After 20 months of fruitless contract negotiations, Los Angeles teachers are walking out today. Their strike will be the most bitter battle yet in the national teachers’ upsurge sparked by West Virginia last February.
Though LA teachers are protesting the same basic problems as their peers across the country—school underfunding, huge class sizes, rampant privatization, low wages—their strike is going to look very different from the types of actions seen so far. LA’s walkout is taking place in Democratic Party–run California, not a red state. And unlike last year’s educator revolts, this strike is legal—and therefore subject to both the opportunities and constraints provided by an employer-friendly legal system.
But one thing, above all, sets Los Angeles apart: It will be the hardest struggle for teachers to win. Though strikes are always a trial by fire, LA teachers are up against a particularly formidable opponent.
Pro-charter billionaires like Eli Broad and Reed Hastings spent an unprecedented $9.7 million in the spring of 2017 to ensure the election of a pro-privatization majority to the school board. In early 2018 the new board installed billionaire investment banker, and former Los Angeles Times publisher, Austin Beutner as superintendent. What the new head of LA public schools lacks in job credentials—Beutner has no professional experience in the education system—he more than makes up for in connections to California’s rich and powerful, and a solid track record of downsizing and privatizing.
Beutner and co. have wasted no time in moving forward with their ambitious agenda. In a recently leaked plan, the superintendent outlined his “portfolio model” push to break up LA’s school district, the second largest in the country, for the benefit of privately run charter schools. “What’s at stake is the survival of public education in our city—this is basically a fight to save our schools,” argues Arlene Inouye, Secretary of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA).
Given the stakes of the conflict, and the powerful interests lined up behind Beutner, it’s not surprising that LA teachers have already been subjected to an unprecedented onslaught in the courts and the press. For months, Beutner’s lawyers have filed a seemingly endless stream of injunctions against UTLA aimed at delaying the walkout, preventing teachers from speaking with parents about strike issues, and narrowing the scope of permissible bargaining. According to UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl, “Beutner is desperate to contain our collective power and the only way he knows how to do it is through costly legal maneuvers.”
Parallel to these attacks, the mainstream media for months have parroted Beutner’s talking points. Piece after piece has sought to pit the public against the union by blaming UTLA “intransigence” for the difficulties that a strike will create for working families. As one recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times put it, “Will the union offer to pay for the day care of all these parents who are now screwed?”
The corporate media continue to paint the conflict as revolving around wages, when in fact the union’s main demands are for lower class sizes, more counselors and nurses, less standardized testing, and charter-school accountability. In the rare event that these proposals to improve public schools are acknowledged, they’re quickly dismissed as pie in the sky beyond LA’s financial means—despite the fact that the district is actually sitting on an unprecedented $1.86 billion reserve.
On the eve of the work stoppage, Beutner has escalated tensions by declaring his intention to keep schools open during the strike through hiring non-union substitutes, using online instruction, and bringing in parent volunteers. Unlike 2018’s red-state walkouts—in which most superintendents consented to cancel school—Los Angeles teachers are going to have to organize real picket lines.
While last year’s teacher upsurge largely caught the powers-that-be by surprise, it’s clear that employers this time are well-prepared for a fight. But so are LA’s educators. And if any union in the country has the strength and determination necessary to face off with a foe like Beutner, it’s UTLA.
This strike is the culmination of an intense three-year mobilizing drive initiated by a new UTLA union leadership committed to rank-and-file empowerment, workplace militancy, and strategic organizing—school site by school site. The fruit of this transformative approach was made evident last August, when LA teachers voted 98 percent to 2 percent to authorize a strike. This was soon followed by a boisterous downtown rally of over 50,000 teachers and supporters on December 10.
Through its demands for better schools and racial justice, UTLA has proactively sought to make this a struggle of, and for, the broader working-class community. All across the city, the union has actively supported the organizing efforts of parents and students. And inspired by the example of West Virginia, teachers are preparing food for students who won’t attend school during the strikes.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of these outreach activities, since the strike’s fate will likely hinge on the war for public opinion. If teachers can maintain momentum and keep parents on their side, they have the potential to make history in Los Angeles. Defeating Beutner’s privatizing drive is possible—but it won’t be easy.