Monday, January 14, 2019

Lessons: UTLA History - Union Power Organized a Coalition and Ran to Win

I've been real impressed with the work the team leading UTLA have done in getting ready for the strike, preparations which began when they won power in 2014. I think they have learned some of the lessons from the Chicago strike - positive and negative.

I'm working on some comparisons between the Los Angeles, Chicago and NYC unions and how progressive groups managed to take power in two cities but have gone nowhere here in NYC.

Unity Caucus is the difference.

In both Chicago and LA, there have been changes in power a few times over the past 20 years - or shared power. In NYC Unity has been in control for 60 years. That is due to the fundamental difference in union structure. Here it is impossible to make much of a dent in the Unity machine without having an efficient and canny opposition. So far we haven't had that. If the people from Chicago and LA were here, they would be marginalized or absorbed by Unity.

But there are some lessons to learn from those cities. I met many of the activists in both cities in 2009 and even invited myself to a breakfast at Alex Caputo-Pearl's house one Sunday morning along with a car load of CORE people headed by Jackson Potter who was the key to organizing CORE.

I dredged up some articles from 2014, just before the Union Power slate won the election in LA. Some of the history is worth checking out.

What seems to be interesting is that Union Power is not a caucus like CORE in Chicago but a coalition of activists, which is what needed to happen here in NYC. In fact I proposed a United Front non-caucus slate for this election where anyone who wanted to run against Unity could do so, a way to extend outreach into numerous schools. It didn't happen.
PEAC [LA] and CORE [Chicago] have, in fact, worked together since a 2008 [should be 9] national gathering of reform teachers’ caucuses. And as they prepared for their new roles in 2010, the newly elected CTU leaders visited L.A. to meet with PEAC activists. Back then a PEAC-backed reform slate was represented in UTLA leadership, though it did not have a majority. Caputo-Pearl and other Union Power leaders attended a 2013 teachers’ social justice conference hosted by CORE. .... Labor Notes, Feb. 2014
I was at both the 2009 [See my reports -LA Deamin', LA Confidential)  and 2013 conferences - Alex Caputo-Pearl, Sally Lee of Teachers Unite and Jackson Potter of CORE met at a 2008 conference and then organized the 2009 conference in LA - I flew out with Sally who was 8 months pregnant.

It was quite an intense few days with so many LA activists who were so impressive. I think there were 5 cities present in 2009. There was no such thing as MORE then but there was the early days of GEM and ICE was still active and getting ready to run in the 2010 UFT elections.

CORE talked about the possibility of running in the 2010 election but said they would first check their influence by running a candidate for the pension board, which they ended up winning. They then ran in the May 2010 election with 4 other caucuses. The Unity-like UPC had split into 2 and since Chicago has a runoff, and CORE's intent was to finish 2nd and then win the support of the other caucuses that finished behind them. They got less than a third of the vote but that still put them in 2nd place and everyone else climbed on board for round 2 and they won over 60%.

That was about 10 days before the AFT convention in Seattle - see the July 2010 reports in Ed Notes for details of that wild ride -- we spent a lot of time with the new leadership in Chicago.

Here are a few segments from the articles in Labor Notes and Socialist Worker.
The UP slate is headed by Caputo-Pearl, but draws together a number of veteran UTLA activists. The team includes several current members of UTLA's board of directors, rank-and-file members running for union office for the first time, and even three current officers who've broken with Fletcher.
Solomon and Caputo-Pearl were among the founders of PEAC, which now backs Union Power. That group formed in the 1990s, after No Child Left Behind increased the emphasis on tests and on punishing “failing” schools. Members worked with parents to fight against closings and for better schools... Labor Notes

