IN LATE FEBRUARY 2018 teachers and school support staff across the Republican-controlled state of West Virginia launched a wildcat strike that lasted nine days and ultimately secured a 5% pay rise for all state employees. The West Virginia action proved the spark that lit a nationwide fuse with a ‘Red for Ed’ movement spreading westward among teachers in states such as Arizona and Oklahoma. Nearly a year later an all-out, indefinite, but official strike has begun in the USA’s second largest school district, the Democratic Party stronghold of Los Angeles, California where more than 600,000 pupils – nearly 75% from Latino backgrounds - are enrolled in publicly funded primary and secondary schools.
After 20 months of largely fruitless negotiations and assorted legal challenges, some 30,000 members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) finally launched their strike on Monday 14th January midst a rare southern California downpour. The rain didn’t, however, dampen strikers’ spirits as nearly 50,000 teachers and supporters marched on LA’s city hall. A similar march and rally on Friday the 18th attracted an estimated 60,000! The UTLA action marks the first strike in the city’s schools in 30 years. Significantly, it also embraces many of those teachers working in Charter schools (roughly the equivalent of Academies in Britain), following swiftly after the first major and largely successful strike action by the Chicago Teachers Union at a chain of Charter schools late last year. Across LA there are already over 220 Charters and the union has demanded a moratorium on further expansion.
The threat to divide up the current Los Angeles United School District into 32 parcels and dramatically expand the Charter programme – the de facto privatisation of LA schools - is central to the dispute as it’s a key aim of the current school board and in particular its superintendent, Austin Beutner. A former investment banker, with a huge personal fortune, Beutner was a failed bidder for the Los Angeles Times media franchise. He has long had ready access to key figures in the Democratic Party establishment, both regionally and nationally even if LA mayor, Eric Garcetti, is suddenly distancing himself from Beutner and his close ally, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, whose foundation has helped underwrite the drive to marketise education.
The UTLA’s president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, has asserted that ‘Austin Beutner was borough in to attack our public schools. They want to end public education as we know it . . . It’s not enough to a win a salary increase when we may not have a school district in a few years.’
In picket line interviews striking teachers have stressed that the issue of pay is not at the heart of the dispute – indeed far from it. In the hope of buying off teachers’ discontent, negotiators for the School Board, which is actually operating a $1.9bn surplus, offered teachers a backdated 6% rise. Thousands of strikers, however, are more concerned with the threat of further de facto privatisation and the chronic underfunding of schools, which has resulted in overcrowded classrooms with 40 (+) pupils in many secondary school classes, compounded by cuts to support services with the loss of teaching assistants, librarians, school psychologists and nurses. Despite California’s reputation as a liberal state, per pupil spending in 2016 was only half that of New York, according to federal statistics.
The first week of the strike featured lively picket lines outside schools with dance lessons, street theatre and music – and the picketing has been more than token. Beutner and the School Board, often backed by school principals (headteachers), have dug in their heels and determined to keep schools open with the Board approving the expenditure of $3m to pay substitute teachers to strike-break. Even so, the vast majority of students have not been in classrooms, not least because of widespread support among parents for the teachers’ action. By the fifth strike day attendance was down to just 13% of the student population.
While talks between union and school board representatives resumed on 17th January and continued into the weekend, there was no sign of an early end to the dispute, which has already revealed fractures in the Democratic Party. Though current LA mayor Garcetti eventually voiced support for teachers his immediate predecessor, also a Democrat, has opposed the strike and continued to champion the Charter programme. Former Obama administration Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, has also publicly attacked the strike. Prior to nearly seven years in Washington, Duncan had been the Chief Executive of Chicago’s school system for eight years, presiding over the closure of numerous state schools and the dramatic growth of Charters in the nation’s third largest city.
Most national Democratic figures have remained silent, but three likely presidential candidates – US senator from California Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) and ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders – have all declared support for the strike, though Sanders along with newly elected representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has been distinctive in highlighting the issue of school privatisation.
Any eventual settlement in Los Angeles is likely to hinge on the release of substantially more funding from the California state budget. Meanwhile, the wave of action by teachers in the US shows few signs of abating, with wildcat walkouts in Oakland, California and official action looking likely in Denver, Colorado, which surely means that the future of state education will continue to move up the agenda in advance of 2020 elections, opening up a much enlarged audience for socialist arguments in many parts of the US. Success in LA and elsewhere can also fuel the resurgence of a union movement in the US that has been in retreat and decline for an even longer period than Britain’s.
· For detailed coverage and analysis of the LA strike and the wider fightback by US educators the writing of Eric Blanc (an occasional Briefing contributor) is invaluable and can often be found on the Jacobin website – www.jacobinmag.com
Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP