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Antonucci: The inevitable Los Angeles teachers strike — does Chicago hold the key to a solution?

Mike Antonucci | September 11, 2018

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

Leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles continued their preparations for a strike by approving the transfer of up to $3 million from the union’s strike fund to its general fund in order to be ready for immediate use.

The first mediation session is scheduled for Sept. 27, with neither the Los Angeles Unified School District nor the union expressing optimism about prospects for success.

There have been no new proposals reported since UTLA submitted a 69-page “last, best and final” offer on July 24.

This leaves most of us wondering what it will take to settle the dispute. Naturally, we are all focused on the disparity in wage proposals, with the district offering a 2 percent increase and a 2 percent one-time payment, and the union demanding a 6.5 percent increase retroactive to July 1, 2016.

But the union’s public relations campaign refers only obliquely to the specific salary offers, centering instead on portraying LAUSD as being “led by pro-privatization ideologues” who believe in “corporate greed … even if it means destroying public education.” UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl has said that “the war over public schools is a class war.”

If that isn’t just rhetoric then a pay raise alone won’t alter the situation one bit. In order to reach a settlement, Caputo-Pearl and the UTLA leaders must deliver to their members not only a substantial pay increase, but a victory against the forces of evil.

LAUSD, on the other hand, emphasizes the district’s financial situation, referring only in passing to UTLA’s proposals to increase union influence over testing, staffing, and magnet schools.

Both “the money” and “the cause” will have to be addressed in negotiations. Fortunately, we have a previous model to use to evaluate how this might work out: the Chicago teachers strike of 2012.

The Chicago strike is still seen as a watershed moment for teachers unions. Books have been written about how “a labor conflict focused solely on compensation at the start developed into a challenge to a national education reform movement that, teachers charged, was systematically destroying public education and using Chicago as its test case.”

Salary issues were nearly settled prior to that strike. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis told the press the two sides were “not far apart on compensation.” The union ultimately settled for a three-year contract with a cumulative 7 percent raise, which is not exactly an unprecedented increase.

CTU described the settlement of non-monetary issues in an interesting way, declaring victory but in terms of defense. “We stopped many harmful ‘reforms’,” the CTU settlement summary reads. “The district was forced to give up on merit pay, forced to accept steps, made to abandon a 7hr 40 minute teacher day, and gave ground on test-based evaluation. In fact, the Board began the bargaining process by proposing to cut our contract to just 30 pages.”

Additionally, CTU admitted it lost on some of those issues. “Despite the strike and broad public support there were some cuts that we could not stop, such as the move to a longer day and year, the elimination of Pension Enhancement (PEP), and stiffer penalties for low ratings,” according to the summary.

In short, the Chicago Teachers Union strike was important and influential because of the strike, not because of the settlement achieved due to the strike. This suggests that a teachers strike in Los Angeles is probably inevitable, but that a settlement might not be quite so unreachable as it currently seems.

The bad news is that money will be the deciding factor. I suspect that no agreement will be reached without a “6.5 percent” written somewhere in it. The retroactive date might disappear, some of the raise might be conditional, and some cooperation in seeking help from the state might emerge, but UTLA won’t end a strike for an offer similar to what the administrators and support employees got.

The sort-of-good news is that if the money is acceptable, UTLA will probably compromise on its non-monetary demands, and post-strike will instead emphasize the district proposals the union shot down. It won’t satisfy all the activists, but UTLA can then focus their energy on the elections and the composition of the school board.

There will be a lot of press attention and a lot of extravagant pronouncements during and after a Los Angeles strike, but the ultimate result will be higher pay for teachers and a school system not noticeably different from what it was before the strike.

Los Angeles citizens are along for the ride.

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