What Rydell High School Can Teach Us about the LA Teachers Strike

What Rydell High School Can Teach Us about the LA Teachers Strike

What Rydell High School Can Teach Us about the LA Teachers Strike

As teachers in Denver and Oakland head toward their own strikes, it’s worth doubling down on the lessons from LA.


Early on the morning of January 10, the sun bathed Venice High School—famous for its appearance as Rydell High in the film version of Grease—in a cinematic glow of light and mist, a statue of Myrna Loy providing a dramatic backdrop for the teachers, parents, and students who had shown up with hand-painted signs. The crowd had gathered for what was supposed to have been the first day of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) strike but, after the strike was pushed back, turned out instead to be a thrilling preview. “I don’t know, but it’s been said, billionaires run the Board of Ed!” the people in the crowd chanted. A student took the microphone and declared support for the teachers. Homemade signs proclaimed: “You can’t put kids first if we put teachers last” and “‘Random’ searches criminalize students of color.”

Longtime educator Monica Studer carried a sign that read: “I walked the line in 1989.” That was the year of the last UTLA strike, and Studer still wore buttons from that struggle—“I don’t want to strike but… I will!” and “1989 we walked, we won, WE’RE STILL NOT DONE 1991”—on a lanyard around her neck. Back then, Studer said, the issues were similar to the ones pushing UTLA toward the picket lines today—wages and teacher input on how schools were run—but there were no charter schools in the picture. “Charter schools are underregulated, and the district charges them the minimum amount that they can to be on our campuses,” she said.

Back then, the classes were smaller, too. These days, Studer told me, the teachers at Venice High regularly have as many as 44 students in a room built for a class half that size. “There is no more room in a classroom for desks,” she added—let alone the additional time necessary to read and assess the work of each student. “Because of the large class sizes, that allows students to slip through the cracks, which should not happen.”

Still, Venice High is better off than other schools in the LA system. Because it receives Title I money (that is, supplemental federal funds for low-income students), Venice High is able to afford a full-time nurse—a luxury that many LA schools don’t have. “This year,” Studer continued, “we were able to expand to having a psychiatric social worker and having a full-time People Services person who helps kids with their attendance…. Most schools do not have what we have.”

And so Studer, along with some 50 students, parents, and community members, had trekked at sunrise to what was once America’s iconic high school. They’d shown up even though the strike had been postponed for several days, thanks to a lawsuit filed by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) contending that the union hadn’t given sufficient notice of the work stoppage. The stakes, said Marcy Winograd, a retired special-education teacher, were simply too high.

“We wanted the district to know the community is behind the teachers and the students,” Winograd said. “We know that the success of a strike is going to rise and fall on the level of community support. It is absolutely imperative that people get out in front of their neighborhood schools and support our teachers, support our youth, support the future of this planet.”

On January 14, despite the pouring rain, the UTLA strike began with an explosion of exuberant, defiant rebellion. For a solid week, more than 30,000 educators took to the picket lines, while students, parents, and neighbors braved the weather to join them—and put together a number of solidarity actions that lasted well into the evenings.

Outside Venice High, teachers filmed a video for a strike-themed dance; at Harry Bridges Span School in Wilmington, longshore workers joined the teachers to keep trucks from crossing the picket line; in North Hollywood, parents organized a human chain stretching nearly a mile and connecting three schools. On the fifth day of the strike, an estimated 60,000 people attended a rally at Grand Park in downtown LA—a bigger crowd than had assembled on day one in the same location. And on the sixth day? On the sixth and last day of the strike, UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl stood alongside LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to announce an agreement that gave the teachers a comprehensive and unambiguous victory.

Caputo-Pearl said of the new contract, “This is much more than just a narrow labor agreement; it’s a very broad compact”—and he was right. The new contract not only delivered a raise to LA’s teachers, but also brought gains on every issue they had raised with me that first morning—and many more. They won reductions in class size; nurses in every school; more counselors, librarians, and wraparound services; and a path to reducing the amount of standardized testing. They won increased school funding and support for a ballot measure that would reform California’s long-broken property-tax system. They won 30 new “community schools,” which will feature increased services; democratic input from parents, students, and teachers; additional arts and ethnic-studies courses; and a multicultural, antiracist outlook. And in perhaps their biggest victory, they won input on charter-school “co-locations.” As further confirmation of their success, and a sign of just how effectively the strike had shifted the narrative on charter schools, the school board voted on January 29 to call for a statewide cap on charters.

