With no deal reached over the weekend, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is facing its first strike in 30 years. United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) has been in contract negotiations with LAUSD for nearly two years, and their most recent talks have stalled with both parties far apart from an agreement. UTLA members are fighting for better wages and benefits, smaller class sizes, the hiring of nurses, counselors and librarians, reductions in standardized testing, and accountability measures for charter schools. Meanwhile, LAUSD has made it clear that if teachers are unwilling to compromise, massive layoffs, cuts, and bankruptcy are inevitable.
LAUSD, who was recently given an ominous warning from the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE), contends that the district would be facing bankruptcy if they gave in to the unions demands without major cutbacks or concessions. This message was reiterated after LAUSD and UTLA agreed on 6% salary increases for teachers. Even with this agreement on salary, the two parties are remain far apart on staffing issues.
Embattled LAUSD Superintendent Austin Buetner believes parties will not move closer to an agreement without intervention. He called on Governor Gavin Newsome to step in and help move talks along, saying “We need his help to resolve this… We would like the governor to step in, bring the parties together, keep us in a room, lock the door and throw away the key if he has to, so we can reach a resolution.” Much of the bad blood between the district and the union centers around Beutner himself. Buetner, a former investment banker and former Los Angeles deputy mayor, took the job last year without any experience in education and has seen opposition from UTLA leadership since.
In the meantime, UTLA leadership and its members have adopted the “Red4Ed” movement that began last year in West Virginia, as teachers there walked off the job until the state agreed to their salary increase demands. The “Red4Ed” movement later spread to Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, Arizona, and Washington. Thousands of teachers marched to Los Angeles City Hall and LAUSD Headquarters Monday morning while others joined picket lines in front of schools all across Los Angeles joined by labor, parents, students, and elected leaders.
Union President Alex Caputo-Pearl calls Superintendent Buetner, a “corporate downsizer not used to dealing with the public.” “We are at an impasse, and if the district has a proposal for us that is demonstrably better than last week they can send that to us, and we will consider it,” said Caputo-Pearl.
Both sides say students are the center of their fight. But this situation could do more harm to students than good. With UTLA teachers on strike, student safety is secondary and so too are the needs of parents, many of whom cannot afford childcare. The strike also harms local economies.
Teachers, specifically UTLA members, have every right to fight and demand better working conditions, smaller class sizes, salary increases, and support staff: but at what cost? What happens when teachers bargain for more than a district can pay while remaining fiscally solvent? One can argue that this fight is more about egos than what is best for students. The side that gives in or concedes too much gives up power and leverage to the other. Neither side wants to be the one to do so.
With that said, a resolution may not be near. But, one thing remains to be seen, either side being more committed to reaching an agreement than proving a point. If UTLA and LAUSD were truly committed, they’d be locked in a room right now for as long as it takes until they reach an agreement: parties that are committed to reaching an agreement and averting a strike stay at the bargaining table until an agreement is reached. Instead, their bargaining sessions go no longer than the normal workday, making time for press conferences and statements.
There is something both sides should agree upon, and that’s the need to take this fight, this strike, this march to Sacramento and demanding the state give relief to its local school districts that allow them to pay better wages and hire more support staff. UTLA and LAUSD should be storming the halls of the state capital and the governor’s office, together. For now, the outlook on this labor dispute matches this week’s weather in Los Angeles, gloomy.