More than 33,000 members of the United teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) went on strike this week. Their battle has been the culmination of years of neclect, privitisation, and cuts to the LA school district. Rebel Editor Becca Bor, who was active in the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012, spoke with Georgia Lee, a member of the UTLA.
What sets LA apart from the strike wave in the US at the beginning of 2018 is that California is a Blue State – a state that votes and is controlled by the Democratic Party. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), headed by Superintendent Austin Beutner – billionaire and former investment banker – is claiming to be broke, whilst the truth is that it is being actively underfunded and uncut in order to have it fail on purpose. Teachers are demanding more funding for the schools, that the district spend the money it has in its reserves to increase pay; reduce class sizes by hiring more tea chers, counsellors and nurses; and halt the privitasation of education.
In December, 50,000 teachers, parents, students and community members joined in the “March for Public Education” in LA organised by the UTLA. Whilst this showed massive community support for the teachers, the media and mainstream Democratic politicians have been attacking the union – so much that the district sought a court injunction against the union, forcing them to postpone the strike from last Thursday to Monday. Additionally, the district has announced that they have hired 400 scabs to “teach” whilst the teachers strike. Solidarity amongst parents, students and other workers will be key for the success of this historic strike in the second largest school district in the US.
Rebel Editor Becca Bor, who was active in the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012, spoke briefly with Georgia Lee, a member of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). Georgia is a second career special education teacher who has been teaching at the same primary school for more than 15 years.
1. Going into the strike, what was the feeling in the schools and communities?
Our teachers, parents and communities felt prepared, they are righteously angry and they understand the necessity of holding the line against the increasing privatisation of the institution of public education.
2. What are the key demands?
Teachers are asking for lower class sizes. The district uses an average to push its narrative that class sizes are not particularly large but using an average masks the problem. For example, a special day class for students with moderate to severe disabilities that has 12 students does not balance a secondary biology class with 48 students.
We are also asking for critical staffing at our school sites: a nurse at every school because most schools only have a nurse one day a week unless the school community has been able to raise funds to purchase additional time; psychologists who have time available to do more than complete assessments because our students need attention; psychiatric social workers because some of our students are dealing with unbelievable trauma and need support; and enough counselors so that their caseloads are manageable.
3. How was this contract fight impacted by the wave of teachers strikes earlier this year in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma?
Watching the uprising of teachers in “right to work” states and charter educators who are “at will” employees was inspiring. We saw the organising possibilities and it motivated teachers here in Los Angeles. We understood that we did not have to accept crumbs for our students, that we could stand up and say boldly “we want the schools our students deserve” and we’re willing to fight for them.
4. What are the biggest obstacles that the UTLA is facing?
The biggest obstacles I feel UTLA is facing is a school board majority that is intent on turning over our district to private enterprise. They say kids first but every action belies that statement. In addition, school funding is woefully inadequate. California has fallen from the top 10 in how it funds its public schools to somewhere between 43 and 45 out of 50 states.
5. Can you describe the organising at the school level?
Almost every school site now has a chapter chair. That person has a contract action team to assist. The model is 1 person for every 10 staff. The chapter chair and his/her CAT are empowered with information but they are also connected to the leadership within their area and to the centralized UTLA office. They are the school leaders and are responsible for their sites.
6. What is the significance of this strike in particular, given the political context of the US in general, from Trump to cuts to the general trend towards privatization of education?
This strike is significant because we educators are trying to reclaim the institution of public education as a public good, as a civil right. Educators are bargaining for the common good, for our communities, for all of us. Educators want to see all our children have opportunities. We are seeking education equity and educational justice. We want opportunity for the 99%.