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Antonucci: Bet the ranch — UTLA will strike in October

Mike Antonucci | July 31, 2018

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Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears weekly at LA School Report.

*UPDATED Aug. 1: Kyle Stokes of KPCC reports that UTLA will hold a strike authorization vote Aug. 23-30. UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl stated he wants an agreement with LAUSD but claims the district’s fiscal projections are consistently “off to the tune of a billion dollars.”

*UPDATED Aug. 26: A UTLA member writes in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that a strike has been scheduled to begin Oct. 3. 

The members of United Teachers Los Angeles have been working without a contract for 13 months. Last week the union declared an impasse in contract negotiations with the school district, the first step in a process that could ultimately lead to a teacher strike.

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 UTLA will strike shortly after the first week of October.

At first glance, this seems entirely avoidable. Last 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 onetime 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.

As I write this, 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 is for a 2 percent increase 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 UTLA’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 UTLA 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 advisors.

Additionally, UTLA 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. UTLA 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 regenerate 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 UTLA’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 teacher 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 LAUSD school board member Ref Rodriguez after pleading 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 announced her candidacy for the seat over the weekend. 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. 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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