While he was teaching at South Los Angeles’ Crenshaw High, Caputo-Pearl fought the district’s “reconstitution” efforts there. A partnership of teachers, parents, and students sought to improve the school from within.
Caputo-Pearl has a two decade-long history of union and community organizing as a teacher in South Los Angeles schools, working with groups like Labor/Community Strategy Center, the Coalition for Educational Justice and Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC), a militant union caucus. Caputo-Pearl also serves as his school's UTLA chapter chair--the elected union representative for the school--and as a member of the union's House of Representatives and Board of Directors, UTLA's term for its executive board.
the Union Power slate is using its campaign to build a coalition that unites elected leaders of UTLA who are frustrated with Fletcher's stonewalling with rank-and-file members who are tired of their union seeming inactive and irrelevant to their lives. If they win, UP and Caputo-Pearl pledge to continue that organizing effort with the resources of UTLA. They aim to create a fighting union in alliance with parents, community organizations and the wider labor movement.... Socialist Worker, https://socialistworker.org/2014/02/25/new-direction-for-la-teachers

http://www.labornotes.org/2014/01/la-teachers-run-bigger-vision

L.A. Teachers Run on a Bigger Vision



The Union Power slate of activists say the teachers will win community support when they fight for better schools, not just a raise. Photo: Beth Blecherman.
For Los Angeles teacher Alex Caputo-Pearl, if there was ever an example of how his union needed to change direction, it was November’s “Rally for a Raise.”



While he agrees raises for teachers are critical, the single demand rang hollow in light of two years without a contract, teachers still reeling from years of layoffs, hours and hours of standardized tests, and myriad school reconstitutions and charter takeovers.
“We’ve got to put out our own vision for quality schools,” said Caputo-Pearl, who’s running for president in the local’s February election.

A rally focused solely on raises is not likely to inspire parents and community to join in support, according to Caputo-Pearl. Worse, it could play into the argument made by foes of public education, who claim that union teachers care only about their next paycheck and not the best interest of students.

The Union Power slate Caputo-Pearl heads, which is critical of President Warren Fletcher’s go-it-alone vision for the rally, was there with its own message, "It's time for a raise and a whole lot more": fully staff schools and classrooms, and think about what else students need.

Teachers waved signs saying, “A raise would be great but I’ll settle for a nurse and a librarian” and “Kids need librarians, counselors and nurses, not iPads.”

“If we are fighting for good schools, schools that the community will celebrate,” said Rodney Lusain, a Union Power candidate for board of directors, “then the salary, the working conditions, the student-teacher ratios will come with it.”

Union Power includes current officers, members of the Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC) group, and other activists.

L.A. is the second-largest school district in the country after New York City, and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), with 35,000 members, is the second-largest teachers local.

The district has destabilized its own schools. Since the recession it has been laying off teachers, bringing in charters, and reorganizing with a vengeance. L.A. now has more students enrolled in charter schools than any other city.

The district also recently sank $1 billion into a deal (with Apple and education software company Pearson) to give iPads to every student. The plan has had a bumpy rollout and mixed support.

LEADING BY EXAMPLE

The Union Power slate brings together teacher leaders who already have experience teaming up with parents.

“What we are trying to do this year is more comprehensive than we ever have done before,” said Rebecca Solomon, one of 25 on the slate. Nine candidates are running for president, but Union Power is the only slate running for all spots.

They have a beef with Fletcher’s approach to the expired contract, which has been to bargain and sign off on contract issues piece by piece. Most recently the union agreed to a new teacher evaluation system. “That has utterly failed,” Caputo-Pearl said. “Small-room negotiations don’t help you in terms of building power on the ground.”

Solomon and Caputo-Pearl were among the founders of PEAC, which now backs Union Power. That group formed in the 1990s, after No Child Left Behind increased the emphasis on tests and on punishing “failing” schools. Members worked with parents to fight against closings and for better schools.

While he was teaching at South Los Angeles’ Crenshaw High, Caputo-Pearl fought the district’s “reconstitution” efforts there. A partnership of teachers, parents, and students sought to improve the school from within.

The efforts built teacher-community bonds, but the district ultimately converted Crenshaw to a magnet school and laid off much of the staff. Caputo-Pearl now teaches at nearby Frida Kahlo High.

