After a little more than a week of striking, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) captured the public’s imagination, helped transform the national narrative about education, won a solid new contract, and positioned themselves well for the battles to come. For those of us in education this was an inspiring moment that showed the potential for smart organizing and activism to change the game in important ways.
As I have observed elsewhere, UTLA was taking a lead from both the social movements of the sixties and other, more recent examples of militant protests and strikes by fellow educators elsewhere in the United States from Chicago to West Virginia.
The LA strike was a light in the greater darkness of the present American social and political landscape, and it offers some important lessons not just for teachers but for all unionists, Democratic politicians, and progressive activists moving forward.
What did we learn?
Social Justice Unionism Gets the Goods: By making real, solid community alliances and incorporating them into their demands, UTLA won over 80% approval by the public. Thus, despite decades of anti-union “teachers vs the children” promoted by corporate education reformers and frequently parroted by the media, the teachers’ efforts to reach out to parents, community groups, and other allies paid off big time with an incredible display of solidarity coming for all quarters in Los Angeles and the country at large. That doesn’t happen by accident; it takes long, hard, smart organizing and commitment to a broader vision of social justice than simple bread and butter unionism allows.
As a recent Nation piece on the teachers’ organizing observes:
UTLA’s strategy has hinged upon making sure that their message is heard by parents, students, and community members across the district, and in turn taking the time to really listen to the parents about their concerns about the schools. What’s known in union circles as “bargaining for the common good”—the idea of introducing demands in collective bargaining that benefit the community as a whole, not just the union’s membership—has been a way not just to revitalize stagnant unions but to reinvigorate interest in the public sector as a whole. It also means that when teachers take to the streets, they have parents willing not just to join them, but to take risks of their own.
Hence it was not just pay but also things like class size, community schools, more counselors, and other key educational pieces that the teachers demanded. In that sense they walked the walk and showed that their interests were intertwined with the interests of the students and the communities they serve.
Corporate New Democrats are on the Wrong Side of History: As opposed to the red state teachers’ strikes that recently shocked the country and illustrated the sad wages of the GOP’s austerity politics in places like Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Arizona, the Los Angeles strike took place in a city and a state dominated by Democrats. The school board was elected by largely Democratic billionaires’ dollars and the unregulated expansion of charter schools draining funds away from traditional public schools that the teachers were protesting has been supported by many Democratic politicians egged on by the bottomless wallets of plutocrats who want to pave the wave for privatization. They lost big in this struggle, not because the strike erased all the damage they have managed to do to public education, but because it effectively reframed the issues in a way that puts folks like those in the Charter Schools Association on their heels.
It turns out that, even after years and years of public school and union bashing, the public likes teachers better than billionaires. The strike also taught us that most parents don’t want to “disrupt” public education in order to radically reform it—they want to make traditional public schools work in concert with teachers and the community. People like Antonio Villaraigosa, Rahm Emanuel, and Arne Duncan and a host of other corporate Democrats with their unrelenting neoliberalism are on the wrong side of history, and it appears that an increasingly progressive Democratic base is not buying what they are selling. In sum, market fundamentalism dressed up in liberal clothing is a dead loser.
If the Democrats are smart, they’ll learn the right lesson from this year plus of inspiring teacher activism and forsake the temptation to sell out to the billionaire boys club. Their money won’t buy you love and, increasingly, it’s no guarantee that it will buy you elections.
As we live through the apocalyptic days of the anti-government wrecking crew from Betsy DeVos’s idiocy to Trump’s insane government shutdown, perhaps it’s time that Democrats listen to the base and robustly stand up for the public sector, public schools, and the basic idea that not all public good can be achieved through a business model.
Smart Progressive Taxation of the Rich and Corporate Interests is the Answer
One of the savviest things that UTLA did during the strike was use the moment to address the need for more stable long-term funding for education in California. Despite the myth that California throws huge amounts of money at our schools, the dismaying fact is that we rank 43rd in the country when it comes to per pupil spending. In a state with more wealth than many sovereign nations, this is a travesty.
Thus, the teachers argued, we need to keep fighting the long war to adequately fund public education for all by passing the Schools and Communities First ballot measure in 2020. This measure would finally address the resource hole that Proposition 13 drilled in state funding decades ago by reassessing the biggest commercial property owners at current rates. Simply closing this loophole would bring in up to $11 billion in funding for education and social services and address the issue that critics have raised about the instability of our current system which booms and busts with the fortunes of the richest taxpayers.
So with some smart organizing, solidarity-based politics, and the courage to do what it takes to fund the future, we might just be seeing how to turn the corner in America and get back to serving the common good.