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Historic, but incremental: Educators face two realities in LAUSD deal with UTLA

Will Callan | May 2, 2023

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Teachers and support staff at a rally in Downtown Los Angeles

Teachers and support staff rally at Grand Park in Downtown LA on March 15, ahead of SEIU Local 99’s three-day strike. (Will Callan)

The word “historic” has gotten a lot of play during labor negotiations in Los Angeles Unified this year.

The district has used it to describe its offers to the teachers and support staff unions. The unions themselves — Local 99 of Service Employees International Union and United Teachers Los Angeles — have used it to describe their level of solidarity, which culminated in a three-day strike in March that shut down all district schools and resulted in a 30% pay raise for Local 99 members.

On April 18, the district announced a tentative contract with UTLA that includes a 21% raise over two and a half years. In touting the deal, both parties used language that implies a sea change in what it means to be a teacher in Los Angeles.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said via press release that the deal would help make LAUSD “the district of choice for families” and “for teachers and employees.” In UTLA’s release, union president Cecily Myart-Cruz said the agreement gives LAUSD “an opportunity to become one of the most successful school districts in the country.”

But for the educators who will benefit, there’s a tension between immediate and long-term gains. They say the raises, while much-needed, won’t be life-changing in Los Angeles, where the cost of living is 51% higher than the national average. Whether the deal will make LAUSD attractive enough to job-seekers, and comfortable enough to stick around — those are open questions.

Labor experts say the recent LAUSD strike and what it accomplished are part of a broad movement of educators willing to take extreme measures in their fight for higher wages and more support. On Monday, the Oakland teachers union announced that it would go on strike May 4 if it does not reach an agreement with Oakland Unified before then.

LAUSD teachers see the bigger picture, but they’re also still asking for basic respect.

“Overall, education needs to be valued differently,” said Monserrat Hernandez, a teacher at Logan Early Education Center.

In addition the 21% raise, the tentative deal includes an eventual class-size reduction of two students and extra incentives for hard-to-staff positions — nurses would receive a $20,000 salary increase, and special education teachers an additional $2,500.

There’s also a $1,500 bump for early education teachers like Hernandez, who says that while she appreciates the gesture, as a mother of three, the extra incentive doesn’t amount to much.

Other teachers similarly see pay as just part of the equation.

“The raises across the board were not as important to me as the working conditions,” said Gabriel Serrano, a special education teacher at Emelita Street Elementary.

While the contract’s class-size reductions, with specific provisions for different types of special education classes, are “a great step in the right direction,” Serrano wants to wait “a year or two” to make sure those provisions are getting enforced before claiming victory.

As for the salary boost, he said it will help him pay off the debt he took on 10 years ago to get his special education credential, but won’t significantly alter his living conditions. “I see no sense in starting a family right now,” said Serrano, who’s 40. “I’m still check to check.”

Kiana Cotton, who’s taught at Lovelia P. Flournoy Elementary for almost 21 years, had a similar reaction. The money will help with weekly expenses, like providing her three kids with healthy food, but certain pressures of teaching in LAUSD might remain, even with the new contract.

For example, when her school doesn’t have enough substitute teachers, she has to make room for the overflow students, who often come from different grades.

“I feel like I’m just babysitting for the day, because I’m not teaching you, I’m not working with you, you’re not even working on the same lessons that I am,” she said. “So they just kind of sit on their devices all day.”

Under the new contract, however, substitutes who serve all semester at a site deemed a priority by the district would receive extra pay.

Both Cotton and Serrano say the new contract could attract more applicants to LAUSD, though there, their feelings are also moderated.

“I’m more hopeful than I was before,” said Serrano.

Board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin said the deal has the potential to make LAUSD more competitive in the eyes of candidates looking to teach in challenging urban districts like New York City or Washington, D.C.

“We’re trying to often recruit similar candidates, who have a mission or want to dedicate their career to communities like Los Angeles or similarly situated school districts,” she said.

Factoring in the full 21% pay bump, LAUSD salaries for teachers with regular credentials would range from about $69,000 to $121,000. At D.C. Public Schools, that range is $63,373 to $146,689, and in New York City, it’s $61,070 to $128,657.

L.A. Unified board president Jackie Goldberg hopes the better pay and slightly reduced class sizes will keep teachers in the same schools for longer.

“Having schools that have teachers that have been there 10, 15, 20 years makes a big difference in the outcome of the students that go to that school, because they know the families, they know the community,” she said.

Beyond Los Angeles, labor observers see the UTLA deal as part of a much broader and enduring movement.

Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, views the series of teachers strikes in 2018 and 2019 — in Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago, and elsewhere — as prelude to a movement that persisted through the pandemic and continues now.

“I have seen the change in the teachers themselves since the 2019 strike,” said Wong, referring to the six-day UTLA strike in that year. “There is more energy, there is more sense of purpose, and school by school, the teachers have really come together.”

It extends beyond K-12 school districts too: In December, 48,000 graduate student workers across University of California campuses staged the largest strike in the history of U.S. higher education, winning raises and support for other living expenses. USC graduate student workers voted to unionize in February, those at the University of Michigan have been striking for a month, and students across the country are organizing.

The ripple effect is also visible in tactics: The UC workers won their new contract after holding an unfair practice charge strike. Local 99 of LAUSD did too, and now, the Oakland Education Association, whose members authorized a strike on April 25, is threatening the same.

“All that shows that there is a certain pattern of change going on in the tactics that teachers unions use to build power,” said Joel Jordan, a former teacher in both L.A. and Oakland who worked for years as both a leader and consultant for UTLA.

During Local 99’s three-day strike in March, Caitlin James was watching from Oakland. James, in her 11th year as a special education teacher at Oakland’s Edna Brewer Middle School, voted last week in favor of a strike, which her union’s president said would happen May 4 if Oakland Unified doesn’t make a satisfactory offer before then.

“I was kind of impressed that they only had to go out for three days to get the raise that they were asking for,” she said of Local 99.

Reading over a summary of the UTLA agreement — and in particular the provisions for special education, which include specific class-size reductions — she imagined what a similar win would mean for her and her colleagues.

“I think sometimes people think that contracts are only about the wages, but it’s so much more than that for us,” she said.

“I mean, the money is nice, but the actual working conditions that I think lead to better learning conditions, that’s a lot of what galvanizes the membership.”

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