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L.A. Teachers Are Engaged in a Visionary Battle Over Much More Than Their Own Wages

The Union Power slate of activists say the teachers will win community support when they fight for better schools, not just a raise.

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PEAC has fought such reconstitutions and charter takeovers around the district. It also helped plan a recent forum on over-testing; a Seattle teacher who’d led that city’s test boycott was among the speakers. The caucus worked with community allies to organize a November rally against the iPads.

“We had to do this without institutional support in nine out of ten cases,” Solomon said of the fights against charters. “So we know what the union could do.”

Beyond the Classroom

PEAC is part of a community/labor coalition called The Schools L.A. Students Deserve, formed last year. Working with the Latino Caucus, Coalition for Educational Justice, and other groups, the caucus developed an internal union resolution with the same name.

The resolution garnered enough support to come before members as a referendum, following a process laid out in UTLA’s constitution. Rank-and-file teachers ratified it in February with more than 70 percent support.

It called on the union to mount a contract campaign, starting by working with community groups and parents to identify shared issues. It demanded UTLA put more resources into both member and community organizing, and plan a series of escalating actions.

Fletcher has not supported the initiative with resources, however.

Lessons from Chicago

The PEAC strategy may sound familiar to those who know the recent history of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Activists in its Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) began mobilizing with parents against school closings even before founding the caucus, doing work their elected leaders weren’t interested in. Later, they ran for office and won.

PEAC and CORE have, in fact, worked together since a 2008 national gathering of reform teachers’ caucuses. And as they prepared for their new roles in 2010, the newly elected CTU leaders visited L.A. to meet with PEAC activists. Back then a PEAC-backed reform slate was represented in UTLA leadership, though it did not have a majority.

Caputo-Pearl and other Union Power leaders attended a 2013 teachers’ social justice conference hosted by CORE.

The two caucuses’ goals are similar: Get teachers involved in the union at the school level. Work with parents and community. Fight the push for competition among schools, which destabilizes them. The Union Power people see CTU’s campaign for a “better school day” and its report “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve” as a model.

Empty Promises

Fletcher beat a PEAC-supported candidate in 2010, campaigning on a pledge to focus on teacher pay and benefits and promising to hire a professional negotiator to win a better contract.

This message worked in part because leaders had lost ground in their last contract—right after the 2008 economic crisis brought sweeping cuts to education. They attempted to build to a one-day strike but were blocked by the courts. Teachers were left feeling deflated.

Today, however, the contract has been expired for two years. The union has failed to mount an aggressive contract campaign, let alone challenge district leaders’ punitive model of education or articulate its own vision.

California’s schools are not as strapped for money as those in many states, because the 2012 passage of tax-the-rich Proposition 30—thanks to massive union mobilization—brought in new tax revenue. The funding boost should have been an opportunity to go on offense and tell the public where school funds needed to go, Solomon said.

“We haven’t given the public ‘this is what we think should be prioritized instead of iPads and technology,’” said Lusain.

Nor has the union’s focus on bread and butter helped win a good contract, Caputo-Pearl said. Rather, the lack of big-picture strategy has weakened UTLA at the bargaining table.