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Eyewitness: Day five of LA teachers’ strike

It’s Jan. 18, a Friday morning. In Grand Park, 60,000 teachers, staff members, students, families and other supporters were assembled, pouring out from the steps of Los Angeles City Hall and sprawling multiple blocks in every direction, the biggest assembly of the week so far. Chants and songs accompanied by hand drums gave the space a festive, carnival feeling, and after four days of hard rain and gray skies, the sun was present for the first time. The atmosphere was one of celebration and confidence.

Subways and buses heading into the downtown area were filled from door to door with educators and allies wearing red shirts in support of public education. When Los Angeles’ streets have been full of people marching and protesting in the past few years, it has been building towards something yet to come. The mood was different this time; the strike is already happening, it hasn’t lost energy or morale, and the powerful are already on the back foot.

“The district shouldn’t fool themselves. For every parent that can get out on the line, there are many many more who need to work, who can’t afford to be here, but are behind the teachers 100 percent.” – Jennifer, parent to a student at Van Nuys High School, Los Angeles

The Los Angeles teachers’ strike, organized by the 33,000 strong Unified Teachers Los Angeles, went into its fifth day Jan. 18. Negotiations continued all day on Jan. 17, halting at midnight and restarting at City Hall at 11 a.m. Bargaining is taking place now with the involvement of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and the recently elected State Superintendent for Education, Tony Thurmond, whose campaign UTLA supported and who has indicated his support for the defense of public education.

At the picket line at Van Nuys High School in the San Fernando Valley, Mary, the school’s sole college counselor (serving 2,500 students), told Liberation News: “I am out here because I am someone who believes in public education – that a decent education should be a right for all kids, not just the rich ones, not just the ones who are able to finagle the system and go to a charter school, but for everyone.”

The district complains that it doesn’t have the money; that funding for education mostly comes from the state, and that the union should focus its energies on state lobbying in Sacramento, not on pressuring a strapped school district. This isn’t true! LAUSD has $1.9 billion in unused funds that would more than pay for the demands teachers have put forward in the bargaining process.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has stalled, dismissing the demands of the teachers for smaller class sizes, fair wage increases, cutbacks in standardized testing, regulation of the unchecked charter school industry, funding for nurses, librarians, and resources for special education and undocumented students, among other demands. However, it seems to have failed in demoralizing the strikers so far. Despite the wealth of funds it is sitting on, the last public offer the district made was a mere $130 million towards a greatly reduced version of UTLA’s list of demands. For instance they offered to cap middle school class sizes at 39 students (!), a 6 percent wage increase for teachers (board members saw a 174 percent wage increase in 2018), and the formation of a “working group” to address “issues regarding charter schools.”

“If I were given more than just one minute per student I would be able to raise graduation rates. Class size is super important, as is trying to keep our enrollment from being suctioned away by the charter schools, which are offering. … I am not even sure what they are offering! … nothing better than we can give students. Privatization has not saved other industries, so how is it expected to save education? It will destroy it. And as we know some people have been put in place in our district to make that happen. That’s what Mr. Beutner excels at, and that’s all he knows. He does not know education. But he knows how to break up a company.” – Jan, English teacher at Van Nuys High School

Instead of compromising and taking LAUSD’s offers, the union has been operating from a place of confidence and forward momentum. “You have taken over the city of Los Angeles, in the streets and on the picket lines. The last five days have achieved many things, and the biggest is that it has stunned the billionaire privatizers. We need to last just one day longer than the billionaires and then we’ll win,” said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl in a speech to the crowd on Jan 18.

“Many of my parents have expressed to me their concerns and their great respect for myself and my colleagues. They stand with us. They let me know. I get messages daily.” – Susanna Valadez, Special Education teacher at Van Nuys High School

Where the district has tried to sow divisions between the teachers and their students, or between the teachers and the local communities they serve – threatening students with vague, if illegal, threats of disciplinary action for those who don’t turn up to school during the strike – they have found overwhelming community support for the strike. Where they might have hoped for demoralization and exhaustion, especially from the younger teachers taking part, picket lines and rallies have only grown in size.

Where media coverage has ranged from silence to disapproval, information about the strike shared through other channels has elicited attention and support from around the country and increasingly the world. Where Superintendent Austin Beutner said “maybe 3,500” teachers had joined the strike on Monday, the number was actually somewhere around 33,000, with a picket line outside every school in the district, and the entrance of charter school employees and the teacher assistants’ union into the strike. The school district has lost over $100 million in missed enrollment funding this week.

“As a teacher who has only been teaching in the district for two years, I had no expectations of how this strike would play out. It has beyond exceeded my expectations. The community support has been overwhelming. The support, the comradery, the perseverance, the passion … it’s incredible.” – Amelia Peck, History & Economics teacher at Lake Balboa College Preparatory K-12

The L.A. teachers’ strike is not an ordinary strike. It is more than a struggle over wages for one small portion of the workforce. The focus on social justice, quality public education as a human right, and humane working conditions make it a fight aiming at the decades-long strategy by the rich to push back the working class via privatization and cancellation of public services. Winning the strike, refusing to compromise with the privatizers in LAUSD and their repeated, unconvincing protests that “there isn’t enough money” would show us all what it is possible to fight for and achieve. As the strike blazes on confidently into a second week, the teachers and their students deserve all of our support and solidarity.


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