Union Report: Prediction — Los Angeles Teachers Will Go Out on Strike in October

UTLA teachers rally in front of L.A. City Hall on May 24, 2018. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears Wednesdays; see the full archive

I don’t have a crystal ball, and I’m not party to any secret information that makes this a certainty, but every indication leads me to believe that the Los Angeles teachers union will strike shortly after the first week of October.

The members of United Teachers Los Angeles have been working without a contract for 13 months. Two weeks ago, the union declared an impasse in negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District board, and then, last week, the state Public Employment Relations Board ruled the two sides at an impasse and appointed a mediator.

Also last week, the union announced a strike authorization vote for the week of Aug. 23-30. An affirmative vote by the members does not guarantee a strike will take place, but it grants the union’s officers the ability to call a strike at their discretion, provided all statutory requirements have been met.

What happens next? Well, if you are going to have a vote, you have to have a campaign. Union representatives will contact as many members as possible in an effort to ensure the strike is authorized. My sense is that if the vote were merely to determine what the members want, a strike would be approved — but the union’s leaders want more than that.

In January, the district hashed out an agreement on health benefits with UTLA and the district’s other unions. After contentious contract negotiations with SEIU Local 99, which represents school support employees, the two sides settled on a three-year deal with a 3 to 4 percent salary increase in the first year and a one-time 3 to 4 percent boost in the second year that will become permanent if the district’s overall financial status improves.

LAUSD also just came to an agreement containing similar pay-increase terms with the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, which represents principals and administrators.

A few weeks, ago, the district announced a three-year deal with the California School Employees Association that includes pay increases of 2 percent per year.

The last reported district offer to UTLA was for a 2 percent raise and a 2 percent bonus, similar to the other contracts.

Under normal circumstances, UTLA would bargain that offer up to 3 percent or slightly more and call it a day. But the union’s leaders have a plan that goes far beyond what the other unions have in mind.

“Our vision for hope and reinvestment does not match their goal to defund, dismantle, and ultimately privatize our school district,” said Arlene Inouye, head of the union’s bargaining team.

The union submitted a 69-page “last, best, and final offer” that calls for a 6.5 percent pay increase retroactive to July 2016. It also contains provisions that require additional hiring of librarians, nurses, counselors, and restorative justice advisers.

Additionally, the union wants the district to require, and pay for, new hires to attend a UTLA membership sales pitch of no less than 60 minutes, during which district representatives cannot be present.

But in a way, the union’s specific demands are beside the point. President Alex Caputo-Pearl wants a strike. He has been lobbying the members and preparing them for the eventuality for more than two years. He has told them, “If we don’t change the direction of the district and the state, we won’t have a public education system in five years.” If he really believes that, even a 6.5 percent salary hike won’t get it done.

Caputo-Pearl and the rest of the UTLA leadership want to generate in Los Angeles what teachers did in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona last spring. Their vision is to create a movement that will monopolize media attention for weeks, followed by a large-scale concession from the district, followed by upward mobility for themselves.

Caputo-Pearl is fully aware of what the last Los Angeles teacher strike, in 1989, accomplished — not so much for the teachers, but for the UTLA president.

UTLA’s own history lauds the nine-day strike that culminated in a “historic” three-year contract, with 8 percent wage increases each year. What seems to have fallen into the memory hole is that the union’s original demand was for 21 percent over two years, and the district’s last offer before the strike was for 21.5 percent over three years.

Nevertheless, the strike burnished the reputation of then-UTLA President Wayne Johnson and launched him to the presidency of the California Teachers Association.

There are only two things that could head off a teacher strike. The first is that Caputo-Pearl’s master plan has already had more failures than successes. He planned to win a majority on the LAUSD school board in 2017. He wanted to coordinate bargaining and labor actions with other teachers union locals in California whose contracts were expiring at the same time. He wanted to put a split-roll property tax initiative on the November 2018 ballot. None of those things came to pass, so perhaps he is also overestimating his members’ enthusiasm for a strike.

The other X factor is the resignation of school board member Ref Rodriguez after he pleaded guilty to a felony count of conspiracy. That leaves the board deadlocked at 3-3 between union allies and opponents. Whoever fills Rodriguez’s seat may determine the outcome of UTLA contract negotiations, though it may not happen in time to stave off a strike.

With that in mind, we note that Huntington Park councilwoman Graciela Ortiz has announced her candidacy for the seat. As recently as 2016, Ortiz was a UTLA member, received the union’s gold community award, and spearheaded a charter school moratorium in Huntington Park. If Ortiz or another candidate gives the union a majority on the board, UTLA could see its contract demands met. But I think the union would rather have the strike first.

In his “state of the union” speech to UTLA representatives last month, Caputo-Pearl said, “We, as chapter leaders at this defining moment, must lead our co-workers in an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote.”

The idea is to drive the “yes” votes up so high as to make a public relations statement as well as authorize a strike. A “no” vote, or even a close vote, would indicate no enthusiasm for a walkout and — logic suggests — weaken the union’s bargaining position. So the rest of this month will be spent on internal organizing, presenting the union’s bargaining positions to the membership as equitable requests designed to improve public education and student outcomes, while standing firm against the depredations of a “corrupt school board,” as Caputo-Pearl described it.

It’s a campaign, so don’t expect a balanced presentation. For example, UTLA posted this graphic on its social media platforms, with the caption, “These are facts, not opinions.”

I don’t know how many teachers will take the time to notice that this depiction includes only federal spending and leaves out the additional $600 billion a year that state and local governments spend on K-12 public education. Call them half-facts.

The message UTLA wants to send requires, in my opinion, a “yes” vote of 90 percent or more. That’s what it will get. What happens after that is also obvious, but it is reassuring to hear corroboration from a member of the UTLA board of directors, who wrote last Friday that the strike-authorization vote will be “followed by a month of consolidating parent and member support in order to be walkout-ready by early October.”

Caputo-Pearl called the district’s last offer unacceptable; he said the same about the deal the school administrators union got.

LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner sees it differently. “We are forecasted to lose about a half a billion dollars this year and roughly the same next year and the next,” he said. “So cumulatively, we will spend about $1.5 billion more than we take in. We have about $1.2 billion in the bank. So, if we spend $1.5 billion, we run out. That’s math.”

Caputo-Pearl and Beutner can’t both be right, and if the circumstances they describe are true, they can’t both get what they need. That’s why there will be a strike. Tactically, the best time to launch a job action is right after payday, which for most Los Angeles teachers will be Friday, Oct. 5.

If I were a Los Angeles public school parent, I would start researching alternative accommodations for my kids for the week of Oct. 8.

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