Commentary: Instead of striking, our energy is better used in finding consensus and building support for our public education
Roberta Benjamin Edwards | December 12, 2018
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In the spring of 1970, I voted with other teachers to strike for teachers’ rights. At the time, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) was a newly formed organization. I was in my second year as a teacher and I believed wholeheartedly that being on strike was the right thing to do.
I would later come to realize that a strike was not the way to bring about lasting, positive changes.
Like many others, I lost five and a half weeks of pay in 1970 and had to make up time to assure my full years of retirement when I retired in 2005. In the end, UTLA settled for the 5 percent salary increase the Los Angeles Unified had originally offered.
The most lasting impact of the strike was the rifts that occurred between teachers who struck and those who continued to go to school to teach their students. At many schools, relationships were damaged and name calling and bullying was far too common. Healing took time. Most importantly, students suffered for the loss of instructional time in the classroom.
Almost 20 years later in 1989, I experienced a teacher strike as a principal. Recalling some of the problems that the 1970 strike had left in its wake, I vowed to make the best out of the situation for everyone. I respected the fact that teachers were engaged in a legal work stoppage and tried to ensure that the action was not personalized by one group to another. I understood that some teachers felt compelled to strike and others did not. I organized the school to run as safely as possible. As a leader, my priority was to prevent the strike from causing a breakup of a strong teacher educational team and ensure students would get a quality education after the strike was over. Fortunately, I was successful. But the loss of instructional time for students who needed it most was sacrificed.
In my 38 years at Los Angeles Unified, I have experienced two major teacher strikes in two different roles: (1) as a teacher on the picket lines in 1970 and (2) as a principal in South Los Angeles in 1989. Having been on both sides, I am sad to see that there is the possibility of a third strike in early 2019.
For many years, Los Angeles Unified was growing and expanding. Now, however, student enrollment is declining and the school district is headed toward bankruptcy. In this challenging environment, it is more important than ever that all stakeholders work together to improve Los Angeles schools. Los Angeles Unified and UTLA once worked together in the best interest of students and teachers. Now it is time to stay at the negotiating table to do everything possible to avoid a strike.
This possibility of a strike shifts the attention away from building and developing a positive classroom-centered culture, moving it instead to constant fighting and mediation on individual issues. No one wants teachers to lose pay or retirement time. We don’t want our administrators to be forced to continuously modify the educational program at their sites and to spend their time ensuring that key relationships remain intact.
I understand what it feels like to believe a strike is the only option, and to think that it will end in a result that betters the lives of students. And I know that’s why we’re here: the students. But what I saw after the 1970 strike and the 1989 strike when I was a principal is that no one wins a strike. And the kids who suffer most can least afford a strike.
As UTLA continues to march relentlessly toward a strike, I know the issues are real. I’ve lived them. But the only path to solve them is to collaborate. A strike will not solve anything. UTLA should allow its members to vote again on such an important decision as they did in 1989. And they should make sure its members have all the facts of what LA Unified is offering.
My hope is that we would learn the lessons of the past and use our energy in finding consensus, building support for our public education and working with the state to fund it.
Dr. Roberta Benjamin Edwards is a former teacher and retired administrator from Los Angeles Unified and a professor of school leadership at California State University Dominguez Hills. Additionally, she was the former superintendent of Aspire Public Schools of Los Angeles for six years.