In Partnership with 74

Analysis: Just what does Caputo-Pearl’s first-round victory mean?

Michael Janofsky | April 21, 2014

Your donation will help us produce journalism like this. Please give today.

Caputo-Pearl at the podium; Fletcher, on the right

Caputo-Pearl at the podium; Fletcher, on the right

The first round of the UTLA elections produced two stunning results.

One: For the first time in recent memory, a political faction within the union — Union Power — has gained near total control of the union. In a field of 10 candidates for president, Alex Caputo-Pearl out-polled his nearest competitor, incumbent Warren Fletcher, by a 2-to-1 margin — a runoff is now underway — and Union Power candidates won outright nearly every other union leadership position.

Two: Not that many people cared. In a turning-point election, barely a quarter of UTLA’s 31,000 members bothered to vote.

The combination is a real head scratcher because it makes entirely ambiguous just what members were saying if they were saying anything at all. Even Fletcher bowed to the inevitable, announcing he would no longer actively campaign for another term.

On the one hand, the true believers lined up behind a change agent and his deep bench of compatriots with a lengthy platform that included a focus on raises and the end of teacher jails.

On the other, a silent majority declared they have enough on their hands, with crowded classrooms, curriculum changes and the challenge of providing the best for kids with the least.

It’s as if most teachers, feeling beaten down and demoralized over so many years, considered the options — more of the same under Fletcher or new activism under Union Power — and decided, “Yeah, whatever.”

But even with Caputo-Pearl a virtual lock to lead the union over the next three years, it may not be leadership style or policy demands that determines whether teachers finally get a raise or that RIF’d teachers get rehired. More likely, it’s the economy.

Fletcher has taken his share of hits for his inability to win raises. But in tight economic times, it’s not only teachers who don’t get raises. Lots of Americans don’t get raises. And lots of Americans lose their jobs. Until the country places a higher value on supporting quality teachers and their essential role in sustaining a strong democracy and economy, that’s not going to change.

Caputo-Pearl has campaigned on the need for more aggressive leadership. He talks about the possibility of a strike to force the issues. Fletcher did too, as first-round voting approached.

But California’s rebounding economy may have more to do with potential financial gains for LA Unified teachers than job actions, and now that the district has more money coming in, it would appear that raises are in the works. At least, there’s a line item in the new budget to accommodate them.

Teacher jails? Everybody hates teacher jails, especially the teachers in them. At some time or another, all 10 first-round candidates for union president talked about teacher jails, calling for their elimination, or at least a more a timely and efficient system of due process.

So that’s kind of a wash.

Can Caputo-Pearl’s promise of a more activist union make a difference for rank-and-file teachers in the years ahead? Maybe. A robust economy could make his job a lot easier.

But the larger question is, do UTLA members, who rarely vote in big numbers, really care who’s in charge, an economic upturn, notwithstanding? Was absence from the polls a clear vote of no-confidence in the union?

On his Facebook page, Caputo-Pearl tells his friends, “The work we have both been a part of over the last 5 years of creating a national educator network connecting organizing-focused, aggressive unionists together across Chicago, LA, Milwaukee, Seattle, and many other places is very inspiring. We can make this a national movement.”

It’s a muscular message. But it might have more authority if larger numbers of teachers across Los Angeles were a bigger part of it. So far, it’s not clear they want to be.

Read Next