After weeks of escalating rhetoric and dueling legal filings, the members of United Teachers Los Angeles voted on Friday, Aug. 31, to give the union their strike authorization.
And a high-profile political player could burnish his credentials for a possible presidential run if he can help the union bridge its ever-widening gap with the Los Angeles Unified School District over collective bargaining talks.
UTLA officials drew first blood on Aug. 27 when the union filed an unfair labor practice charge against LAUSD, charging the district with interfering with the union’s strike authorization vote. The complaint was filed with the state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), the agency charged with ensuring fairness in the bargaining process.
The union also claims UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl has been unfairly targeted by former LAUSD superintendent John Deasy, who they alleged release privileged information from Caputo-Pearl’s personnel file.
“The district has no legitimate basis for its decision to accelerate its internal [Public Records Act] request timelines or to refuse to disclose the document which would be the subject of such a request; and the only basis for the district’s conduct is retaliation for the union’s decision to hold a strike vote or President Caputo-Pearl’s protected right activity as an elected union officer,” union representatives said in a statement.
LAUSD officials retaliated with a similar action the following day, saying UTLA has engaged in “bad-faith bargaining” with PERB.
“During the current round of bargaining, UTLA engaged in take-it-or-leave-it bargaining, making virtually no compromises toward reaching an agreement for the better part of 16 months. The district was able to reach a reasonable compromise with more than half our employees represented by unions,” LAUSD attorney David Holmquist said in an email statement.
“However, UTLA openly talked about a strike long before the parties even began negotiations, let alone reached impasse. It is now conducting a strike vote even though the parties have not even held their first mediation session under PERB’s impasse procedures.”
The employment relations board is set to act as a mediator in the acrimonious labor debate. But UTLA is not taking a strike off the table.
“While we move forward with a state mediator, and continue to try to reach an agreement with the district — one that respects students, educators and the community — we also must mobilize our members for a strike, if one becomes necessary,” said Arlene Inouye, who chairs the union’s bargaining team.
“L.A. Unified remains opposed to a strike and stands with students, families and employees to ensure learning and safety come first,” said LAUSD spokeswoman Shannon Haber on Aug. 31.
Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti waded into the controversy, offering his services as a mediator.
“We need to make sure teachers are in schools and that children have teachers,” Garcetti told the Los Angeles Times last week. “I will do anything that I can to make sure there is not a strike or, if a strike is called, to directly intervene in negotiations.”
Garcetti’s office did not return calls or emails for comment.
“We welcome his offer to help. A strike won’t help our students. Lots of work to do and the kids are counting on us,” LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner told L.A. Weekly.
Garcetti’s help “couldn’t hurt,” said former UTLA president A.J. Duffy. “If I was in leadership, I would welcome his support.
“This is a critical moment that will determine whether we’re going to continue the good work that has happened and improve on it or go backward,” Duffy added.
Garcetti’s potential involvement would not be the first time a Los Angeles mayor was involved in a high-profile labor dispute. In 2007, then-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa engaged in behind-the-scenes negotiations with Hollywood studio heads and representatives of the Writers Guild during a three-month writers strike.
Villaraigosa was called a “scab” — a derogatory term for someone who crosses a union picket line or who works during a strike — by some city unions in 2008 after he refused to make contractual concessions during a two-day strike by the Engineers & Architects Assn.
Duffy, who was known as a bare-knuckles negotiator when he led UTLA, said this is not the first time the teachers union and LAUSD have been at odds, and that rancor and bitterness were the norm.
“I think the ’89 [negotiations] were really acrimonious. There have been plenty of moments of acrimony in the past but then, the board and the teachers union eventually worked it out because we knew that the public was counting on us to do what was right for the students,” said Duffy, who now runs a charter school organization.
Duffy said he thinks there are school board members who “would like to see the union diminished.”
Asked if he thought the ultimate goal is to break the union, he responded, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”
According to LAUSD, PERB has scheduled a Sept. 27 date for mediation between the two factions.