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Lots of strike talk expected as teachers union opens conference

Michael Janofsky | September 19, 2014

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Alex Caputo-Pearl strike talks UTLA

Alex Caputo-Pearl, President of UTLA

United Teachers Los Angeles opens its annual Leadership Conference today, and strike talk will be a prominent theme.

As part of the three-day gathering at the Concourse Hotel at LAX, local union leaders will hear from union chiefs from other cities who used the threat of a strike to get a new labor agreement. They’ll also hear from the last UTLA president to lead a strike.

Focus on such a disrupting possibility comes as negotiators for UTLA and LA Unified are meeting periodically over a new contract. But the sides remain far apart, making the possibility of a strike more real than ever.

The conference also comes as the union has intensified its animus toward district Superintendent John Deasy, whose support for the Vergara plaintiffs  — he was their first witness — and district missteps in the iPad and MiSiS programs have painted an ever growing target on his back. Deasy’s annual performance review by the school board is set for the Oct. 21 meeting, and an unsatisfactory review could end his tenure — if he doesn’t resign sooner.

While UTLA plays no role in the decision, apart from its fervid support for a handful of board members, it has called the for the board to hold Deasy “accountable” for his actions. Union officials have declined to explain what exactly that means.

Nonetheless, Deasy’s name will no doubt come up in President Alex Caputo-Pearl’s first State of the Union address, scheduled for tonight. Caputo-Pearl holds Deasy in particular low regard for the overhaul of Crenshaw High School last year, a move that cost Caputo-Pearl his teaching job there.

One district insider predicted the conference would become a “bash-Deasy fest.”

While striking is generally a last gasp ploy to raise the temperature in contract negotiations, and strikers seldom recoup wages lost while walking picket lines, Caputo-Pearl has threatened using a strike since he began running for UTLA president early this year.

Part of any successful strike is unity, and part of any unity is convincing members that the tactic can yield results deemed beneficial to union members. For that reason, UTLA has invited union leaders who have taken the leap to address the conference.

A panel discussion scheduled for tomorrow includes Mary Cathryn Ricker, who recently stepped down as president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers to become executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Gwen Sullivan, president of the Portland (Ore.) Teachers Association.

The St. Paul union negotiated over nine months for a new contract and planned a strike authorization vote in February, only to cancel it after the sides reached an agreement. Portland teachers negotiated for 10 months and settled two days before a strike was scheduled to begin in February.

Chicago teachers did strike, in 2012, walking out for seven days before accepting a 3 percent raise the first year and 2 percent raises the next two years in exchange for linking teacher evaluations in Chicago to student test scores and allowing the city to lay off teachers based on performance, rather than years of service.

Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union, had been scheduled to appear on the panel, but she notified UTLA she could not attend, Suzanne Spurgeon, the UTLA spokeswoman, said yesterday. A replacement was being sought.

In 1989, when UTLA teachers last walked out, Wayne Johnson was UTLA’s president, and his rallying cry against LA Unified bureaucrats was, “They lie. They lie. They lie,” a response to district assertions that it couldn’t afford more money for teachers. It’s a line that fits nicely with the current union’s assertion that LA Unified can afford more than the current offer — a 2 percent payment for last year and annual raises of 2 percent, 2 percent and 2.5 percent going forward.

Under Johnson, teachers vacated classrooms for nine days before winning a 24 percent pay increase over three years. He’s scheduled to speak tonight. He’ll probably get a standing ovation.

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