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Analysis: New contract for LA teachers seems a long way off

Michael Janofsky | January 26, 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

How long have they been at it now, four, five six months?

Whatever it is, negotiators for LA Unified and the teachers union, UTLA, appear as close to agreement on a new labor contract as they were when bargaining began.

Maybe they are inching forward on some issues. But the fact remains, teachers are still without a pay raise, as they have been since World War II, it seems, and the pace of talks gives no indication a deal is within reach.

And that makes perfect sense.

Even with one of the union’s prime objectives completed —  the departure of former Superintendent John Deasy — an agreement seems well off in the distance, and here are three reasons why:

First, the union might find a better deal on the other side of this year’s school board elections, in which four members are running to hold their seats — George McKenna, Tamar Galatzan, Bennett Kayser and President Richard Vladovic.

The current board leans pro-UTLA on many issues, with two strong union supporters in Kayser and Monica Ratliff and three members whose votes are less predictable but generally teacher friendly in Vladovic, Steve Zimmer and McKenna.

As things stand, McKenna is safe, running unopposed in the March 3 primary. Kayser and Vladovic are facing challengers but have to be considered favorites.

But what if Galatzan, a strong supporter of charter schools facing five challengers, were forced into a May runoff, and all the voters who preferred ABT — anyone but Tamar — coalesced to deny her reelection?

If that challenger has a soft spot for teachers, you can imagine UTLA’s interest in providing financial backing for someone who would put the union in close proximity to an impenetrable majority. That could also change the tenure of labor negotiations and, further, lead to hiring a decidedly pro-teacher superintendent to replace Ramon Cortines.

Given those possibilities, it’s hard to imagine why the union would settle with the district before the results are final.

Here’s the second reason: teacher unrest.

For now, it’s difficult for outsiders to gauge any level of frustration among teachers and, if it’s there, what’s fueling it: Is the rank-and-file supportive of the leadership’s negotiating strategies or disgusted with its tactics? Are teachers really jonesing for a strike? Are they even paying attention to the pace of negotiations, given their daily challenges in the classroom?

Remember, in last year’s union elections, only about a quarter of the 35,000 members voted.

Some might consider that an apathetic body politic.

The leadership apparently recognizes as much, which helps explain the on-going solidarity campaign of “escalating actions,” as outlined on the UTLA website. They began last fall with “red shirt Tuesday” and continue through a “mass rally” on Feb. 26 in Pershing Square. 

Beyond that? The new union leadership continues to threaten a strike, which is what union leaders do when they’re locked into tough negotiations. It’s leverage. But leverage is only so strong as the constituent support, determination and indignation behind it.

The district, meanwhile, has tried mitigating union leverage by making it clear that any raise would be retroactive to the beginning of the school year — so long as teachers are teaching, of course. Teachers might not regain pay lost during a strike, and they are smart enough to know that the damage of lost instruction time would only redound to them once classes resume.

The third reason is salary negotiations, perhaps the one issue that has most tangible implications for both sides.

With its various offers to the union, the district has done little more than move the shells around. No matter where the pea is, it doesn’t get larger. The district insists it can’t afford a larger pea.

The union, meanwhile, has steadily reduced its demand from a high of 10 percent for the year to 9 percent to 8.5 percent, leaving the sides in their current position, about 4.5 percent apart.

That poses a real political challenge for first-year president Alex Caputo-Pearl, who campaigned on creating a more assertive union to change the culture for district teachers. Part of the promise was more take-home pay. The question for his membership is deciding how much is enough to cut a deal and how little is worth moving to the picket line.

Taking into account the slow pace of talks so far, a less than unified membership, school board elections and the formal steps required prior to any job action, including a declaration of an impasse by one side or the other and mediation, any agreement would now come closer to the end of 2014-15 than the beginning — adding one more year on UTLA’s long march to change. 

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