A pay cut to save UTLA jobs?

May 26, 2011

Some 700 members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) rallied at the school board meeting May 24 to demand that all 7,600 proposed teacher layoffs be rescinded. The union points out that Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has overstated its budget shortfall by $150 million and is due to get $300 million in state funds--enough to avoid any cuts.

Nevertheless, school officials continue to demand that the union take a pay cut in exchange for reversing most--but not all--of the layoffs. Sarah Knopp, a teacher in Los Angeles, argues that taking more pay cuts to save jobs will result in both lower pay and fewer jobs.

MEMBERS OF UTLA are being asked to take another pay cut in the form of furlough days to stave off as many as 5,700 layoffs--a deal similar to one we took last year.

The numbers offer compelling reasons for UTLA members not to accept furloughs. California just "discovered" $6.6 billion in extra revenue, coincidentally (or not) after a week of statewide protests. This is in large part because there is no more recession for rich Americans, and tax receipts from higher income brackets exceeded expectations.

As a result, about $300 million is headed LAUSD's way. According to LAUSD's notoriously unreliable doomsday estimates, the budget deficit was $408 million. And school officials have admitted they made a $150 million error in their estimates.

So despite LAUSD claims that additional funds aren't yet available, it's clear that the money is there to both protect jobs and keep our paychecks intact. If there was ever a time for UTLA to draw the line against more concessions, it's now.

If we vote to accept another pay-cut-for-jobs deal without a fight, we only legitimize the union-bashers' argument. As everyone knows, there's a billionaire-backed, bipartisan, anti-union campaign across the U.S. to demand that teachers, along with other public-sector workers, sacrifice their own compensation while maintaining the same "output"--in our case, K-12 education.

A first grade teacher talking to her class

And despite the big outpouring of solidarity from across the U.S. for the struggle in Wisconsin against Republican-led union-busting, unions have continued to agree to concessions. In LA, where the local labor council took a planeload of people to march on the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison, city unions agreed to sweeping wage concessions just days before a big Wisconsin solidarity rally here.

How can we break out of the concessionary spiral and save public-sector jobs? A closer look at the situation in LA public schools helps frame the discussion.

In LAUSD, we've lost 3,473 jobs in the last three years, according to state data. We're down to 28,093 teachers from 31,566, or 11 percent less than in the 2007-08 school year.

Some of these lost jobs are due to budget cuts, but others are the result of outsourcing of jobs to charter schools, declining enrollment and elimination of programs. Saving jobs is both a life-defining issue for teachers and an issue of educational justice--because every position lost means bigger class sizes and less individual attention for students.

Featured at Socialism

Hear Sarah Knopp at Socialism 2011 in Chicago, speaking on "Capitalism and education." Check out the Socialism 2011 website for more details.

The question we're faced with is how we can reverse the backward slide. Last spring at this time, as a member of UTLA, I voted to accept furlough days--what amounted to a 3 percent pay cut--to save co-workers' jobs. I was among the 80 percent of teachers and health and human services workers who voted to accept that deal.

At the time, it seemed like a must-do. Not only could we save teachers from the unemployment line, but as union members, we would be seen as standing up for the best interests of the community. Lastly, the teachers getting layoff notices--Reduction in Force, or RIF letters--were self-organizing and leading the fight against the budget cuts. They invented new tactics for fighting, and protested until the end. It didn't seem to me, nor many others, that the union could afford to lose these young organizers.

THIS KIND of money-for-jobs compromise puts us in a dilemma, though. The purpose of unions is to defend and improve our pay, benefits and working conditions. If we can't do that--especially in a context where corporate profits have recovered, and then some--it creates broad disillusionment among union members.

In UTLA, we just had a very contentious election in which the leading incumbent officeholder lost, arguably due to discontent with the union's inability to hold its ground. And there's no question that, despite the election of a reform leadership in 2005, UTLA members have been pushed backward, as some early gains under the reformers were rolled back through job losses and concessions.

For the year that began in July 2009, around 3,000 teachers had been pink-slipped. UTLA held a whole series of actions--a mass protest of over 10,000 in January to defend health benefits, actions at every school board meeting and self-organized camp-outs in front of schools affected by unusually high percentage of RIFs.

