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Analysis: A big week for the teachers to demonstrate what they want

Michael Janofsky | February 23, 2015

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UTLA rally at James Monroe High School Nov. 20, 2014

UTLA rally at James Monroe High School Nov. 20, 2014

“Most of our early escalation tactics are about building solidarity among members, because a 35,000 member union can’t win a fight against the corporate education ‘reformers’ lined up against us with anything less than 35,000 members active in the fight.”

That’s what it says on the UTLA website, which makes this a critical week for teachers in their fight for a bigger raise than LA Unified is offering so far.

Scheduled for Thursday is the latest of the teacher union’s “escalating actions,” a rally planned for downtown called, “Making Our Stand at Grand,” a reference to the downtown location. It’s a chance for the union to stand up to the district with a show of unity and resolve.

But it represents something else, as well, coming at a time negotiations for a new contract have gone nowhere, with both sides calling in a mediator and Superintendent Ramon Cortines, as he did on Friday, affirming his belief that closing a $160 million deficit takes preference over giving UTLA more than the 5 percent raise on the table.

Thursday is a also referendum on the Union Power leadership team led by President Alex Caputo-Pearl, whose ascension to office last year was built on the possible need of a final showdown, of sorts, with a district that has made teachers collateral damage in the nation’s long recession.

For nearly eight years, teachers have soldiered on, enduring layoffs and furloughs without so most as a Christmas turkey, let alone a cost of living raise.

Enough is enough, Caputo-Pearl has been saying since last year, waving the possibility of a strike from the day he was elected. And now that the union and the district have conceded they are getting nowhere on their own, their decision to summon an interlocutor is the first of the legal steps necessary for the union to actually walk out.

So here’s the challenge for Caputo-Pearl and his colleagues. This is not a union that has shown itself to be especially active in the face of challenge and choice. Yes, teachers have gathered for school-site rallies, and they express lots of support for any school board candidate who is not from the charter world.

But a downtown rally at this stage of the campaign requires an outsized commitment by teachers, given the magnitude of their demands and the logistical nightmare of driving anywhere in LA these days.

Even casting a ballot for union officers last year was an exercise that the vast majority of union members skipped. Caputo-Pearl won the presidency in a runoff with 16 percent of the members voting. Factor in the votes for the loser, Warren Fletcher, and a paltry 20 percent of the members cast a ballot, one in five.

Maybe by historical standards, that’s a strong showing in UTLA elections. For demonstrating support for contract demands that could lead to a strike, you have to wonder what a comparable showing at a downtown rally would mean.

No doubt, 7,000 protesting teachers would look like a huge crowd on the local news. But viewers at home are not necessarily the audience that counts. District officials will be watching, too, and they will be less inclined to compromise knowing only one in five teachers felt strongly enough about their demands to make a case for them in person.

What Caputo-Pearl needs more than anything is a major show of force and solidarity, best demonstrated by a majority of teachers marching for changes long denied them. Anything less calls into question their resolve, their appetite for a strike and the path their leadership has taken. 

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