A fighting strategy wins contract gains in LA

May 19, 2015

In the battle between United Teachers Los Angeles and public school officials, the bosses blinked first, reports Los Angeles teacher Randy Childs.

AFTER AN eight-month campaign of escalating protest actions and strike preparations, an overwhelming majority of members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) voted this month to approve two collective bargaining agreements with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) that will bring major gains for teachers and students in the nation's second-largest school district.

This victory also sets the stage for future struggles between a more organized and more confident UTLA membership and district officials whose attacks on teachers and our union have increased in intensity in the last several years.

Some 83 percent of the 31,000 LAUSD teachers and health and human services professionals who are UTLA members participated in the vote. Of those, 97 percent approved a new contract that includes a 10.4 percent raise over two years, increased protections against administrative abuse, and unprecedented language on class sizes and counselor ratios. Taken together, these gains are an important step towards the union's goal of improving teaching and learning conditions in all schools.

UTLA teachers protest layoffs, budget cuts and school closures
UTLA teachers protest layoffs, budget cuts and school closures (Paul Bailey)

Plus, 99 percent of UTLA members approved a separate deal protecting all LAUSD employees' health benefits from cuts for two years, an important gain at a time when employers are pushing rising health care costs onto workers. The LAUSD Board of Education voted unanimously May 12 to ratify both deals.

A closer look at the new contract--the first negotiated under UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl and the Union Power slate that took office last year--shows that a united and mobilized membership can make serious gains even at a time when teachers and other public-sector workers are expected to bear the brunt of austerity.

After eight years without a raise, all UTLA members will receive a 4 percent pay increase, retroactive to July 2014, followed by three 2 percent increments spaced six months apart. After LAUSD spent months insisting they couldn't afford any more than a 2 percent increase, this is a big improvement--and a sign that UTLA's organizing and strike threats forced district negotiators to move significantly. Technically, this is a three-year contract, but salary negotiations will be reopened for the third year in 2016-17.

The new agreement also replaces confusing and unenforceable contract language on class sizes with unprecedented hard caps. For the 2015-16 school year, classes in grades K-3 will be capped at 27 students--the caps increase by grade level to 46 for high school juniors and seniors. At all grade levels, school-wide class size averages must be three students below the cap.

The Los Angeles Daily News argues that the agreement on class size limits isn't guaranteed, since it depends on LA's overall budget. But an increase in state spending on education means that the money will be there--and UTLA can hold school officials accountable.

Moreover, the new agreement dedicates $13 million to bring the district's student-to-counselor ratio under 500-to-1. These numbers are still much higher than UTLA members want and our students need. However, this is a step forward given that LAUSD has 3,000 classes with over 45 students, and California spends $1,000 less per student than the national average.

UTLA also scored major victories on evaluations, job security and contract enforcement--important to protecting teachers' rights.

One big gain was forcing LAUSD to end its Orwellian "Teacher Growth and Development Cycle" (TGDC). Despite its innocuous name, TGDC, in fact, drowned us in extra paperwork and set us up to be pitted against each other with a four-level rating system. The system was tailor-made to open the door to "merit" pay based on students' standardized test scores. TGDC was unilaterally imposed by former superintendent John Deasy in violation of the collective bargaining process.

Under pressure from UTLA, LAUSD agreed to a three-level, watered-down version of TGDC for 2015-16, with a new evaluation system to be negotiated in reopener starting this fall. That's a compromise, but it gives the union more time to organize around the issue.

Another important win was brand new language on temporary reassignments of members pending investigations--aka "teacher jail." LAUSD is now required to inform UTLA members of accusations against them within three days, and can only reassign someone if the allegations claim the person poses a risk to others' safety. The investigation process will be sped up, too.

These are big countermeasures to prevent the sort of gulag-style abuses teachers faced under Deasy, in which teachers accused of wrongdoing languished in a cubicle for months without knowing why, often until they decided to resign in frustration.

The new agreement makes contract enforcement easier, too. Members will now have 30 days instead of 15 to file a grievance, a change seen by UTLA leaders as giving opportunities for school-site organizing to pressure administration into reaching a solution.

WHILE IMPORTANT, the gains won in this contract represent only a first step in UTLA's struggle for "The Schools LA Students Deserve," a campaign launched by rank-and-file activists in 2013 to pressure the previous union leadership to take a more aggressive stance against district attacks. Many of those activists--including UTLA President Caputo-Pearl--are now in the leadership of the union and plan to step up the fight.

This time around, LAUSD officials, still reeling from a scandal that brought down former LA school boss Deasy, made concessions for the sake of labor peace. But Schools Superintendent Ramon Cortines is already making dire warnings of massive budget deficits in the coming years. Plus, the threat of layoffs still loom for most of the 609 UTLA members who were sent reduction in force (RIF) notices back in March, meaning that their jobs depend on funding.

In other words, the district is already setting the stage for future conflicts with UTLA, in which they will argue that they simply cannot afford the union's demands for fully staffed schools and a reduction in class size.

RIFs have been a chronic issue since the Great Recession and the years immediately following. This year, RIFs were both a bargaining ploy by Cortines to undercut UTLA's salary and class size demands and a direct attack on vital student services--including early childhood education, adult and career education, and psychiatric social workers.

In response, UTLA leaders made the tough strategic decision not to concede extra ground at the bargaining table in exchange for rescinding the RIFs. Instead, the union organized a rally against the RIFs outside the May 12 school board meeting with the theme "All the pieces matter." The pressure has already forced LAUSD to rescind a couple hundred RIFs, and the revised state budget from Gov. Jerry Brown announced May 15 has funneled more money into local school budgets across the state.

Nevertheless, state funding battles over public education loom. Proposition 30, the ballot measure passed in 2012 that raised taxes on the wealthy and sent some of the money to public education, is set to "sunset." The big statewide teachers' unions are already considering ballot initiatives for 2016 to renew Proposition 30 and take away corporate loopholes in Proposition 13, the 1978 law that limited property tax increases and starved public education of critical funds.

UTLA is also prodding school officials to ask the state for $47 million in reimbursement for funding lost because LAUSD student attendance was undercounted by the MISIS student information system, another Deasy technology boondoggle, which threw schools into chaos the first couple months of this school year and still isn't working well.

There are other challenges confronting UTLA, too, such as the need to organize charter schools, which are draining enrollment from LAUSD and membership from the union. Some 287 charter schools operate in LAUSD, attended by more than 150,000 students.

But having mobilized for this contract--including the credible strike threat--UTLA members have shown that they're getting ready for the battles ahead.

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