Stepping up the fight: Los Angeles’ teachers union in the aftermath of its major election defeat
Sarah Favot and Mike Szymanski | May 24, 2017
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The teachers union in Los Angeles — one of the largest local teachers unions in the nation — suffered a huge loss in last week’s school board election, but observers say it will only cause union leadership to fight harder.
Ultimately, that could mean United Teachers Los Angeles will bolster efforts to unionize charter school teachers and might move to strike as it fights for a new contract.
“Normally a setback of this magnitude would result in retrenching, or at least re-evaluation,” said union watcher and writer Mike Antonucci. “It may instead lead to redoubling. Now that they have lost, they will use the defeat as evidence of the danger posed by their opponents, and so the fight must continue, and in fact, escalate.”
Antonucci, who writes a weekly column for The 74, LA School Report’s parent site, predicted there is little chance of a quick settlement of its union contract negotiations, which have already begun, and that a strike is “very likely.”
“I don’t think it causes the union to pull back. Sometimes when you’re kind of in a corner, you get tougher,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA.
UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl signaled that the union will double down and move toward a possible strike.
“We have just begun to fight,” Caputo-Pearl said in a statement on UTLA’s website after the election. “We are doubling down on working with the movement of parents, youth, community, educators, and unions that formed around Steve Zimmer and Imelda Padilla. Together we will fight to invest in our neighborhood schools and put common-sense regulations on charter schools that protect students, families, and taxpayers.”
Caputo-Pearl told KPCC it’s too early to tell whether the election losses increase the chances of a strike but said, “We are organizing toward strike readiness.” He added, “We are going to hold the line” in contract talks.
UTLA spent at least $2.3 million in its effort to re-elect board President Steve Zimmer and to oppose Nick Melvoin in board District 4, and $1.7 million backing Imelda Padilla and opposing Kelly Gonez in District 6. Both their candidates lost. UTLA was outspent by charter school supporters, who spent $9.5 million, according to campaign finance filings, although the teachers union spent an unknown amount of money on a public relations campaign supporting Zimmer and Padilla that is under investigation by the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
“Normally money is not the answer to everything in politics,” Sonenshein said. But with the amount of money spent in this race, a record, and the negative attacks on Zimmer, “they got basically overwhelmed,” he said of the union.
The election was seen as pivotal for unions as 11 contracts expire on June 30, including the teachers union contract. During negotiations two years ago, the school board with a union-friendly majority approved a 10 percent pay increase, more than the union asked for. The typical elementary school teacher earns $75,160, while middle and high school teachers collected slightly less at $75,020. Teachers and their dependents receive free lifetime healthcare benefits and pay no premiums.
Higher salaries and strong benefits packages were pillars of Caputo-Pearl’s own reelection platform when he won his second three-year term in February with 82 percent of the union membership’s vote. Smaller class sizes and a continuation of the battle against the growth of public independent charter schools were also platform issues.
The new majority on the school board, most of whom were targets of UTLA attack ads, will likely take a harder look at union benefits, especially with the district’s $13.6 billion unfunded liability for retiree health care benefits, something that came up frequently during the campaign. Other issues that will face the new board include declining enrollment, which has persisted even as budget deficits could reach $1.6 billion and the district added administrative staff instead of downsizing.
Melvoin during the campaign called the district’s unfunded liability for health care benefits a crisis and proposed that newly hired teachers receive more pay upfront and less generous retirement benefits. But Caputo-Pearl told KPCC, “We’ll fight vigorously against anything like that. To cut health benefits and to threaten pensions is completely counterintuitive when you’re trying to recruit and retain educators.”
UTLA’s membership has dwindled as teaching positions in LA Unified were eliminated in recent years and as teachers have left the district for charter schools. Union membership has reportedly fallen from 45,000 members in 2008 to about 32,000 last year.
But their coffers remain high, boosted by a dues increase last year.
“The unions will always have assets at their disposal that we can’t discount,” said Carlos Marquez, senior vice president for government affairs for the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, adding that the teachers union will remain a mainstay of Democratic politics in California.
“I have no doubt that the UTLA president is committed and will be back and will fight just as hard in the next round of elections,” said Dan Weisberg, CEO of TNTP, an education nonprofit that helps school systems end educational inequality.
NEW PUSH TO UNIONIZE CHARTERS?
Sonenshein of Cal State LA predicted that one way the teachers union will fight back is to enhance its efforts to unionize teachers at charter schools. Teachers at charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately run, generally are not UTLA members.
“I do think it will probably alter or expand some of the tactics of UTLA and that is to try to unionize the charter schools. That would really be a game changer,” Sonenshein said.
In the last two years, UTLA has focused most of its unionizing efforts at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, the city’s largest network of charter schools.
Catherine Suitor, chief development and communications officer for Alliance, said UTLA’s aggressive campaign to unionize Alliance teachers has lasted about two years. She said there has been an uptick in the efforts on campuses in the past three or four months. UTLA needs approval from more than half of Alliance teachers to join the union.
