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As union voting deadline nears, UTLA member and thwarted candidate says hundreds of teachers still without ballots, mounts petition for third-party election oversight

Christina Johnson | February 24, 2020

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Updated, Feb. 26

In a Feb. 25 email, Janet Davis and Lanny Larsen, co-chairs of the UTLA Elections Committee, said eligible members who did not receive a paper ballot or have misplaced it can vote by filling out a Replacement Ballot request form. The Election Company will email them their PIN and they will be able to vote online immediately. UTLA members with a paper ballot can find their PIN in their ballot materials. The deadline for requesting a PIN is 4 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27 and the deadline for submitting an electronic ballot is 8 a.m. Friday, Feb. 28, the day the ballots will be counted. There is a page with support for online voting.

Los Angeles Unified School District teachers and supporters march from City Hall to LAUSD headquarters Jan. 14, 2019 (Photo by Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

I always knew my union was important for my colleagues and me, but it wasn’t until the teacher strike that I saw how it matters to the entire city.

Now it’s a United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) election, not a strike, that will have far-reaching consequences for students and families for years to come. The leaders elected this month will be some of the most powerful players in city politics, but they will be facing a serious challenge to retain members. While a new survey finds 79 percent of Los Angeles teachers who are non-union members say they are likely to opt into UTLA next year, 49 percent of current union teachers in LA say they are likely to opt out in the coming year.

As UTLA fights to keep members and remain a key voice for teachers in a city with rampant educational inequities, it must demonstrate to its members and to the city that it authentically represents them and is a truly democratic body.

My experience with UTLA falls far short of this, so I hope this election can serve as a pivotal moment that will set us on the right path.

As a special education science teacher for five years, I’ve spent my career advocating for my students in and outside the classroom. But it wasn’t until right before the strike that I took part in the inspiring grassroots process that is engaging in our union — and also saw firsthand the ways UTLA must adapt to better serve their membership. I had recently become a member of the UTLA House of Representatives, where we would decide on policies to govern our union’s advocacy and operations. But leadership dysfunction in the meetings regularly circumvented the democratic process.

Recently, for example, I proudly voted to support a motion offered by Marisa Crabtree, one of the current candidates for UTLA president, that would make UTLA’s House of Representatives more democratic by concluding meetings with an online survey allowing members to give feedback to UTLA leadership. Although Marisa turned in the motion before the meeting deadline, union leaders claimed she never submitted it, and she had to quickly redraft the motion by hand in order to give teachers a chance to vote on a measure to give them a greater voice in their union.

I wish I could say this instance of leadership overlooking teachers’ preferences was rare, but even recently I attended meetings where we were informed of our endorsement of candidates for United States presidentand local school board elections rather than asking our opinion.

In an effort to bring more transparency and representation to union members, I decided to run for secretary of UTLA’s executive board. But after submitting my form to declare my candidacy, I was told I was ineligible to run. I was shocked. Apparently, though I was paying union fees and submitted my documents to become a union member almost six months ahead of the deadline, they claim my forms were “lost” in the shuffle and I had not been a member for the required two years.

While on paper I was allowed to appeal, the only response from my repeated emails and phone calls was a form letter in my mailbox asking for a photocopy of the documents they already had in my application. To add insult to injury, I have not received my ballot to participate in this election. How many other dues-paying educators in Los Angeles are also missing their ballots?

Engaging in my union — a union I actively support with my time and money — should not be this difficult. And when I reflect on my efforts to help my union correct course, only to be defeated by nonsensical obstacles meant to protect the status quo, I begin to understand my colleagues’ frustrations. As teachers who work tirelessly on behalf of their students, we shouldn’t have to fight so hard to stay informed and be heard by leadership.

And my hope for this election is fading fast. As the Friday voting deadline nears, hundreds of teachers have not received their ballots. There are ballots with candidates’ names missing. There are ballots with entire races missing. Candidates’ names have been misspelled and slate names were dropped on all of the ballots.

I hope my fellow teachers will sign this petition and join me in calling on UTLA leaders to end this illegitimate election immediately and ask a neutral third-party to oversee a transparent and democratic election. After everything, this is the only step to help us turn the page on discord and disillusion, so we can be an effective and united voice for the changes LAUSD and our kids so desperately need.

Christina Johnson is a special education science teacher at Santee Education Complex

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