Tuesday, June 12, 2007

LA Dreamin' Part 2

We've been tracking information on the LA teacher union as a basis of comparison to our friends and neighbors in Unity Caucus here in NYC. Note the call to teachers to boycott required after-school faculty meetings and the emphasis on class size as part of contract negotiations, the kinds of actions some teachers in NYC were hoping to see from the UFT. It's hard to make judgements from a distance so if anyone has information pro and con, let it fly.

Labor Notes May 2007: http://www.labornotes.org/

How Los Angeles Teachers Won a Year-Long Contract Campaign

by Joshua Pechthalt and Julie Washington

[Editor’s Note: Labor activists seldom get a chance to reflect on campaigns in the heat of the moment. In this issue we print the reflections of leaders of the Los Angeles teachers union on their recent contract campaign.]

Members of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the union representing Los Angeles public school teachers, ratified a three-year agreement with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) on March 14 by a 90 percent margin. The vote ended a year-long campaign that won gains for Los Angeles teachers and demonstrated the effectiveness of broad, rank-and-file based organizing combined with member mobilization.
The new contract gives UTLA members an across-the-board six percent salary raise for the first year with re-openers for the second and third years. (In a separate agreement a few months earlier, UTLA and the other unions representing classified employees, building trades, and others, were able to maintain health care benefits at their current levels.)
UTLA also won a first-ever class size reduction and a cap on class sizes. Since the early 1990s, the district had unilaterally increased class size during recessions when the district claimed it was in a fiscal crisis.
In addition, the local won protection for union activists by requiring the district to mediate before administrative transfers can take place.

The contract campaign was as unconventional as the contract itself. Beginning last March, UTLA leaders rolled out a campaign to involve the members in choosing and prioritizing their concerns.
Typically, UTLA’s 25 or so standing committees put forward bargaining proposals to the UTLA House of Representatives, which then adopts the bargaining package.
This year, UTLA school chapters were asked to meet and discuss which issues they thought were most important. Then, the union rep at each school fed that information into a central data-base set up through the UTLA website.
Almost 300 schools participated and developed a list of priority issues. Each UTLA area (UTLA is divided into eight geographic areas averaging about 5,000 members each) then used that information to develop the contract demands at their monthly area meetings, the Board of Directors, and finally at the House of Representatives.
An issue developed regarding the salary demand, however, that created problems for the union leadership. While the language in the bargaining proposal stated that the union would wait until after the state budget was adopted before making a salary demand, the proposal also mentioned that it would take a 14 percent pay increase to raise member salaries to be among the highest in the county.
The press jumped all over this, charging UTLA with making an unreasonable demand, while many members thought this really was the demand and were delighted. When the House of Reps eventually adopted an initial nine percent salary demand, some members were ticked off that it had been unilaterally “lowered.”
Lesson? The only figure to put out is the actual demand, not a longer-term goal.

Contract negotiations lagged during the summer and didn’t pick up in the fall, except for the agreement on health care benefits in October. The union and the district accused each other of not taking negotiations seriously.
In response, the union adopted an escalating strategy, starting with weekly Red Shirt Tuesdays, a Class Size Caravan in November, and a mass demonstration at district headquarters in December.
Red Shirt Tuesdays were solidarity-building activities in which all UTLA members at a school would wear UTLA t-shirts and send in a group picture to the union’s monthly newspaper.
The Class Size Caravan, while not a mass mobilization, was an attempt to draw attention to the outrageous class sizes in Los Angeles. With much press fanfare, UTLA rented a school bus to go to different school campuses around the district where teachers met the bus to deliver information on excessive class sizes at their school.
With negotiations making little progress, the stage was set for the December 6 mass demonstration. Up until that time, UTLA leadership had yet to prove to the district that the members were ready to fight.
December 6 proved it and then some, as over 10,000 UTLA members poured into the streets at district headquarters in downtown Los Angeles and at another site in the San Fernando Valley. These were among the largest demonstrations in UTLA history, comparable only to those around the 1989 strike.
The success of December 6 was fueled by the intense anger teachers felt about the increasing stress in their jobs and the lack of respect they felt from the district. But some novel organizing strategies also helped.
Two weeks before the demonstration, UTLA released all of its 150 area “cluster leaders,” who volunteer to make contact with the 700 UTLA chapter leaders, for a day-long meeting. But this was not one of those top-down affairs in which the union leadership gives orders from on high.
Instead, the cluster leaders from each area made their own plans about mobilizing their areas for December 6 and even brought in their own ideas for the demonstration. One area leader suggested that UTLA ask members to bring their flashlights to LAUSD headquarters in order to “shine a light” on the huge district bureaucracy. UTLA accepted this proposal and at the demonstration thousands of UTLA members, on cue, shined their flash-lights on the 29-story district-owned Beaudry building, along with a search light rented by the union.

By the beginning of January, however, an agreement was still a long way off. UTLA called on teachers to boycott required after-school faculty meetings. This scared the district so much that it called off faculty meetings for the three weeks the boycott was in force.
UTLA then called for a day of informational picketing, leading up to a strike authorization vote in February. Furthermore, UTLA conducted a massive radio ad campaign emphasizing the broader benefits of the union’s demands for students and their communities, in particular lower class size and local control of the schools.
By now, the district was taking negotiations seriously and called for nearly daily discussions. District officials were convinced that UTLA members were ready to strike and they wanted to avoid this at all costs. The radio campaign helped solidify public support for the teachers, who were championing the needs of students, not just themselves.
This situation led to what UTLA leaders called “the settlement moment” just as UTLA began taking the strike vote on February 12. In the course of a week, the district withdrew all of its concessionary proposals and gave ground on nearly all of the union’s priority issues.
The lessons of this contract fight are clear. UTLA leadership led a campaign based on the wishes and activity of the members and posed the issues in terms of school reform, not just “bread and butter.” This campaign led not only to a far better contract than previous ones, but also created organizing opportunities for the future.

[Joshua Pechthalt serves as UTLA/AFT Vice-President. Julie Washington is UTLA Elementary Vice President.]

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