LOS ANGELES, Calif.—More than 30,000 Los Angeles Unified School District teachers and staff went out on strike Jan. 14, demanding smaller classes, more staffing, and limits on privatization and charter schools.
“Today is the beginning of a new day for our students!” the United Teachers Los Angeles union said on Twitter. “We’re on strike because our students cannot wait any longer. We cannot continue on without nurses and counselors, and we will not continue to allow our students to suffer in overcrowded and under-resourced classrooms.”
Later in the morning, more than 20,000 teachers, parents, and students marched through downtown to LAUSD headquarters, in what high-school English teacher Joseph Zeccola described as “a deluge.”
The strike is the first in the district, which includes Los Angeles and a handful of suburbs, since a nine-day walkout in 1989. It will affect about 1,100 of its 1,322 schools, whose almost 700,000 students make it the second-largest district in the nation after New York. Slightly more than 200 schools are charter schools, which are mostly nonunion, but the district is keeping the others open with a skeleton crew of administrators and substitutes recently hired for strikebreaking duty.
The strike became inevitable Jan. 11, when UTLA rejected the district’s contract offer, with union President Alex Caputo-Pearl calling it “woefully inadequate.” The union, which has been working under an expired contract since June 2017, is seeking an immediate 6.5% pay increase; LAUSD offered a three-year deal with 3% raises in the first two years.
The district offered to spend $130 million to add “nearly 1,200 more educators.” It said that would include enough teachers to prevent any increase in class size, enabling it to limit classes to 35 students in Grades 4-6 and 39 students in all middle-school and high-school math and English classes. The increased staff, it added, would provide nursing services each school day at every elementary school and library services at every middle school.
“UTLA’s contract demands have remained essentially unchanged since April 2017, and those demands would bankrupt Los Angeles Unified,” the district said.
UTLA bargaining chair Arlene Inouye told reporters Jan. 11 that the union was “insulted” by that offer, noting that it didn’t budget enough money to keep the new staff on for more than a year. The union contends that LAUSD could use its $1.86 billion reserves for “lower class sizes, accountability for charter schools and a real reinvestment in school safety, vital staffing, and educational programs.”
In New York, the United Federation of Teachers contract sets maximum class sizes at 30 students in elementary schools, 30 to 33 in middle and junior high schools, and 34 in high schools, except for gym. Chicago public school classes average 15 to 17 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and 22 in high schools, according to Illinois State Board of Education figures.
The LAUSD tried to block the strike through the courts three times. The last attempt, which delayed the walkout for four days, failed on Jan. 10, when a Los Angeles County Superior Court rejected the district’s bid for an injunction against the strike on the grounds that the union hadn’t given it the required 10 days’ warning.
Many UTLA members spent Jan. 12, a Saturday, laminating picket signs in preparation for the heavy rains forecast for Monday the 14th. A teaching-supply store did the lamination for free, Zeccola wrote on the Huffington Post.
We’re walking out because we feel like we’re part of a rigged game set up to undermine public education — Joseph Zeccola, UTLA
“We’re walking out because we feel like we’re part of a rigged game set up to undermine public education,” Zeccola, chair of the UTLA chapter at the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies in the San Fernando Valley, wrote. “When the media discusses this strike, most reports focus on salary-related issues. But that’s not our sticking point. We are striking first and foremost for our students. One of my English classes has 38 students in it (I know many teachers with classes in the 40s).”
Many teachers suspect that Beutner’s hidden agenda is to privatize education, to expand charter schools and break the union. “Do not hoard LAUSD’s reserve in order to move your cuts and privatization agenda,” Caputo-Pearl told the Jan. 14 rally.
Union negotiators requested details about Beutner’s plan to restructure the city’s public-school system into 32 networks before the Jan. 11 talks, Zeccola told LaborPress, but district officials did not give them any.
He says the district is “creating a fiscal crisis so you can do disaster capitalism, so you can do New Orleans.” Beutner’s former chief of staff oversaw the conversion New Orleans public schools to an all-charter system after Hurricane Katrina, according to the UTLA.
If LAUSD is so strapped for money, Zeccola asks, then why did its school board vote last June against putting a “parcel tax” on commercial property on the district ballot last November? The 2016 and 2017 elections for the board, he says, saw more money spent than in some Congressional races, and gave it a 4-3 majority that’s “pro-corporate charter schools, anti-union.”
“If we don’t start going in the opposite direction, we’re going to lose public education as we know it,” Zeccola told LaborPress. “This is the fight of our lives. People are fired up because enough is enough.”