We planned a one-day strike in protest, but it was aborted under a temporary restraining order. The judge's threats were incredibly severe--steep fines for both the union and individual teachers, who would have faced the loss of their credentials.

Rather than defy the judge's order and go ahead with the strike, the union called off the walkout, but held protests instead. Some teachers, myself included, symbolically got arrested.

In the end, about 1,000 people lost their jobs. Many--we don't know how many--were hired back to substitute teach in their old positions, getting paid as substitutes to do the exact same job. Some were eventually rehired. Others gave up and stopped trying to work for the district.

The following year, unlike 2009, UTLA leaders pushed to let us vote on furlough days to save jobs. That's when we took the vote on the deal, approving it overwhelmingly. So in the year that began in July 2010, the number of people who lost their jobs to RIFs was in the dozens, because we voted to take a 3 percent pay cut in the form of furlough days. The furloughs followed three years of wage freezes, which means that in the last five years, the buying power of wages is down by around 13 percent, once inflation is taken into account.

But despite this money-for-jobs deal, 3,473 UTLA jobs have disappeared anyway. While it's difficult to break down the data, we have a general sense that about a third of the jobs were lost to RIFs and rest to LAUSD giving away public schools to private charter operators. Declining enrollment and the elimination of programs contributed to the job losses as well.

The point here is that there are a number of reasons for the downward slide in the number of jobs in public schools. So is taking wage cuts going to stop this trend?

The answer is no. In fact, such a retreat is going to make it harder for us to defend jobs in the long run.

Sam Gindin, the former research director of the Canadian Auto Workers, and Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, summarized the failure of the concessions-for-jobs strategy in the U.S. auto industry:

At the end of the 1970s, when the first round of concession bargaining began in the U.S., the UAW had 450,000 members at GM. Today, after repeated contracts that allegedly "won" job security in exchange for workplace, wage or benefit concessions--sold by the union as well as the companies--the UAW's GM membership is down to 64,000. If GM is "successful" in its current restructuring, that will be further reduced to 40,000...Concessions don't save jobs, but they inherently invite more concessions.

The same dynamic is at play today in the public sector. From Education Secretary Arne Duncan to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and even to California Gov. Jerry Brown, politicians of both mainstream parties are targeting what is now the largest single unionized workforce in the U.S.--teachers.

As part of an effort to push the cost of the economic crisis and the bailout onto the working class, public-sector workers are being scapegoated in a manufactured crisis, caused by the long-term neoliberal tax shift away from corporations and the wealthy, the Bush tax cuts for the super-rich, and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and, now, Libya.

As Gindin and Hurley point out, in this climate, "If cutting public sector jobs is a government priority, then they won't reverse themselves unless public-sector unions and their allies are strong enough to force them to." They conclude: "When workers look to trade wages for jobs, they generally end up with lower wages and fewer jobs."

The question is whether accepting the district's deal will make us stronger or weaker to fight. Last year, it seemed like accepting furlough days to save jobs would make us stronger--by keeping more activists in the union and demonstrating that we were willing to do whatever it takes to hold down class sizes. Many UTLA activists believed that by taking concessions then, we would gain time to reorganize and go on the offensive. But that didn't happen.

This year, it's clear that LAUSD wants not temporary concessions, but rather a permanent cut in our compensation, as well as a long-term reduction of UTLA jobs. And taking another pay cut when the money is clearly there will only deepen the disaffection that many LA teachers feel toward their union.

SO WHAT happens when unions keep getting pushed backward, year after year, unwilling or unable to resist the employers' relentless demands for concessions?

It's easy to imagine a scenario where union leaderships turn over every election cycle if they can't deliver a defense of living standards. It may be unfair to blame the union or its leadership for failing to withstand the tidal wave of attacks we've been facing. But I think that union members' frustration comes not so much from the fact that we've been losing, but that we've been losing without making a sufficient fight. In UTLA, we've had no job action since a highly successful one-hour strike in 2008.

In the current context, accepting furlough days without a serious struggle will further undermine our ability to fight and weaken our union. Unlike last year, we can prove that the money is there. On top of that, we've lived through the experience of a year of pay cuts and seen the effect on the union in terms of mass frustration.

