What’s Important for Us About the Teacher Strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland?

By Joel Jordan, former UTLA Director of Special Projects
For the past year, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and the Oakland Education Association (OEA) have been engaged in contract negotiations with their respective school districts which could very well lead to both locals going on strike in January 2019.  Any time two of the largest teacher union locals in California consider striking – UTLA is actually the second largest in the U.S. with 32,000 members – this is big news.
But this is not just any time. These contract campaigns follow on the heels of largely successful mass teacher strikes and walkouts in seven southern and western states this spring that electrified the nation, followed by fifteen local union strikes in Washington state this fall to capture new state revenue, resulting in raised teacher salaries by as much as 17%. Teacher strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland – large multi-racial urban areas in the largest state in the U.S. – would mark a new phase in the struggle.
For many reasons, building solidarity with UTLA and OEA should be a priority for labor as a whole and especially for education activists, especially as the contexts in which the UTLA and OEA strikes might occur are in some ways unique. All of the red state strikes and walkouts this spring targeted state governments – not local districts – which are dominated by virulently anti-union, anti-public education Republican legislatures in “right to work” states, all of which had cut public education funding to the bone over the past several years but which also had the authority to raise taxes to meet some of the strikers’ demands.
As in these states, public education in California ranks last or near last among all states in per-pupil funding, class size and other crucial indicators of resources and support. Despite recent progressive income tax increases on the wealthy, California has never recovered from the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which sharply reduced commercial and residential property tax contributions to fund public education and other social services.
The UTLA and OEA strikes, however, would not be directed at the state, which provides 90% of the funding for public schools, but at financially strapped local school districts without the taxing authority to potentially meet the unions’ demands. This challenge is further complicated by the very nature of UTLA and OEA’s demands, which are not just about fair salary increases, but also about costly school and classroom improvements such as class size and counselor caseload reductions, increased support services, and democratically-run Community Schools that provide wrap-around social services as an alternative to corporate-driven, privately run charter schools.
In fact, the Los Angeles and Oakland school districts are ground zero for charter school expansion. LAUSD has more privately-run charter schools – over 200 – in its jurisdiction than any other school district in the U.S.. OUSD has the highest percentage of charter school students in the state.  UTLA and OEA are both demanding that their districts hold charter schools more accountable and restrict their growth, but again, the charter law gives the state, not the local districts, ultimate authority over charter school policy.
What leverage, then, do UTLA and OEA have to win such ambitious demands if they are not targeting the state itself?
The answer is that UTLA and OEA see their contract campaigns as part of longer-range strategy – as a way to pressure their school districts to make significant contract concessions now while at the same time using their campaigns to build momentum for coordinated statewide action – à la the red state teacher rebellions – for increased school funding and for curbing charter school expansion.
For these locals to even consider such a strategy first required them to make a sharp break with the service union model that dominates most California teacher union locals as well as the 300,000+ member California Teachers Association (CTA). That model prioritizes, on the local level, non-confrontational, sequestered contract negotiations with little member involvement, and on the state level, legislative lobbying and deal-making with even less member involvement. Since the power of all unions ultimately rests on the collective activity of the members – especially the threat of or actual exercise of the strike weapon – to successfully confront the billionaires intent on underfunding and privatizing public education, it is no accident that in the largest and wealthiest state in the U.S., public education is in such bad shape. Instead of providing dynamic, militant leadership to build a mass movement for public education and other social services, with all the risks involved, the CTA has opted the “safe”, but ultimately for their own members and for California students, disastrous path of least resistance.
The leadership of UTLA and the newly elected OEA leadership are blazing a different trail: organizing and mobilizing members at the worksite and developing community alliances to fight for educational justice on both the local and state levels. In the 2014 internal UTLA elections, Union Power – a slate of militant, social justice-oriented union reformers – swept the election and immediately began to build a local union structure that prioritized site-based organizing and parent/community alliances to fight for broad demands around school improvement, especially for high needs schools and students, and in doing so, fight the billionaire privatizers intent on expanding charter schools at the expense of local district schools. With the election of a pro-charter majority on the LAUSD school board in 2017, and the subsequent appointment of Austin Beutner, an investment banker with no education experience, as district superintendent, UTLA has framed the contact campaign in class terms as a battle of the billionaires vs. educators and their allies, fighting for the needs of working-class students of color who make up the vast majority of LAUSD students. In August, UTLA members resoundingly registered approval of this strategy when 84% of their 32,000 members participated in a strike authorization vote with 98% voting YES.
Earlier this year, a new leadership of OEA was elected, running on the Build Our Power slate that, like Union Power, also prioritized site-based organizing, parent/community alliances, and school improvement demands, as well as stopping the spread of charter schools. As a result, OEA has activated hundreds of previously inactive members, recruited union reps at many previously unorganized schools, and begun to seriously organize for a possible strike this coming winter against a chronically mismanaged district characterized by administrative bloat far beyond that of any other comparable California district.
Realizing that fighting their local districts is necessary but also has severe limitations given that local districts depend almost solely on the state for funding, both UTLA and OEA in their campaigns are also calling for increased state funding, mainly through the Schools and Communities First (SCF) initiative which has qualified for the November 2020 state ballot. This initiative, sponsored and supported by many community organizations and unions, including UTLA and OEA, would bring in an additional $11 billion annually for schools ($5 billion) and other public services ($6 billion) by closing a loophole in Proposition 13 that allows commercial interests to avoid paying their fair share of local property taxes.
Realizing as well that to win sustained school funding and to fight privatization requires building a cross-local statewide movement, UTLA and OEA have played a leading role in a statewide network of the largest urban California teacher union locals – the California Alliance for Community Schools (CACS).  Inspired by the red state rebellions, CACS has embarked on a strategy of linking the looming UTLA and OEA strikes to a statewide strategy of building coordinated statewide actions in solidarity with the two locals in preparation for more militant coordinated actions in the future, up to and including strikes and walkouts, to win increased state funding. The nine CACS locals are urging their members to wear red and walk in to their schools en masse on a pre-determined day just before or during a UTLA or OEA strike, whichever comes first. On Oct. 28, a CACS-initiated resolution urging all CTA-affiliated locals to take such action was also unanimously passed by the 800-member CTA State Council.
Resolutions aside, for such solidarity actions to actually take place, it will require a profound change of direction by most local unions and by CTA and CFT. It’s one thing to pass a local or state solidarity resolution but quite another to do the kind of site-based organizing work to make it happen if the union leadership is all about business-as-usual. It’s not an accident that there is no history of cross-local solidarity work in California. Furthermore, most local union members and activists see their districts, not the state, as the main target, so attempting to use local strikes as a rehearsal for future statewide action around funding is itself a challenge.
At the same time, there is a reason for optimism. Probably the most important lesson of the red state strikes is that rank-and-file educators actually led them. Rank-and-file caucuses and activists connected to UCORE – United Caucuses of Rank and File Educators – are beginning to network in California, starting with getting the word out about UTLA and OEA solidarity through developing templates for school site meetings and starting a Facebook group – California Educators Rising. The work that’s being done by CACS, California UCORE, and above all by UTLA and OEA in alliance with students, parents, and community organizations fighting for the schools our student deserve is unprecedented and provides hope that a sustainable, viable movement for public education and for the public sector as a whole is emerging – slowly but surely.

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