“I don’t know what else could be said to our teachers after two-plus years,” Suitor said. “I think people have made up their mind one way or the other.”
Craig Winchell, a history teacher at Alliance Patti & Peter Neuwirth Leadership Academy in South LA, said a UTLA representative visits his campus about once every four or five weeks, less often than happens on other Alliance campuses. He said he believes the lower frequency at his school is because the majority of teachers there are against joining UTLA.
Winchell is one of those teachers. He clarifies that he is not anti-union or anti-UTLA, but he points out that during the election, the union supported candidates who he saw as anti-charter and spent their money and resources to fight charter schools.
“They don’t fight for charter schools, so why would I want them to represent me?” he said.
“We’re happy,” he said of the teachers at his school. “We have really big things to do that involve changing kids’ future and families and communities,” he said. “To me, a union, especially a union like UTLA, doesn’t really play a role in that.”
TEACHERS FEARFUL AND TALK OF STRIKE
LA Unified teachers who supported Zimmer say they are worried because their union was in a bitter fight with the two candidates who are now new school board members.
Teachers at one San Fernando Valley school said to expect “upcoming strikes thanks to the elections.” They expressed fears that the negative campaigns by UTLA against Melvoin and Gonez may cause some retribution to them, especially in this sensitive time of labor negotiations.
Zeena Pliska, a kindergarten teacher at Walgrove Elementary School, used to be on the board of a charter school.
“I am concerned about a school board without Steve Zimmer,” she said. “He supports teachers.”
Stacey Michaels, a teacher at 232nd Place Elementary School in Carson, was a charter school parent who switched her son to an LA Unified magnet school.
“Not all charter schools are better,” she said, and outside groups sometimes “just end up forcing public schools to cut resources and leave us with empty schools. Without Steve Zimmer, the teachers will suffer. We had someone who moved us forward, helped us with services that we needed to teach.”
Board member Ref Rodriguez said the same fears came up when he was elected two years ago and he was targeted by UTLA.
“That’s because the race was simplified to being a pro-charter, pro-traditional school dichotomy,” Rodriguez said. “It is a simplistic few to view the folks coming onto the board as anti-labor or anti-teacher. We are not against regulations for charter schools and want good practices for authorizing charters.”
Board member Mónica Ratliff also acknowledged those fears and said Rodriguez showed that he was “measured and reasonable.”
“I have heard the concerns from teachers over Facebook and Twitter due to the outcome of the election,” said Ratliff, who will vacate her District 6 seat in June. “A lot of those concerns may be the power of those negative campaign flyers more than anything. I don’t think teachers have anything to worry about, I feel confident that Kelly (Gonez, a teacher) will have their backs.
“The teachers should understand that it’s important to take people at their word, and the new board members will be held accountable for representing their districts.”
“We are changing, people are changing,” said Mónica García, who with Rodriquez, Melvoin, and Gonez will make up the new pro-reform board majority. “No one is against teachers. How can we be against teachers? But people want more. The community is holding us accountable on the board for what is going on in the classroom.”
At his election night party, Zimmer acknowledged teachers’ concerns. “I know that teachers are worried, teachers are concerned, but they have a great ally in (Superintendent) Michelle King and she will be there to look out for them.”
UNION HAS COME BACK BEFORE
UTLA has recovered from losses before, taking back a majority on the school board from reformers six years ago. At that time its membership was more robust.
“It’s obviously a major, major setback for the unions,” Cal State LA’s Sonenshein said. “This could be kind of a tipping point in this ongoing battle between the charter school movement and the teachers union.”
The union misread voters’ priorities in the election, CCSA’s Marquez said. Those priorities included the need for the district to do a better job of raising student achievement, especially for students with the highest needs.
Marquez said UTLA’s strategy to align Melvoin with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump failed.
“That’s all they used. If they made the issue about experience rather than DeVos, Zimmer would have had an easier road. Melvoin is very liberal, it doesn’t stick. You’ve insulted the intelligence of voters,” said Marquez, whose organization spent heavily to support Melvoin and Gonez.
“Nice try on Trump and DeVos, but there are still kids not getting an education,” he said. “They assumed that the shorthand is, all voters care about is Trump and DeVos.” Next time, “UTLA is going to have to dig deeper.”
Ben Austin, founder of Parent Revolution and an LA Unified parent who worked for an independent expenditure committee supporting Melvoin, said, “As much as UTLA would have liked this campaign to be about district schools vs. charter schools, that’s not what this campaign was about for the parents who organized at my neighborhood LAUSD elementary school.
“The reason we won is because this campaign represented a paradigm shift that rejected the false choices rooted in stale 20th-century ideology. This wasn’t about district schools vs. charter schools, teachers unions vs. education reformers, or even Democrats vs. Republicans. It was about electing leaders who will authentically stand with the interests of our children against the special interests tied to the downtown bureaucracy.”
Read LA School Report’s full series of coverage at LAUSD Race 2017.
* This article has been updated to add that Mike Antonucci writes a weekly column for The 74, LA School Report’s parent site.