Why the reformers won in the UTLA

March 7, 2008

David Rapkin, recently elected to the board of directors of United Teachers Los Angeles, looks at the significance of the reform leadership's re-election

REFORMERS IN the United Action slate won virtually every position in the recent United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) election.

The sweep included victories for key incumbents, among them President A.J. Duffy, American Federation of Teachers/UTLA Vice President Josh Pechthalt, Elementary Vice President Julie Washington and Treasurer David Goldberg, as well as some first-term officers and Board of Directors members.

The UTLA is the second largest teachers' union in the U.S., representing 48,000 teachers and health and human service professionals.

Many of the races represented decisive victories against a challenge from the union's old guard. Duffy beat Linda Guthrie, his main opponent, by an almost 2-1 margin. Other races were much closer, especially for the hotly contested director's seats in the union's eight areas. This writer won an AFT director's position by a slim margin in the Central Area.

While in many ways the United Action slate still functions like a typical, modern union bureaucracy, the team represents a vast improvement over the old guard and has delivered some impressive gains and initiatives.

The election sends a clear message: members don't want to go back to the conservative leadership that did nothing for almost two years after our 2003 contract expired. Teachers like the raises, slightly lowered class sizes, increased autonomy and greater community outreach that the current leadership has achieved.

But there are few laurels for the leadership to rest on. UTLA members remain frustrated with dismal working conditions and face a mounting onslaught from state legislators intent on slashing the budget at our expense.

And as the threats of pink slips and salary freezes loom, the privatizers are hard at work making LA the number one charter school outpost in the country.

What's more, the union, even under the stewardship of UA leaders for the past three years, remains inadequately prepared to meet its current challenges. One indication of this weakness can be seen in the election itself: Voter turnout was barely 21 percent, low even by current union election standards.

For the most part, UTLA members are uninvolved in the life of the union. Yes, the leadership called two successful rallies, which mobilized over 10,000 and won a 6 percent raise. And for the first time, members participated directly in formulating their own contract demands.

But at many school sites, union meetings are rare, and basic contract enforcement lax. We're largely unorganized, and powerful enemies are attacking us--and our students.

United Action leaders are committed to organizing and have opened the union up to those of us who want to make organizing the mainstay of UTLA. But they have done too little to assure that organizing and democratic decision-making prevail on a regular basis. And while United Action is a caucus in name, it has not functioned as one in practice.

Too many of the most important decisions and strategy sessions still happen behind closed doors. Too many initiatives end up being designed around not "offending" our "friends" in Sacramento or City Hall.

It was this backroom approach that led our leaders to cut a deal with LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa two years ago for a partial mayoral school takeover, without so much as consulting their "caucus," much less involving the broader membership.

While teachers subsequently rejected this move in a union-wide referendum, this "mistake," as Duffy now sincerely calls it, has hardly been forgotten. Sadly, teachers continue to have reason to fear this kind of wheeling and dealing.

Members are also still smarting over the licking we took when the district screwed up the pay of thousands of teachers when they rolled out untested new software. The resulting debacle went on for the better part of a year, and in the worst cases destroyed people's credit and months of their lives. We're still picking up the pieces.

Some teachers feel that our current leadership didn't do enough to fight the district during the payroll crisis, and they're still angry.

Thankfully, the leadership is moving in the right direction when it comes to the looming budget crisis. For once, the UTLA is arguing that the "crisis" is artificial and the money is there, if we tax the rich.

We face an uphill battle. The reform slate has retained power at UTLA, but there will be no honeymoon.

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