coffee, donuts, burritos, and bagels to the rain-soaked picket lines. In turn, the teachers union and community supporters established a fund to help students and their families cope with the hardships brought about by the strike.
Key issue in the strike included:
As anyone who has ever stepped foot inside a classroom knows, it is easier to learn (and teach) in a smaller class. Classes in Los Angeles are far bigger than the national average. The class size had been capped at 33 to 39, but the school district had been allowed to bypass the cap when they thought it was necessary. These waivers had become common practice and class sizes often exceeded 40 students.
The new union contract requires an immediate reduction of 7 students in secondary math and English classes. In other classes, class sizes will be reduced at a gradual rate—at least one student per year. But importantly, the new contract removes the provision that allows for bypassing the caps.
Striking teachers demanded additional staff in every school to provide needed support for students and their families. Under the new contract, the district will hire 300 additional nurses so that every school will have a nurse. The district will hire 82 new librarians to ensure that there will be at least one teacher-librarian in every middle and high school. In addition, the district will hire 77 more school counselors will make counseling more available to students.
Charter schools are a contentious issue in Los Angeles – and in most other cities in the United States. Those in favor of charters point out the deficiencies in the public school systems and often blame the teachers’ unions for stifling innovation. Opponents see the charter schools as drawing away students and funds from the public schools.
The struggle is complicated by larger ideological issues. Many charter school boosters see privatization of public education as a market opportunity and a step toward shrinking government. Charter schools have become a pet project of some of the wealthiest families in America (including the present Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos). The 2017 election for the Los Angeles Board of Education—not usually a high-profile race—attracted almost $10 million from pro-charter billionaires like the Walton family (owners of WalMart) and Doris Fischer (co-founder of the The Gap). The LA Superintendent of Education himself is a billionaire financier allied with the pro-charter forces.
The LA teachers’ new contract requires the Board of Education to vote on a resolution to place a state-wide cap on charter schools. The contract will slow down the process of establishing charter schools on the same site as existing schools.
The contract also requires the LA school district to take steps to:
- reduce testing
- reduce random searches of students
- increase green space at schools
- provide a hotline and attorney for immigrant families and work with the union to provide additional services for immigrant families
- fund 30 new community schools, which provide more services to students and engage parents in all aspects of the school
On Tuesday, January 22, 81 percent of UTLA members voted to accept the new contact. The salary increase was modest (a 3 percent retroactive salary increase for the past two years). But the broad community support for the union’s quality-of-education goals give the strike special significance:
- The momentum for privatization and charter schools (sometimes called “school reform”) may be slowing.
- Advocates for equity in school funding have recognized that the Democratic Party, which dominates in Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities, is not a reliable ally in the fight. Pressure is growing on Democratic politicians to take a firm stand.
- The LA strike culminates a year of teacher strikes which have shown a new militancy and new level of support for public education.
Ultimately, the import of the LA strike, and the 2018 strikes that preceded it, may rest on the inspiration these strikes are providing for teachers in other states. Look next to Virginia, Denver, Oakland and Sacramento…
1. What issues involved in the Los Angeles teachers’ strike resonate in your own school?
- class size?
- lack of librarians, nurses, counselors?
- the impact of charter schools in your city?
- no green space outside?
2. As students, what other issues would you bring to the negotiations?
3. What would it take for you to support your own teachers if they were to go on strike?
4. Teachers’ strikes sometimes put extra burdens on families. Is it fair for teachers to go on strike knowing that working parents may have trouble caring for their kids if schools are closed? Are the hardships worth the potential gains?