Updated 3:45 p.m. on January 29 at bottom of story.
After six dramatic days of picketing in the rain, L.A.’s public school teachers ended their strike with what was widely billed as a victory, returning to work on Wednesday, Jan. 23, with a contract that goes beyond a traditional labor agreement to address conditions that define quality of life for both students and teachers. Many see the deal and the actions leading up to it as a major step toward re-legitimizing the struggle for basic standards in public education, and a turning point in the fight against privatization. Aside from the wave of public support, perceived gains include hard class-size caps (and the hard-won elimination of a clause that allows the district to override them); a nurse at every school site; more counselors and librarians; cash for community schools; and provisions to address social justice issues affecting some of the district’s most vulnerable students.
The media showered Mayor Eric Garcetti with accolades for his “leap of faith” negotiating skills, School superintendent Austin Beutner emerged in one piece, and United Teachers of L.A. leadership was triumphant.
Meanwhile, however, outrage over UTLA’s voting process and contract terms reverberated among its rank-and-file members and across social media. UTLA ultimately reported 81 percent of its members voted in favor of the new three-year contract, but some say they felt pressured to quickly accept terms that fall far short of what they went on strike for in the first place.
A secondary school teacher and 12-year LAUSD veteran at an Eastside school who voted — along with more than half of his colleagues — against the contract spoke to L.A. Weekly on the condition of anonymity because he feared retribution.
“I think leading up to the strike, the union was very united. … And last week on strike, it did form a sense of camaraderie at school sites and at the rallies. But it almost felt like a big dog-and-pony show. We were told one thing, and we listened to our union leaders, as they were telling us they’re fighting for the counselors, the nurses, librarians, psychiatric social workers, the school psychologists … all of those things. We were behind them 100 percent because that’s what we were going for and we were not going to take anything less.”
That all changed, he said, when the mayor got involved. “It just feels like people’s arms were twisted. That he in a sense twisted the arm of the district and the union to really put an end to it. … The mayor wanted us to get back to work, and he wanted us to get back to work as soon as possible.”
He said the final agreement betrayed what he believed to be the strike’s mission on many points — including charter co-location, funding for psychiatric social workers and psychologists, and salary. But what scared members most, he said, was the amount of time they were given to read the 47-page document. “If you look at it, there’s handwritten notes on it, like chicken scratch, it’s hard to follow. And things were omitted. So we didn’t really have time to let it sink in and ask questions. We were almost forced into voting immediately and to just saying ‘yes.’”
He and other teachers said they were confused as to why they didn’t get a standard 72 hours to review the fine print. “Why didn’t we get that — or even a day? Just Wednesday, to sit with our chapter chairs and ask those questions burning inside everyone’s mind. … It felt like they took what they could get. It almost feels like we’re being brainwashed that this is a ‘step in the right direction’ and will open conversation,” he said, thoroughly unconvinced.
UTLA did not respond to a request for comment.
A primary school teacher at an LAUSD school in northeast Los Angeles was more sanguine about the final terms, but also took issue with the way it was handed down. (She requested anonymity for fear of retribution.)
“I think the biggest issue was the way it was presented to us and the way we were asked to vote,” she said. “I feel it really divided some people because we had to decide within three hours.” That was compounded by the fact that there were initially missing pages and then more information released at the end of the day. “Once I found out it was suddenly 47 pages, I thought, ‘What did we just agree to?’ I think the way it was rolled out, people felt disrespected.”
Odara Pineda, a science teacher with Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet in Boyle Heights, recalled a similar scene at her school, noting many teachers who had gone home after the strike ended were not able to make it to their school sites on time to vote. “They told us we had to submit votes that same day by 5 p.m. Then they gave us a summary, just a front and back page … and published the contract after. … It’s overwhelming to think we could have the time to process that in dialogue and come to consensus even within our peer group,” she said. “It was a lot of confusion and pressure.”
Pineda said the financial impact of the strike, especially for some teachers with extenuating circumstances, weighed heavily by Tuesday, but many members still voted against the contract.