“It’s more than I could have ever imagined,” said Rosa Jimenez, a history teacher at the UCLA Community School in LA’s Koreatown. “We really did win big, and it’s not the end. We now have a sturdy ground to stand on, with ourselves and with what we’ve learned from this about organizing—how to build a coalition, how to work with students and parents in a meaningful way.”

The union was able to win on this broad set of demands in large part because it wasn’t fighting alone. For a week, every corner of Los Angeles was “Red for Ed.” The city was clearly united in its support for the striking teachers—but to understand how that came about, it’s necessary to go back more than 10 years, to a time when the UTLA was rocked by cutbacks and struggling against the charter challenge. It’s necessary to understand how the UTLA became a fighting union.

“This stuff doesn’t come out of nowhere,” Caputo-Pearl observed. “Often, it comes out of a couple of decades of quiet work.”

Back in the early 2000s, the UTLA wasn’t the force it is today. It was, to many members’ minds, too quiescent in the face of relentless attacks on public education. But then came the Great Recession, and things began to change.

Rosa Jimenez was in her second year of teaching when she was laid off, along with many other young educators. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Jimenez had learned from her father, who worked in a factory, the importance of fighting for her rights as a worker. Indeed, she had become a teacher in order to serve and build relationships with her community. So when the crisis erupted and the layoffs began, it spurred her and her colleagues to action. Many of these young laid-off teachers were people of color, underrepresented in a district that serves a student body that is between 80 and 90 percent students of color, and they began to organize among themselves to bring a racial-justice lens to the union. That moment, Jimenez said, was the beginning of the movement that culminated in this year’s strike.

Caputo-Pearl, along with other current UTLA leaders, was also part of that organizing. In addition to engaging in civil disobedience outside LAUSD’s offices, he and his fellow teacher-activists began building a caucus within the union. This would eventually become the Union Power caucus, which won control of the union in 2014 on a promise to make social justice a priority, focus on the needs of low-income students of color as well as of teachers, and foster changes within the union in order to do so. They were even able to win a vote to increase union dues to fund a political department, an organizing department, a research department, and a parent/community-relations department—none of which the union had had previously.

All of this required carefully building structures within the union for constant communication across a 960-square-mile school district—structures that would allow the union, once the strike began, to know that it had the backing to hold firm at the bargaining table, and when it might be time to make a deal.

At the same time the new caucus was busy rebuilding the union’s strength, its members had also begun to form partnerships with community and student groups. These partnerships eventually evolved into Reclaim Our Schools LA, a grassroots coalition made up of groups like the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), the student-led organization Students Deserve, and the UTLA itself. The fruit of that inside/outside strategy could be seen in the streets during the strike—and in the clear, community-wide investment in the demands the union was making.

Amy Schur of ACCE explained that UTLA, unlike other unions (or, indeed, past UTLA leadership) really treated the community members as true partners, and the difference showed. “The greatest victory is the power we’ve built through labor and community uniting around a long-term economic-, racial-, and social-justice agenda and plan,” Schur said.

Forging that agenda meant building regular spaces where members of the different coalition partners could come together to discuss plans, demands, and strategy. It meant taking the demands that students brought to the table—including for mental-health services, ethnic-studies classes, and an end to random searches—and incorporating them into the union’s collective bargaining. And it meant that community groups took the kind of action that the union, at times, could not, effectively bringing the teachers’ demands into their spaces.

That constant back-and-forth helped create an organic understanding that the stakes were shared by everyone involved—parents, students, teachers, and people in the community—and that the strike was not just a fight for public schools, but a fight for the very idea of the public good. Indeed, one of the chants I heard most often was: “Whose schools? Our schools! What kind of schools? Public schools!