PEAC has fought such reconstitutions and charter takeovers around the district. It also helped plan a recent forum on over-testing; a Seattle teacher who’d led that city’s test boycott was among the speakers. The caucus worked with community allies to organize a November rally against the iPads.

“We had to do this without institutional support in nine out of ten cases,” Solomon said of the fights against charters. “So we know what the union could do.”

BEYOND THE CLASSROOM

PEAC is part of a community/labor coalition called The Schools L.A. Students Deserve, formed last year. Working with the Latino Caucus, Coalition for Educational Justice, and other groups, the caucus developed an internal union resolution with the same name.

The resolution garnered enough support to come before members as a referendum, following a process laid out in UTLA’s constitution. Rank-and-file teachers ratified it in February with more than 70 percent support.
It called on the union to mount a contract campaign, starting by working with community groups and parents to identify shared issues. It demanded UTLA put more resources into both member and community organizing, and plan a series of escalating actions.
Fletcher has not supported the initiative with resources, however.

LESSONS FROM CHICAGO

The PEAC strategy may sound familiar to those who know the recent history of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Activists in its Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) began mobilizing with parents against school closings even before founding the caucus, doing work their elected leaders weren’t interested in. Later, they ran for office and won.
PEAC and CORE have, in fact, worked together since a 2008 national gathering of reform teachers’ caucuses. And as they prepared for their new roles in 2010, the newly elected CTU leaders visited L.A. to meet with PEAC activists. Back then a PEAC-backed reform slate was represented in UTLA leadership, though it did not have a majority.
Caputo-Pearl and other Union Power leaders attended a 2013 teachers’ social justice conference hosted by CORE.
The two caucuses’ goals are similar: Get teachers involved in the union at the school level. Work with parents and community. Fight the push for competition among schools, which destabilizes them. The Union Power people see CTU’s campaign for a “better school day” and its report “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve” as a model.

EMPTY PROMISES

Fletcher beat a PEAC-supported candidate in 2010, campaigning on a pledge to focus on teacher pay and benefits and promising to hire a professional negotiator to win a better contract.
This message worked in part because leaders had lost ground in their last contract—right after the 2008 economic crisis brought sweeping cuts to education. They attempted to build to a one-day strike but were blocked by the courts. Teachers were left feeling deflated.
Today, however, the contract has been expired for two years. The union has failed to mount an aggressive contract campaign, let alone challenge district leaders’ punitive model of education or articulate its own vision.
California’s schools are not as strapped for money as those in many states, because the 2012 passage of tax-the-rich Proposition 30—thanks to massive union mobilization—brought in new tax revenue. The funding boost should have been an opportunity to go on offense and tell the public where school funds needed to go, Solomon said.

“We haven’t given the public ‘this is what we think should be prioritized instead of iPads and technology,’” said Lusain.
Nor has the union’s focus on bread and butter helped win a good contract, Caputo-Pearl said. Rather, the lack of big-picture strategy has weakened UTLA at the bargaining table.

The slate also says the president leads without input from other officers, much less from rank-and-file teachers.
Fletcher’s approach “isolates teachers, because it’s not projecting a vision that students and parents can plug into,” Lusain said. “We just don’t bring the strengths in numbers that a union is supposed to bring.”

THE PLAN TO WIN

Caputo-Pearl has already seen teachers “become the opposite of apathetic” in the fight to save his school—and he’s confident the strategy will work on a larger scale. That and the CORE caucus’s trajectory give him hope.

“The feeling of teachers on the ground here in L.A., in terms of the disconnection they feel with the union, is not that different from the feeling of teachers in Chicago when the CORE slate ran for election,” he said.

“That actually turned around reasonably quickly, because folks came in and engaged the members on a vision and a strategy.”

The online version of this article corrects two errors from the print version: the number of candidates on the Union Power slate (25, not 15) and the name of the group Coalition for Educational Justice.
A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #418, January 2014. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.

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