“I voted no. Our vote was something like 31 yes to 28 or 29 no. And a lot of the schools reported having voted ‘no’ almost unanimously,” Pineda said, referring to communication among teachers, not the official tally. “I don’t personally, I don’t really feel confident that the teachers’ votes were taken into account in an honest way. When you look at social media, it just seems to be an overwhelming sense of ‘no’ and rejection and disappointment. Not just teachers but parents and students saying, 'Hey, this isn’t good enough.'”
Staci Moore, a fourth-grade teacher at Eagle Rock Elementary who has been with LAUSD for 18 years, said she voted no in part because she didn’t think the deal would have any impact on her class size (which will go from a limit of 34 to 30). “It’s rare that I have less than 30 in a school year. I would’ve at least liked to have seen 28, something less than what we’re dealing with,” she said.
“We had a little powwow because the next day we were kind of in shock. We were working at Level 10 of, ‘We’re gonna change public education!’ — then what we got seemed kind of like a burst bubble. Like we didn’t get (what) we were chanting about. That’s how it felt,” Moore said.
Echoing outrage across social media, all took issue with the lack of provision for psychiatric social workers and school psychologists: “Where are they in the contract? They’re not in there. … They were out there on the front lines, they were picketing, missing out on work. They only gained an office space that’s not a broom closet, with a phone,” said the secondary school teacher. (The agreement does not appear to provide a caseload cap or mandate new hires, but the county recently allocated $10 million for school mental health services.) The district will hire 17 new counselors, reducing the ratio from one per 690 to 890 to one per 500 — a number many still find grossly inadequate.
The district’s concession on charter co-location — it will provide a biannual list of sites threatened by co-location, where a union rep will be “empowered” in the development of a shared-use agreement — felt like a bait-and-switch, the secondary school teacher said. “It’s really not trying to get rid of it, it’s trying to regulate it. We were told in rallies they don’t want charters to co-exist, they want to get rid of (the practice). … So that’s one of the things where I felt I was tricked.” (The deal also indicates that the Board of Education will vote on a resolution “calling on the state to establish a charter cap.”)
Pineda also called that a vastly different outcome, in spirit and effect, than the language that fueled UTLA rallies.
“At this point it’s like, what kind of accountability do we have for that besides a promise? And what does that look like? What does it look like when the district is trying to retain students? … I think the vagueness of those various terms and points, it was just very, very disappointing. It falls very short of something that would be significant or concrete or can even be quantified.”
Where the union was originally asking for a salary increase retroactive to the start of negotiations (2016-17), the contract only goes back to last year. “The union president was asking for 2016-17, pushing for it. And then during one of the negotiations the week we were on strike, those were one of the impasses. … And they let that one go. Why? I don’t know,” the secondary school teacher said. “It’s hard. … I still have a second job to feed my family. … So it’s helping a little bit, it’s not helping enough.”
Among the positives, he counts the elimination of Section 1.5, and the fact that negotiations will pick up from the reduced class sizes. “It’s slow progressive gains. I do see some positives,” he said. “But I’m realizing this days after. I didn’t get time to sit down and chew on it. That’s what those who voted no wanted — we wanted time.”
“I think we did get a good class cap,” the primary school teacher said. “I know it sounds like we didn’t win a lot, but getting the salary increase and (Section) 1.5 (which allowed the district to override class-size caps) eliminated — that’s a huge, huge win. … Now that I understand the language, I’m on board. But I don’t think the union went about it in the right way. And maybe they were being bullied into (that).”
Moore said the initial letdown has subsided now that everyone is back in the classroom. “We definitely still have things to work on, and everyone in the union still pretty fired up to keep going even though the strike is over.”
Pineda remained skeptical.
“We felt it was the same or virtually the same as what had been on the table the Friday before that, from the inception of the strike,” she said. “All of that had pretty much been established. To me it’s still unclear what progress was made from the time we were on strike.”
Update at 3:45 p.m. on January 29: The LAUSD Board of Education on Jan. 29 voted unanimously to approve the teachers' contract with the district — despite a warning from the county, issued shortly beforehand, that the contract risked making the district financially insolvent. (The Los Angeles County Education Office, an oversight agency, requested the district implement a Fiscal Stabilization Plan and chastised it for relying too heavily on one-time funding sources and projected revenues.)