As a teacher of more than 20 years, and now as the president of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), one of the largest educator unions in the country, I know full well that school districts tend to undervalue the safety and health of staff and students. How many stories of educators juggling multiple jobs merely to survive, or students experiencing homelessness, need to be told to elicit the support we are asking our employers to provide?
In California, at least, it seems clear that not even the most heart-wrenching testimony will persuade the districts to do the right thing. If it did, we wouldn’t have to go out on strike up and down the state. But we do—and the recent strikes by Oakland and Los Angeles school workers illustrate how educators are using contract negotiations as a vehicle to better society as a whole, both in California and across the nation.
It had not been two months since the UTLA joint solidarity strike with SEIU 99—where the two largest unions in the Los Angeles Unified School District joined forces over violations of labor law and our shared struggle for a better contract—when Oakland teachers announced that they were going out on the picket line. Although both collective actions eventually resulted in significant salary increases, benefits, and long-term solutions for the systematic problems failing our school district, getting there was laborious.
I knew our Bay Area counterpart had exhausted every option before resorting to a strike—because we did too.
Before a strike takes place, education workers will typically have engaged in a variety of other methods of negotiation and advocacy over months and even years. If these efforts are unsuccessful, educators make the difficult decision to put their livelihoods on the line by forgoing their regular pay. Strikes are one of the biggest sacrifices we can make to show that we are committed to the well-being of our children and our schools.
Important issues—salary, lack of resources, large classroom sizes, student debt, and the expectations placed on educators to be teachers, mental health counselors, and caretakers—lie behind the nation’s current teacher shortage. School workers are squeezed past their limits. Outside the classroom, these problems exacerbate the economic inequalities facing already struggling educators.
These shortfalls are also impacting our students and their families, especially those coming from historically underserved groups. Inequitable school funding deprives Black and Indigenous students and other students of color, students with disabilities, and students from low-income families of educational opportunities. This disproportionate harm is a direct result of years of divestment by our districts, and the consequences are clear: a poorer education for students, and a barrier standing in the way of their ability to make a positive contribution to our society.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a larger movement of workers across the country advocating for better working conditions, fair pay, and workplace improvements, with roughly a quarter of major work stoppages occurring in the public education sector. No matter the location, the same themes recur, such as rising costs from inflation, long work hours, and stressful working conditions.
But trends don’t always paint the most accurate picture. Yes, it is true that teachers were fighting for a number of economic proposals, including improvements to teacher pay and working conditions. But more importantly, we were demanding that our school districts make investments in the resources that are critical to student and family success.
In addition to salaries that keep up with inflation and smaller class sizes, Oakland educators held the line for almost seven days on what are known as “common good” demands. Common-good bargaining refers to agreements that go beyond issues of wages and benefits in an attempt to have a positive impact on the broader community.
Under the new tentative contract, the Oakland Unified School District agreed to educators’ demands to utilize unused school buildings for nonprofit housing developments, provide resources for unhoused students, and fund programs such as the Black Thriving Community Schools that would empower Black students with leadership opportunities. Furthermore, the district also settled on a plan to ensure that schools are free from gun violence, asbestos, lead, and mice infestations. Incorporating these services into contracts means that districts must continue providing the services, even if the funding goes away.
During our most recent contract battle, Los Angeles families, educators, support staff, and allies also remained deeply committed to addressing systemic issues that fail our students. We held the district accountable every step of the way through school site pickets, boycotts, a 60,000-member joint rally, and near 100 percent participation in the three-day UPC solidarity strike alongside SEIU 99, but it was common-good bargaining that gave us the unwavering support from our community we needed to win.
Early this month, when UTLA ratified our landmark agreement, we solidified the highest salary increase for LA educators in 34 years. We also won increased housing support for low-income families, more Community Schools, funding for the Black Student Achievement Program, greater investment in special education, support services for immigrant families, and the creation of green spaces on our campuses. In advocating for these issues, we showed that teachers are not committed just to our own livelihoods but also to the well-being of our students.
Like Oakland teachers, we were striving to create an environment where students can thrive and reach their full potential.
The groundbreaking common-good demands won in Los Angeles and Oakland are proof that by standing together, educators have the power to effect change outside of normal bread-and-butter issues. Now, students and communities will benefit from the hard work that educators have put in to achieve these victories.
Collective action led us to one of the biggest wins for our school districts, while also recognizing the essential work of educators who are willing to put their profession on the line to ensure that future generations are supported. As the divide between the haves and have-nots increases, I strongly believe we’re going to see more educators utilize bargaining as a way to bring attention to important issues affecting their students.
The current state of public education in America is due for a reckoning. Systemic disinvestment from schools only creates an environment that holds students back. The actions of Oakland and LA teachers give us hope that change is possible. Considering the day-to-day stressors many of our students face, our schools should provide a safe haven in which they feel nurtured and supported. However, in too many school districts, this is not the case, so educators must continue to fight for our students and schools. When educators fight, we are standing up for our communities. It’s time school district leaders recognize this fact.