It was this robust defense of the idea of the public good, and the public sector’s role in bolstering that good, that won the teachers wide support. It also changed LA’s understanding of what a union could do. Less than a year after the Supreme Court issued its Janus decision, which dealt what many expected would be a death blow to public-sector unions, UTLA managed to remind America what a powerful, community-based union that fights for the whole working class looks like.

On the afternoon of January 16, in the drizzle outside Verdugo Hills High School in Tujunga, a pickup truck pulled to the curb, and the student in the passenger seat handed two cartons of hot coffee—along with bags filled with cups, cream, and sugar—to a band of red-ponchoed teachers. It was the third day of the strike, and the teachers had lost none of their verve. Lisa Cheby, the school’s librarian, held a sign that asked: “Without a teacher librarian, how would Buffy have saved the world?” The Rev. Aaron Peterson, a history teacher and the union chapter chair at Verdugo, told me, “It is amazing to see the unity in the school, the faculty. Administrators brought doughnuts today.”

So many of the teachers I spoke with talked about their schools as potential models for better public education, even as they were clear-eyed about the reasons for the strike. Amanda Swann, a theater teacher in Verdugo’s arts magnet program, spoke of the support in her community for the program, but also of her struggles over 25 years of teaching to find funds for her work. Each year, she said, she and other arts teachers go to Sacramento to march for more support for their programs. The skills that students learn in the arts, she added, are vital: “It gives them empathy, creativity.”

On the picket lines, the teachers discovered some things about themselves, too. Their bonds grew tighter—strengthened and solidified—as they walked the perimeters of the schools where they so often had so little time to talk, or as they huddled under shared umbrellas and sang along to “The Ghost of Tom Joad” with musician Tom Morello. They also learned what solidarity looked, sounded, and even tasted like. They experienced it in the doughnuts dropped off by parents, in the supportive car honks, in the people who turned back rather than cross a picket line, and in the children who came by wearing red. The teachers discovered their power and felt the value of their work reflected back at them.

Peg Cagle teaches high-school math in Reseda, one of the farthest-flung parts of the school district. A big part of her school’s population, she said, consists of new immigrants, and some portion of her students lives in “alternative settings,” which might mean they’re homeless, in foster homes, or otherwise outside of their parents’ care. “These are kids who are very often super, super traumatized, displaced—and all of that on top of the stress of negotiating school within an environment which is not in their native culture, not in their native language,” she told me. “And you are going to put 40 of them in a classroom?”

For Cagle, a big part of the strike’s significance was in “shifting the cultural perspective around education and the lack of respect for teaching.” Watching a good teacher at work, she added, is like watching a swan glide across the water—people remain totally unaware of what goes on beneath the surface. “We wouldn’t make any decision within medicine without consulting doctors, but we feel totally comfortable as a society making all sorts of decisions about education when the teacher’s voice is, typically, if even included, it is almost included for the sole purpose of dismissing it and discounting it.”

During the strike, the teachers made that voice heard. It is impossible to imagine how loud tens of thousands of educators can be until you’ve marched alongside them through a tunnel in downtown Los Angeles and heard them chant “Strike! Strike!” in unison to the beat of a bass drum reverberating off the walls. It was impossible, that week, to ignore what teachers were saying. They were heard in Sacramento, where the state’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, called for transparency regarding charter schools on the strike’s first day. They were heard in Washington, DC, where presidential hopefuls tripped over themselves to issue statements of support. They were heard in Chicago, West Virginia, and Arizona, where previous strikes had fueled their momentum, as well as in Denver, where teachers authorized a strike on the day that UTLA announced its new deal. And they were heard in Oakland, where an overwhelming majority of teachers recently voted to authorize a strike.

It was a voice that demanded respect not only for their profession, but for the ideals on which public education was founded. “Without public education, there will be no democracy,” Cagle said. “If you don’t want a democracy, then fine—do what you will with public education. But if you truly believe that democracy serves the public good, then you have to support public education, because it’s the only thing that’s going to get us there.”

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