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In State of the Union, Caputo-Pearl hints at strike, targets Deasy

Craig Clough | September 22, 2014

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Alex Caputo-Pearl new president of Los Angeles Teachers Union

Alex Caputo-Pearl, President of UTLA

In his first State of the Union speech as the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) president, Alex Caputo-Pearl delivered a careful, balanced address at the union’s annual Leadership Conference on Friday night, leaving most of the fiery rhetoric to one of his predecessors, Wayne Johnson, who energetically recalled the 1989 strike, which he led.

While Caputo-Pearl was not shy about “unapologetically” attacking LA Unified Superintendent John Deasy, his barbs were mostly repeats of statements he and UTLA leaders have made the last few months, which reduced a lot of their shock value. Most of the weight of the speech rested on what was only indirectly referred to — the possibility of a strike if negotiations for a new contract prove unsuccessful.

Speaking after Johnson, Caputo-Pearl let the audience know it was no coincidence Johnson was chosen to address the crowd.

“As I said many times as part of the Schools LA Students Deserve campaign, we are bargaining in good faith for a contract that is good for students and educators, but we are also preparing ourselves for all possibilities,” he said. “And you know from Wayne’s talk exactly what we mean.”

The comment was as close as Caputo-Pearl got to forecasting a strike, but he also stressed that union leaders are focusing on getting organized and “gearing up for this fight.” He dropped hints of actions to come, with a reminder for union members to wear red shirts to campus on Sept. 30 as a sign of solidarity and to “[k]eep your eye out for, first, of a series of monthly escalating actions, starting in October at school sites.”

Another part of his speech was dedicated to now familiar attacks against Deasy, which the crowd ate up and applauded.

They included describing Deasy as an “autocrat” and criticizing the policies of teacher jail, the suspended iPad program, the troubled rollout of MiSiS and the district’s offer of a 2 percent raise for teachers in their new contract. The union is asking for a 17.6 percent raise, and recent negotiations have not brought the two sides together.

Caputo-Pearl also repeated the careful language from a recent UTLA-issued press release that called for the school board to hold Deasy “accountable” for his recent actions during his upcoming annual performance review although he stopped short of recommending what the evaluation should conclude. The review is scheduled for Oct. 21, and an unsatisfactory review could end Deasy’s tenure.

Thoughts of a strike came not only in Johnson and Caputo-Pearl’s speeches. Attendees were also shown a film about the history of the UTLA that heavily featured a section on the ’89 walkout. When Johnson talked about it, he lit up the room.

“When you go out on strike, you put tremendous pressure on yourself,” he told the crowd. “The loss of pay, the uncertainty of when you are going back. They will threaten to cut your medical benefits. Tremendous pressure. And if you don’t put as much pressure on the district when you walk as you do on yourself, you are in trouble. But you can do it. Forty-five thousand teachers united, all walking in the same direction, they can’t beat you, folks. I’m telling you.”

Johnson concluded with a repeat of a famous line of his from the ’89 strike.

“Organize, organize, organize, educate, educate, educate. And then when they look at you across the table and say we’d love to give you that raise, but we just don’t have the money, you can tell them, as I told the 10,000-member rally at the [Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena] on May 19, 1989, you are lying, you are lying, you are lying,” he said, the crowd roaring to its feet as he finished.

Teachers who spoke to LA School Report after Caputo-Pearl’s speech said they liked what they heard even if it wasn’t entirely new.

“A lot of this is something I hear frequently because I get regular updates, so none of this is news to me,” said Teresa Sanford, a teacher at Fleming Middle School in Lomita. But that didn’t mean she didn’t like hearing it again, she said, adding, “I’m excited and inspired. I’m looking forward to some positive change.”

Matthew Kogan, a teacher at Evans Adult School in Chinatown, said he liked all the points of the speech and felt the crowd fully supported Caputo-Pearl.

“I think Alex and the other officers are coming in with a clear and energetic game plan,” he said. “I think that’s what the members want to hear. They feel we have really been taking it on the chin under John Deasy. I think everyone in that room would agree he’s been particularly hostile toward teachers.”

Kogan said that strike talk is prevalent not just at the conference but in the halls of many schools.

“At my school I’m surprised at the amount of people who keep asking me, ‘When are we going on strike?’ The frustration level has soared,” Kogan said.

Not all teachers are as enthusiastic about a strike.

“I’m really hoping a strike is avoided,” Andrea Burke, a teacher at Dr. Owen Lloyd Knox Elementary School in south Los Angeles, told LA School Report at a Teach Plus event the day before Caputo-Pearl’s speech. “I look at my students every day and I would hate to leave them, even though I know that what we are fighting for is definitely issues that need to be resolved. But I would hate for it to come to such an extreme.”

Loretta Toggenburger taught at over a half dozen schools during a 45-year career with LA Unified before retiring in 1999. She said she was on the picket lines in ’89.

“It was the hardest nine days of teaching,” she recalled after the Friday night speeches. “I hope we don’t have one, but if we have to have it, we have to have it. There is nothing worse than a strike for the students, for the parents, the teachers. The animosity that it causes, it’s not good but it has to be done if it has to be done.”

Previous Posts: Lots of strike talk expected as teachers union opens conference; UTLA’s Caputo-Pearl: ‘Our goal is to win a good contract’; Teachers union changes tactics, urges board to ‘evaluate’ Deasy*

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