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Starting Today, L.A. Teachers Will Vote On Authorizing Their First Strike In A Generation

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he nation’s second largest school district is voting to strike, according to sources within United Teachers Los Angeles. The teachers union represents nearly 35,000 teachers serving more than 667,000 students in Los Angeles Unified School District.

L.A. Taco has learned that teachers have been instructed to be “strike ready” by early October. The vote begins Thursday and is expected to pass, according to multiple teachers and leaders. “I think this shit is going to happen and I think it’s going to get ugly,” a member of the teachers union, who asked not be identified, told L.A. Taco. 

In a recorded voice message, obtained by L.A. Taco, UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl told his union members that they need a “huge turn out and a huge ‘yes’ vote.” Caputo-Pearl says in the message that L.A. schools superintendent Austin Beutner is ignoring obligations to enter mediation with the union.

“He has refused to meet with us an earlier than Sept. 27,” Caputo-Pearl says on the robo-call to union members. 

The union’s secretary and bargaining chief, Arlene Inouye, urged members to vote "yes" in a video message on UTLA’s Facebook page. The vote still needs to be approved by the members who will begin voting via private ballot starting Thursday for three consecutive days at individual school sites across the city. The ballots will be counted Aug. 30.

If approved, the strike authorization vote would not necessarily mean teachers will walk out of classrooms. But union leaders would have a powerful card to play in ongoing negotiations with the district under Beutner, the former banker and executive tapped to lead the troubled district in May.

If passed, the strike authorization will be the first in the district in nearly 30 years, and represent the nation’s latest battleground over teacher salaries, classroom sizes, and the role of charter schools in public education.

[dropcap size=big]M[/dropcap]embers of the teachers union told L.A. Taco that the feeling among the union ranks is that the school board has abandoned them and is slowly pushing toward an all-charter school district.

“I  think they are going to do anything in their power to crush us,” one union member said Wednesday after attending a meeting with more than 100 other teachers preparing for Thursday’s vote.

The strike could have national implications as school board’s across the country face rising pension payouts and dwindling budgets. “They know everyone is watching,” one L.A. teacher said. “I feel like they are going to just put a stake in the ground and turn the strike back here, then all of public education goes away.”

Today’s vote appeared as a forgone conclusion. The teachers union and the board had been negotiating on a new contract for months without progress. Talks came to a head in July when the union declared an impasse, inviting state mediation.

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UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl (left) and L.A. schools superintendent Austin Beutner (right).
UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl (left) and L.A. schools superintendent Austin Beutner (right).

California’s Public Employee Relations Board ruled on Aug. 3 that UTLA and LAUSD are at an impasse in negotiations over teacher contracts. That ruling, a legal pre-request to a possible union strike, was followed up with an attempt by the two sides to avoid a strike by the 35,000 L.A. teachers.

‘If we spend $1.5 billion, we run out. That’s math.’

On the morning of Aug. 15, L.A. schools superintendent Beutner and Caputo-Pearl met face-to-face and behind closed doors, but failed to resolve the many differences preventing a new contract for the city’s teachers.

They met on the morning on Aug. 15 at a Denny’s restaurant. But what happened in that meeting depends on who you ask. Beutner said they found “common ground” on many issues. He reiterated the school board’s proposal for a 2-percent salary hike every year for the next three years. Caputo-Pearl, in an Aug. 15 letter posted on the union’s website, described the board as “disrespectful” to teachers, and that specific offer as “particularly galling” to “frontline educators.”

[dropcap size=big]L[/dropcap]AUSD did not return a request for comment Wednesday. Earlier this month, Beutner told Speak UP, “We are forecasted to lose about a half-a-billion dollars this year and roughly the same next year and the next. So cumulatively, we will spend about $1.5 billion more than we take in. We have about $1.2 billion in the bank. So, if we spend $1.5 billion, we run out. That’s math.”

But the union argues that the LAUSD is sitting on the money that could be allocated for raises and to hire more teachers. The district is currently sitting on $1.7 billion in reserves. It is legally required to keep a 1-percent reserve but is holding 24 percent.

Another teacher in the union, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation, told L.A. Taco that the pro-charter superintendent, has been counting on this outcome. “He thinks it’s going to fall apart eventually anyway. What's the difference to him if it falls apart three years early,” the teacher, who was reluctant to strike, said Wednesday.

“I’m like a lot of people here. We don’t want to strike but we are going to have to,” the teacher said.

Beutner is in his first few months as superintendent. The former investment banker previously held positions as publisher at the Los Angeles Times, where he was fired after a year, and as deputy mayor under Antonio Villaraigosa. He had no prior background leading a school or school district when he was appointed this past May in 5-2 school board vote, led by charter school advocates on the board.

There are 226 independent charters and 50 affiliated charters operating in LAUSD. Independent charters have their own school boards and some operate on private property. Others share space with public schools. Affiliated charters all operate on LAUSD campuses. Some of these charter schools are unionized but most are expected to keep operating during the strike.

UTLA had to force the district to declare an impasse in the negotiation, a person familiar with the negotiations told L.A Taco. “We want what parents want, smaller classrooms. And we want a 6-percent raise. They want a 2-percent raise and no limits on classroom sizes.”

One veteran teacher told L.A. Taco that in 1989, the last time the district struck, substitutes were given $500 each per day to cross the picket line and “babysit the students with movies all day.”

“I hear they are going to pay $600 this time, kind of like combat pay,” the teacher said. “They don’t care. They just want us all gone.” That strike had a 90 percent participation and lasted nine days. In 1970, half of the district's teachers reported for a five-week strike that ended with the teachers having to settle for most of the district’s original proposals.

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