Through their historic strike, Los Angeles teachers have taught working people across the country how to fight back and win.
By Eric Blanc
Elementary-school teachers at a rally in downtown Los Angeles, January 18, 2019. (AP Photo / Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles teachers took on the billionaires and won. After months of systematic organizing and over a week of striking, educators on Tuesday voted by an overwhelming majority to support a tentative agreement that codified major wins for LA public schools. These include smaller class sizes, a nurse in every school, more counselors and librarians, steps against charter schools, and a slew of “common good” demands regarding social justice-issues like immigrant rights, racial profiling, and green spaces at schools.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of this victory in the country’s second-largest school district. Against considerable odds, Los Angeles teachers have dealt a major blow against the forces of privatization in the city and nationwide. By taking on Democratic politicians in a deep-blue state, LA’s strike will certainly deepen the polarization within the Democratic Party over education reform and austerity. And by demonstrating the power of striking, LA educators have inspired educators nationwide to follow suit.
With new walkouts now looming in Denver, Oakland, Virginia, and beyond, it makes sense to reflect on the reasons why LA’s school workers came out on top—and what their struggle can teach people across the United States. Here are the five main takeaways.
Strikes Work: For decades, workers and the labor movement have been on the losing side of a one-sided class war. A major reason for this is that unions have largely abandoned the weapon of work stoppages, their most powerful point of leverage against employers. Rallies, marches, and civil disobedience are good, but they’re not enough.
Like the red state rebellions of 2018, the depth of the victory in Los Angeles underscores why the future of organized labor depends on reviving the strike. LA also shows that the most powerful strikes, particularly in the public sector, fight not only for the demands of union members, but on behalf of the broader community as well—an approach the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) calls “bargaining for the common good.”
The Status Quo Is Discredited: LA’s educator revolt is a particularly sharp expression of a nationwide rejection of decades of neoliberalism. Unlike many labor actions, this was not primarily a fight around wages—rather it was a political struggle against the billionaires and their proxies in government.
Like the electoral insurgencies of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, the upsurge of Los Angeles rank-and-file teachers, and the overwhelming support they received from the parents of their students, shows that working people are looking for an alternative to business as usual. Work actions like LA’s will be an essential part of any movement capable of defeating Trump and the far right.
Don’t Rely on the Democrats: Liberal pundits and politicians framed the 2018 teacher walkouts as a “red-state revolt,” as if the crisis of public education was limited to Republican-dominated states like West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma. But the Los Angeles movement has made it clear that Democratic politicians have imposed the same policies of privatization and austerity.
Rather than sticking with the labor movement’s self-defeating reliance on backroom deals with mainstream Democrats, UTLA did not hesitate to confront LA’s Democratic Party establishment. One of the union’s crucial tactical moves was to continually reject Democratic Mayor Eric Garcetti’s multiple offers to mediate an agreement—only after radically changing the relationship of forces through a powerful strike did UTLA accept mediation. Unions across the country should take note.
The Tide Is Turning on Charters: Convinced that LA public schools were faced with an existential threat from investment banker turned superintendent Austin Beutner, teachers made privatization a central theme of their strike. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Los Angeles walkout was that almost every teacher or parent on the picket lines could provide you with a clear analysis of the deep-pocketed backers of charter schools—and what it will take to defeat them. UTLA’s chief negotiator Arlene Inouye explains that “through this movement and this strike we’ve shown the power and beauty of public education—and why it needs to be preserved. We made that the new narrative.”
All of the gains won on Tuesday were in essence anti-privatization, since the push for charters is predicated on the continued deterioration of public schools. But strikers also wrested more specific concessions, including an agreement to expand Los Angeles community schools, which the union has promoted as an alternative to privatization. And aiming to seize the moment in California, UTLA is now pushing for a statewide cap on charter schools.
Whether governor Gavin Newsom—and the Democratic Party establishment generally—can be pressured to lend their support to these efforts remains to be seen. But at least one thing is clear: The spread of teachers’ strikes in the coming months will exacerbate the deepening internal battle between the Democrats’ corporate funders and their pro-labor representatives.
It’s Time to Tax the Rich: Faced with UTLA’s demands for better schools, superintendent Beutner has consistently pleaded poverty and attempted to deflect attention to Sacramento. Though the weeklong strike was sufficient to force the district to cough up significant additional funds, it’s true that California continues to woefully underinvest in its students.
To remedy this state of affairs, the union has partnered with a broad community coalition to place an initiative on the 2020 ballot to close the commercial-property tax loophole that has bled state coffers ever since Prop 13 was passed in 1978. With over $11 billion in potential revenue generation, the stakes of this initiative are exceedingly high for educators and corporations alike.
Teachers in California and across the country have their work cut out for them. To help rebuild a militant labor movement, tax the rich, cap charters, and remake public education will require taking on some of the most powerful individuals and corporations in the United States. But victorious actions like the Los Angeles strike are infectious—and there’s no end in sight to the teachers’ revolt. To quote Arlene Inouye, “people have seen that we have real power, that we can win. Now’s our day.”
Eric Blanc Formerly a high-school teacher in the Bay Area, Eric Blanc writes on labor movements past and present. He is the author of Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics (Verso Books, 2019).