A few months ago, I was interviewing Jack Hill in the occupied Wisconsin Capitol building in Madison. He had been the president of a small American Federation of Teachers local in New Jersey for 25 years, and he had gone to the protest to express his solidarity.

I asked him a general question about what advice he had for young teachers entering the profession in the 21st century. He replied, "It's going to change for young teachers--stick to it. If they tell you to take a pay cut to save jobs, they're playing chicken with you. It won't work. Call their bluff. Don't cave in to their fear tactics."

But if we reject an offer to take another pay cut to save jobs, isn't that turning our back on younger and lower-seniority colleagues who have given so much to our union?

The question isn't easy for me or any other teacher I know. For example, I spent countless hours working alongside my friend Joe to write a teacher-parent plan for a new high school, rather than allow the district to hand over the school to outside operators under the guise of "school choice."

Even though we won the right to establish a fine arts and social justice academy at the school, Joe is at risk of being laid off. Also threatened with job loss is my coworker, Misty, with whom I rode to the last protest. Misty is raising her kids by herself because of a family crisis and can hardly afford to lose her job. My coworker Bill, who runs an art program at our school that keeps many of our kids engaged, and who has a history of health problems, is also at risk.

Can I stand in front of them and argue that taking furlough days is a bad idea? I certainly argued it the other way around the last time.

To Joe, to Misty and to Bill, the union owes you more, not less. Most importantly, we can't say in good conscience that we have fought as hard as we can against the RIFs. Again, we've taken no job actions since the one-hour strike in 2008.

This is mostly because of the fear of the consequences threatened by the judge who barred the 24-hour strike in 2009. But rather than regroup after that attack and launch a legal and political campaign to challenge it, UTLA effectively accepted a severe limitation on its level of struggle. That, in turn, made it all the more difficult to resist future demands for concessions. Essentially, our union was negotiating with a gun to our head.

We should learn from what worked during labor's great upsurge during the Great Depression era. Public-sector workers organized the unemployed and fought for an increase in unemployment benefits. Workers also figured out that to be successful in a downturn, you have to get an entire sector or industry to bargain together, as opposed to taking on one individual boss (or government entity) at a time.

We need to organize to establish pattern bargaining in the public sector. This would also solve another problem of organizing charter school teachers--if we have to negotiate with one small charter operator at a time, it will be a serious drain on union resources.

AS LONG as we simply accept the framework that we must "save our co-workers" or "protect our paychecks," UTLA--and public-sector unions everywhere--will keep losing. The RIF notices will keep coming every year, since budgets are expected to remain tight. Many of the same people, like Misty, Joe and Bill, are likely to get a RIF threat again, even if we accept the pay cut. As Gindin argues, pay cuts aren't a long-term alternative to job losses.

So the question is how turn a situation in which we must choose between two poisons into one in which we can resist concessions, period.

That's a major challenge. Our union, like most, has to rebuild its strength at the workplace level--something that can't be done overnight. But the success of Wisconsin unions in mobilizing popular support against a union-busting attack shows that a bold and creative struggle by Los Angeles teachers, in alliance with parent and community groups, could quickly transform the politics around school budget cuts in the city.

This is not to claim that if UTLA simply chooses the right strategy or tactic, we will win our demands. Victory in labor struggles is never guaranteed--particularly at a moment when corporations, the politicians and the mainstream media are united against us.

But what is certain is that if we don't fight back, we will keep losing. And that is the problem: UTLA hasn't yet waged the kind of struggle necessary to resist those attacks. On the contrary, the union, still on the defensive, is again poised to take cuts.

LAUSD could easily take a number of steps to save money and keep teachers in the classroom. If the district stopped giving our schools away under the Public School Choice program, it could save $3.9 million per year. If LAUSD eliminated ultra-bureaucratic local districts, or if it moved its administrative offices into our ample empty space in existing schools, it could save millions. If LAUSD cut top administrative salaries by 25 percent, millions more could go into the classroom. If the district stopped wasting millions on over-paying outside vendors, even more could be saved.

UTLA members now know that LAUSD has the resources to avoid both layoffs and pay cuts for teachers. We should take no responsibility for loss of jobs--or furlough days--when we can prove that the district has the money. Instead of choosing between concessions, we should launch a campaign to get that money into our schools--now.

Further Reading

From the archives