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Video: Who Is L.A. Teachers Union’s Chief Negotiator? ~ Meet Arlene Inouye

9:31 AM PST on January 9, 2019

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]t could be make or break today. Despite little progress after more than 20 months of back and forth, UTLA, the union representing 34,000 Los Angeles teachers, and Austin Beutner, superintendent of the second largest school district in the country, are back at the negotiating table in yet another last ditch effort to avert a strike.

The woman at the front of these tough talks is a third-generation Japanese American with deep roots in Los Angeles. Her grandparents emigrated from Japan to Boyle Heights. They were incarcerated along with her mother in an internment camp during World War II.

Arlene Inouye is secretary of United Teachers Los Angeles and co-chair of the union’s contract bargaining team. Inouye has 18 years of experience as a Spanish bilingual speech and language specialist. L.A. Taco sat down with her the day before she goes back to the bargaining table with the district.

We saw many teacher strikes across the country in 2018. Where does this strike fit in the national context?

California law makes it very difficult to go on strike, which is probably why it’s not done very often. For us to be at this point is quite remarkable. We have come to a place – it started in West Virginia and other places –where they said enough is enough.

As educators we are so used to just giving and doing what we need to do to help our students. We pay over a $1,000 for school supplies. We spend time over the weekends correcting papers. Educators are rising up and saying we want to preserve public schools and we want to be treated with respect.

What is your assessment of the people across the negotiating table?

Well, our superintendent is a Wall Street banker. He’s coming up with a plan that’s a portfolio district, a business model that’s been done in other cities such as New Orleans, New Jersey, Chicago. We see through what he wants to do. This is like a “broke on purpose.” He says there’s no money so we have to do this. He already has a plan to re-imagine LAUSD and these 32 clusters.

Why did you choose to do union work?

I am actually the first one in my family that’s active in a union. I was active developing peace clubs for kids, helping with Asian refugees back in the 1990s.

I came to the union, because I was doing organizing for a group then called, Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools, a group I founded. I asked them to be a partner and they said, yes.

A painting displayed in Inouye's office depicts the internment camp Manzanar, painted by her grandfather while incarcerated there. (Photo by Daniel Hernandez)

How much of the $1.8 billion do you want the district to spend?

We haven’t given an exact number for what we are asking them to spend.

[$105 million] sounds good on paper, but what that’s about is a one-year agreement to increase staff, about 900 positions. We don’t even know if those are new hires or if they will just shift people around. So, instead of one day a week, you would have a nurse two days a week at elementary schools.

We believe a nurse is very basic to the health and learning of students. It’s outrageous that in a city where we have high poverty.

What was the real kicker in the negotiations yesterday was that they actually put forward higher class size numbers and more reasons for why they can eliminate a cap. We call it 1.5 on steroids. 1.5 is the article in the UTLA contract that allows them to ignore class size caps and averages.

How many charter schools is too many?

We are on the record to ask for a cap on charter schools. We are saying stop right now. We don’t want charter schools to just be allowed to open up anywhere and without any accountability. If a charter school wants to open up let’s look at the reasons why they want to open up.

We have charter schools opening up very close to public schools, and they’re not needed. We have 200 more schools today when we have fewer students. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense that this is going on.

We have 1,000 UTLA charter school educators. They are joining us in our call for a cap on charter schools. They are also losing students.

If there is a strike and you win everything, what does winning look like?

We want to have gains for different groups within UTLA. For example, there has to be something on class size. It means a lot to parents, as well as educators. We want a salary increase, but we also need staffing support.

We have asked for a nurse every day at the schools. There is room to compromise on what they can actually pay for. Plus, there is a shortage of nurses.

Is it a deal breaker if they don’t offer the same healthcare for new hires?

We have to talk about that. Again, we are going to be looking at things as a package, and what is the total package. We know that’s the first way they start to unravel healthcare coverage and healthcare is a priority for our members. If they give us something that’s acceptable then we would have to look at that very seriously and weigh it.

Privatization is a big issue, but isn’t that a non-contract negotiating issue?

We do have the charter school cap which is what we have raised but it’s outside the scope of bargaining. There is something that we’ve asked for which is within the scope of our bargaining, which is charter school co-location. It definitely affects working conditions and the learning conditions at the school site.

We asked for a process so there is the election of a co-location representative and time notification, parent meetings and other things we feel would make it a more democratic process. That’s in our contract. That’s what we want a response on as well.

If there is a strike, do you think the district will give in?

UTLA has never been so strong. UTLA has never been so united. All of us are tremendously inspired and encouraged by the support we are receiving every day.

What happens in L.A. affects the nation. We are the ones that can set a national referendum on public school. The contract campaign started 20 months ago, but that’s just an extension of the Schools Our Students Deserve, which was the agenda we put out. We put parts of that agenda where we could into the contract campaign. There is a surge of union activity and of educators across the country. We expect to win. I cannot say how long it will be, but we do anticipate winning.

UTLA is planning a protest on the first day of the strike, what other actions do you have planned?

That’s the plan if we strike on Thursday. If we are not able to start the strike until Monday then that first day we are going to [LAUSD headquarters].

What role can Mayor Eric Garcetti play in the contract dispute between your union and the school district?

Well, you know we already passed the mediation stage. We had a professional mediator. For us to come to an agreement we need to have proposals on the table that meet the needs of our students. The needs we went over: class size, staffing, and so forth.

It doesn’t matter if it’s the mayor or the governor or whoever. If the district isn’t willing to invest in the public school system here, then it’s not going to matter who else is at the table.

What are expectations for your meeting with the district tomorrow?

We are hoping for a good proposal. That is how we always start the meeting, but I can tell you after 20 months of negotiations I have been disappointed every single session, because we have not heard a proposal that addresses our demands.

RELATED: ‘Tacos For Teachers’ Seeks to Feed Teachers If They Hit the Picket Lines

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