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Strike Might Lead to More Than an Argument Over Pay, Experts Say

Watch SoCal Connected's special segment on the LAUSD Teachers' Strike.

The issues rarely change: Pay increases. Class size. More counselors. Nurses. Increased spending.

But this time, experts say, something is different in the latest Los Angeles Unified School District teachers’ strike, the first in 30 years. Something bigger might be happening than just an argument over pay.

"I believe that both parties think this is a strike for the soul of the district and of public education," said Charles Kerchner, a senior research fellow and professor emeritus of the Claremont Graduate University School of Educational Studies.

"You have a superintendent who is heavily backed by the charter school people and by wealthy individuals in Los Angeles that want to see a fundamental reformation of the School District,” Kerchner said. “On the other hand, you have a union leader who is advocating for a revival of community schools, which are an old, old idea that has sort of come back to currency – Make the school the social and democratic focus of particular communities and use the community as strengthening the school."

Teachers struck twice – in 1970 and 1989 – before they walked picket lines Monday as contract talks between the United Teachers of Los Angeles and district officials reached an impasse. 

How the strike resolves is anybody’s guess. Experts suggested that looking to  past strikes for guidance isn’t the answer.
On the surface, teachers’ demands are simple: A 6.5 percent raise; a nurse at every campus; money for special education programs; and reduced class sizes.

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Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at UCLA, however, said the issues are more about the direction of the school district itself. 
“I think issues are about conditions in schools as opposed to simply salaries,” Noguera said. “A lot of this is about the politics of the district and the way charter schools have proliferated and the growing anger among teachers. They feel their circumstances are worsening.”

Charter schools, whose parents choose for their children and which operate without some of the regulations imposed by the district, did not exist on April 13, 1970 when the UTLA membership first walked off their jobs for about five weeks. 

According to news coverage, teachers wanted a 5 percent pay increase, reduced class sizes and more money spent on reading programs. The district countered that it would have to eliminate after-school sports programs to pay the teachers.

As the fight dragged on, and students took vacation negotiations resulted in teachers getting a 5 percent raise, along with advisory councils and funds for reading programs. But each teacher lost about $1,100 from striking, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Nineteen years later, teachers again walked out, this time after staging a boycott of some routine tasks. According to a Claremont Graduate University analysis of the strike, researched by Stephanie Clayton in 2008, teachers wanted a 12 percent raise and school-based management. The district offered a 4 percent raise and no changes in benefits. As the two sides wrangled, UTLA told its members to stop any unpaid work, including filling out attendance reports, going to after-school meetings and supervising playgrounds.
In response, the district offered a 16.9 percent raise over three years. The union immediately rejected it, demanded an immediate 12 percent raise and two-year contract.

	Wayne Johnson, President of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), speaks at a rally at LAUSD Headquarters. Photograph dated January 11, 1989.
Wayne Johnson, President of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), speaks at a rally at LAUSD Headquarters. January 11, 1989. | Los Angeles Public Library

By early 1989, teachers held demonstrations, saying they would refuse to file students’ grades unless a settlement was reached. Students jumped into the fray, walking off campus in protest, first at Fremont High School in South Los Angeles. Students at other campuses, including Huntington Park High School followed, fearing universities would not receive their transcripts as they applied for college, the study said. 

Student walkouts were rooted in history, proving successful in the late 1960s in East Los Angeles area schools, where La Raza groups sought to improve conditions and high dropout rates at campuses including Garfield, Lincoln, Belmont and Wilson. 
The stalemate dragged on through a school board primary election. No agreement could be reached. The teachers struck on May 18. 
During the strike’s second week, politicians called negotiators to Sacramento to meet with a state mediator. Tempers reportedly flared during the closed-door meetings but brought a settlement days later.

	John Ortiz, Mexican-American student leader at James A. Garfield High School, addressing assembled students during a walkout. Photo dated: March 7, 1968.
John Ortiz, Mexican-American student leader at James A. Garfield High School, addressing assembled students during a walkout. March 7, 1968. | Los Angeles Public Library

According to the study, the union contract achieved a salary increase, resolution, paid preparatory time for elementary school teachers, eliminated yard duty, and established “shared decision councils.”

The study concluded that the union gained power. 

“The district was accused of wanting a walkout so that the union’s power would be reduced,” the study said. “Yet the district was not the only side that thought a walkout would be politically advantageous. It was surmised by district officials that UTLA leadership correctly gauged the attitude of its members and knew a strike would not only be successful but would help teachers blow off pent up frustrations. Both sides gambled with a risky negotiation gambit, and in terms of power, UTLA won.”

Noguera said today’s pro-charter school district administration might think it has the upper hand. 

“It’s hard to tell how this gets resolved, and how do you get a win out of it. It’s like the government shutdown,” Noguera said. “If the district really doesn't have the money, if they say, ‘We’ll give you whatever you want,’ in a year or two will they be doing layoffs? “Even if there is a victory in the short come, what does this mean for public education in Los Angeles. I think that remains to be seen.”
Kerchner agreed, saying no one knows what is being said behind the scenes. What does new Gov. Gavin Newsom believe should happen? Or the state’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond. Will the state legislature get involved? Is it time to break up the nation’s second-largest school district?

“The strike may be highly unsettling for the district… particularly if it goes on for a while,” Kerchner said. “Political forces start to ramp up… We may find that Newsom is going to weigh in. Or the legislature may weigh in. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were legislative attempts to intervene. Once a fight starts, people start to come in from the sidelines.”

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