Barring a last-minute settlement, Los Angeles teachers plan to go on strike Thursday. A lot is at stake for educators, their union and the nation’s second-largest school system.

Share story

LOS ANGELES — Nearly a year ago, teachers in West Virginia walked out, sparking a wave of protests in other states. Now it’s Los Angeles’ turn.

Barring a last-minute settlement, teachers plan to go on strike Thursday. A lot is at stake for educators, their union and the nation’s second-largest school system.

Leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) paint the approaching job action as the latest act in an ongoing morality tale. Teachers are heroes in a national mobilization, fighting the good fight for students and the future of public education. That narrative casts L.A. school Superintendent Austin Beutner as an untrustworthy villain, whose hidden agenda is to turn over campuses to profiteers and the private operators of nonunion charter schools in something akin to a corporate takeover.

“Although the circumstances in different states vary, the common theme across the country is a lack of investment in public education and the threat from the aggressive privatization and charterization movement,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles.

Beutner vigorously contests this interpretation, saying his goal is to make district-run schools as good as they can be, to live within the district’s financial means and even to join with the union in seeking more state funding.

The superintendent largely has avoided the ideology of the dispute, but there certainly are union critics ready to respond full force.

“UTLA’s actions are a last gasp of desperation to protect a failed status quo and control the work of teachers and parents who want, I think, dramatically better for their students,” said Jeanne Allen, of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, which is funded by pro-charter donors and favors the use of public funds to subsidize private school tuition.

As in other places, the L.A. teachers union is asking for a higher wage offer. And as in some other places, the union also is seeking more staffing to make classrooms less crowded.

The dispute in L.A., however, is not simply a carbon copy of what happened in other states. Key differences could affect the outcome.

The strike would affect nearly half a million students, their families and 63,000 district employees and would be the first in nearly three decades, since a nine-day walkout in 1989.

Compared with the teachers who walked out in other states, Caputo-Pearl and UTLA would seem to have a fundamental political advantage — of red versus blue. California is a Democrat-dominated, pro-union state. Other states with teacher job actions were Republican-dominated or a center-right shade of purple. Teacher strikes are illegal in nearly all the other states that saw job actions in 2018. Other labor laws in the red states also have weakened the influence of unions.

But mass action can play out in surprising ways.

In the red states, including Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, teachers were widely perceived as victims of Republican machinations.

In Kentucky, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin said that striking teachers would be responsible for unsupervised children being sexually assaulted, ingesting poison and beginning to use illegal drugs. He also accused teachers of being stupid and selfish in fighting for higher pay and against cuts to their underfunded pensions.

It turned out that many Kentuckians identified with teachers, said Jeni Bolander, a veteran high-school instructor in Lexington.

Teachers in Kentucky and elsewhere were able to take their issues directly to the state Capitol — the source of funding — and, in the eyes of many, the source of blame for budget shortfalls that caused suffering for teachers and students alike.

In conservative places, teachers were successfully fighting for liberal values. And laws against strikes turned out not to matter so much. Teachers enjoyed such strong public support that authorities did not dare enforce the laws.

“They were massive strikes with an amount of public support for a strike that we haven’t seen in a long time — that’s what made them work,” said Sylvia Allegretto, an economist with the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Some school-district officials subversively supported the job actions; many districts temporarily closed down schools.

The red-state strikes seemed to be part of an anti-President Donald Trump wave, said Janelle Scott, a UC Berkeley associate professor in the Graduate School of Education.

The “Red for Ed” movement, and the visual of having a mass of mostly women coming out in a large force appealed to the wider public, Scott said.

The same could hold in California, she said. Such a large walkout, though in a single district, could build on the goodwill generated in other states and put pressure on the Legislature and incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom to make moves with the budget or state policy that would bring teachers back to the classroom.

An us-versus-them construct, however, does not translate readily to California, where unions are among the state’s most powerful special interests. Unlike in some red states, L.A. district administrators also intend to keep schools open with 400 substitute teachers.

And L.A. teachers must face off against a district whose leaders echo their union’s demand for increased state and federal funding for schools.

The union leader also is trying to put forward a complex argument on funding. While Caputo-Pearl argues that the state needs to do much more, he also says that L.A. Unified is hoarding a fortune — and that district leadership is choosing to starve its schools.

Meanwhile, financial experts brought in by L.A. Unified have reached different conclusions — supporting the district’s assertion that it faces potential insolvency in two to three years — even without meeting most union demands.

“This is where I think the teacher’s strategy could backfire. Because you already have a weakened district … ” said UCLA education professor Pedro Noguera. “The question then is, where does the money come from?”

L.A. Unified teacher salaries tend to be lower than wages in nearby areas, although the district offers retirees health benefits, which are rare elsewhere.

The district is offering a 6 percent raise over the first two years of a three-year contract. The union wants 6.5 percent all at once and a year retroactive.

Union demands, however, are much more sweeping. UTLA wants more teachers to reduce class sizes and more nurses, librarians and counselors to “fully staff” schools. They’re the sort of demands for better pay and resources that teachers have made in other states.

But UTLA also is taking advantage of California’s labor-friendly laws to push further. Union leaders want the contract to give teachers more control over how money is spent at schools, how much time is given over to standardized testing and how space on district campuses is allocated to charter schools. District officials question whether such demands are proper bargaining topics and oppose them almost universally as interfering with their management of the school system.

The union is pushing the envelope still further in its strike lead-up, issuing a battle cry against charter schools and privatization — a message that Caputo-Pearl thinks is integral to the union’s future.

Beutner views the union’s broader goals as an impediment to resolving differences. And he bristles at the union’s suggestion that his real agenda is to undermine public education.

The union has leveled this charge at him because Beutner, a successful businessman, has no previous experience managing a school or school system, and because Beutner secured the job with the votes of a school-board majority elected with substantial support from charter-school backers.

Both sides, of course, claim to be the true stewards of students.

Caputo-Pearl says a strike in LAUSD would be a fight for “racial justice,” in a district where 3 in 4 students are Latino and 8 percent are black.

United Teachers Los Angeles is at a crossroads and could use the boost a successful strike could bring.

For decades, the union was the most influential force in the politics of the school system. But it has been unable, in recent elections, to match the campaign spending fueled by wealthy donors who support charter schools. These privately operated, mostly nonunion schools now serve about 1 in 5 students enrolled in L.A. public schools, more than in any other school system.

The rapid growth of charters has created an alternate constituency of parents who support charters and may resent the dark way the union casts them.

In 2017, for the first time, charter-backed candidates won a majority on the L.A. Board of Education.

A Supreme Court ruling last year also has deprived UTLA, along with other California unions, of the right to collect fees from all teachers within its jurisdiction. Union membership — and the accompanying dues that fuel campaigns — essentially have become optional.

Even some allies worry that the union is pushing too hard and for too much, that a bitter strike could even push some families to charter schools.

Caputo-Pearl acknowledges that the stakes are high, but not just for the union, he said.

“We’re fighting for high-quality public schools in every neighborhood,” he said. “This is a decisive moment for public education in Los Angeles.”