Following the six-day teachers' strike in Los Angeles, January 14-22, 2019, a look at union demands, contract results, and a union with a history of following the commands of the capitalist Democratic Party.
Los Angeles Unified School District is emptying its schools. With a student population of 500,000, the second largest school district in the nation (after New York City) has lost 250,000 students in the past 15 years with half going to semi-privatized charters within the District and the other half being lost to outward migration east of the city or to the neighboring states of Nevada and Arizona. Why move east? Los Angeles is experiencing intense gentrification citywide but especially focused on neighborhoods surrounding the downtown area that have been home to immigrants. And few L.A. parents can afford the westside where cities such as Beverly Hills and Santa Monica have their own school districts. The lack of affordability is exemplified by the 50% of families in L.A. Unified who qualify under federal guidelines for free school lunch in a district in which 73% of the students are Latino and only 10% are white.
Given this reality, the teachers union (United Teachers Los Angeles/UTLA) had been in negotiations for the past twenty months with its former Superintendent Michelle King, a district insider who fell ill and took early retirement and then with current Superintendent Beutner, a multimillionaire and businessman with no education experience. The union was justifiably critical of Beutner’s ties to real estate developer Eli Broad, a L.A. billionaire whose stated goal is for the district to be half charter in a state in which the Democratic majority in the California legislature have both legalized charter schools and legalized their sharing the same campus on a public school if space permits. During negotiations the union, led by President Caputo-Pearl, focused on the fight against privatization on a platform that included demands to regulate charter school growth, increase funding for public schools, reduce class size, and increase salaries. As the union geared up for a strike, it ratcheted up slogans against neoliberal privatization, but it never incorporated the plight of the district’s working-class parents into its movement. It never brought to light the high rents forcing them to flee the district nor did it seek to raise the parents’ political consciousness by suggesting they organize a rent strike to coincide with the teachers’ strike. Instead working-class parents were relegated to the role of cheerleaders on the picket line or suppliers of morning deliveries of doughnuts and pan dulce. A fight against the capital of neoliberalism must be led by the working class and focus on working class demands. A movement that falls short will reincorporate into the capitalist class and its Democratic Party which is exactly what UTLA has a history of doing.
Exemplifying the history of the union’s incorporation into the Democratic Party is former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who just made an unsuccessful run for California Governor in November 2018. Villaraigosa was a UTLA staff member who helped organize the South LA area during the last teachers’ strike in 1989. His political circles intersected with Marxist-Leninists, and the Democratic Socialists of America included him on a list compiled in the 1990’s of “A-List” activists in the city. After his tenure at UTLA, Villaraigosa moved up the political ranks to Assemblyman, Speaker of the Assembly, and then Mayor. As Mayor he would eventually side with the privatizers in the charter industry who helped fund his failed campaign for California Governor.
The current LA Teachers’ strike was resolved with UTLA’s term-limited President Caputo Pearl meeting with Superintendent Beutner at the LA Mayor’s office where the Mayor served as mediator. Unbeknownst to most teachers, Mayor Garcetti’s Democratic mayoral campaign was also funded by Eli Broad, the school privatizer and ally of Beutner. Few teachers even knew during their labor strike which was primarily focused on limiting charter growth that charter schools are a state law. The district cannot independently halt charter growth though teachers were fed this misconception by the union which claimed the strike was not about money. (Also, few teachers know that their union, which suggested they take out a bank loan to help tide them over during the six-day strike, takes in $40 million per year from their dues.) Following the signing of the new teachers’ contract by both Caputo-Pearl and the Superintendent during the morning of Tuesday, January 22, UTLA rushed to have their teachers vote on the contract while the teachers were still standing on the picket lines. The union gave teachers a window of two hours to read and vote on a forty-page document the union had been negotiating for twenty months. As teachers voted on Tuesday, the union made an announcement that the contract had been approved even though as of Thursday January 24, 5,000 teachers had still not voted. Of the 25,000 who had voted, 80% approved the contract, and the union gave those who had not voted one more day to vote and only at one location in a district that covers 906 square miles. On charter growth the contract merely calls for a vote by the district to ask the state to cap charter growth. Class size will be reduced by one student next school year and one student in a few subsequent years, and the salary increase of 6% is the same that was offered by the district prior to the strike.
In spite of liberal publicity campaigns touting this strike as a victory, one must not believe the hype. And both the DSA and International Socialist Organization (ISO) will applaud the strike and contract because they have teacher activists in the union who serve as their schools’ union rep. Yet these two organizations, just like union President Caputo-Pearl, will quickly acquiesce to the demands of the Democratic Party and incorporate themselves into mainstream capitalism. The fight to end the privatization of public schools and other public resources must continue, and that fight must include a variety of sectors of the working class.