THE LOS ANGELES TEACHERS’ STRIKE AND OTHER TEACHER ACTIONS AROUND THE NATION

by Al Simpson

February 12, 2019

The Racist Nature of Education in the United States

According to the Center for American Progress report Unequal Education of 2012 (https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/news/2012/08/22/32862/students-of-color-still-receiving-unequal-education/), schools are just as segregated in unequal now as they were in 1954 when Brown versus Board of Education was decided.  The average white student attends a school where 77% of students are white, and fully 40% of black and Latin students attend schools where over 90% or students are non-white. Especially in the big cities, racist segregation and differences in school funding have led to a dual education system, good in the suburbs and white upper income areas — where the students are prepared for college and professional, technical or managerial jobs — and poor elsewhere, especially in neighborhoods where there are people of color. Let’s look more deeply into this.

High school graduation rates are white 78%, Latin 58%, black 57%, and Native American 54%. The differences are partly due to funding through property taxes, but also because districts that serve people of color employ less experienced, lower-paid, teachers.

Nationally, schools spend $334 more on each white student than on a non-white student (https://nces.ed.gov/search/?q=number+of+students+in+school). The total public-school enrollment in 2012 was about 50 million, about 41% of whom were black, Latin or Native American. If this $334 per student of color deficit is multiplied by 41% of 50 million, we come out with a figure of about $6.847 billion saved a year through racist spending differentials. This figure is an approximation, as the number of students per year and the years the deficits were calculated are one year apart, but enrollment does not increase at a rapid rate, so we can accept the ballpark amount of $6.8 billion. This is evidence that education for people of color is not a priority for the capitalists.

The difference is even greater when you consider that wealthier white neighborhoods can make up for shortfalls in funding of the schools because they have the financial ability to purchase needed equipment and supplies. Poorer neighborhoods, where people of color generally live, would have more difficulty in obtaining equipment and supplies that are not funded by the school district.

The Recent LA Teachers’ Strike

Tens of thousands of teachers and education workers took part in a six-day strike to improve the learning conditions of the students, who are 90% black and Latin.  Their demands included:

  • Reduced class sizes. Black and Latin neighborhoods have class sizes of 42 or more, making any individual attention impossible.
  • More non-teaching school personnel such as nurses, librarians, and counselors. Often a nurse comes to a school once a week.
  • An end to excessive testing.
  • Regulation of charter schools, so that public schools will no longer be converted to charter schools, thus destroying public education. In the Charter schools the students are often taught by poorly paid, unqualified, teachers.
  • And an increase in teacher pay to provide them with a living wage.

The local teachers did an excellent job of organizing in the community. There were multiple marches throughout the city of Los Angeles of 50,000 people each. This educated people so that the entire city was discussing the problems regarding LA’s education system and its $2 billion unspent reserve. Because of the organizing efforts of the teachers, over 80 percent of Los Angeles County supported the teachers’ strike.[i]

There was a problem with strike breakers (scabs) that needs a bit of an explanation. The message given by a picket line is simple: It means do not cross. If enough scabs break through the picket line, then the strike will be ineffective. This places the jobs of the striking workers in jeopardy! So, in order to defend their right to earn a living, the strikers have to make sure that no one crosses the picket line. Some wonderful militant teachers limited the number of scabs entering the schools by blockading the entrances with their cars and by other means. That made the strike more effective. It also built unity amongst the strikers. The school district has plenty of money for scabs, not for anything else, of course. Scabs were paid up to $385 per day.

The results of the LA teachers’ strike

Progress was made on reducing testing, defense for immigrant students, creating green space on campuses, and supporting ethnic studies. Up to 28 schools will be exempt from random searches of students – a failed anti-gun policy put in place that harassed students of color. Thirty schools will be designated as Community Schools, meaning that they will receive extra funding and more local control so that they can establish wrap-around services for the neighborhood. Community schools are the union leadership’s vision of what public schools should look like, and they hope that by establishing these first examples they can show a real alternative to charter schools.

There will be teacher librarians for every secondary school 5 days a week. There will a nurse for every school 5 days a week. Unfortunately, the increase in counselors is minimal; the student to counselor ratio is being decreased from 750 to 1 to an equally ridiculous 500 to 1.

Class sizes have been reduced, but maximum class sizes for math and English are set to 39 students, still way too high.

Teachers’ pay is being increased 6 percent over two years. Unfortunately, this was proposed by the school district before the strike started.

Some Thoughts About the Strike

The entire contract bargaining process is extremely legalistic and designed to narrow down workers struggle, confining it to closed-door sessions between small groups of experts and lawyers. This wasted a lot of time, time that could have been used to organize a strike. But the union misleaders weren’t interested in that. Workers need to be building the strength to completely break through this framework and take back the initiative from the bosses and their courts.

That means that unions need to start breaking the law. Public sector unions were built on illegal strikes in the 1960s and ‘70s, and the 2018 West Virginia teachers strike was waged without any formal legality as well.  There is no such thing as an illegal strike! The bosses are making the laws  that benefit them; we can’t be governed by that. The biggest gains of the labor movement have been made through mass law-breaking.

It was difficult to obtain even basic reforms that were sorely needed by the students and teachers. This is because capitalism is not set up to provide for education or any other public good. It is set up to provide profits for the capitalists; everything else is secondary at best, and there is always, racist, unequal funding for public services to people of color, as mentioned earlier.

This is the first Los Angeles teachers’ strike in 30 years. So, there was little or no memory of how to organize a strike and how to avoid the pitfalls that the school district and the union misleaders would set up. Even so, the LA teachers did a great job of organizing the strike with an 80 percent approval rating by the public! They also won some needed reforms. Now that the LA teachers have gone through the process of organizing a strike, they have picked up some of the necessary knowledge and experience to defend themselves better in the future. The struggle is not over because the contract contains escape clauses for the hiring more nurses and teacher librarians. Also, there are “reopeners” on salary, so that may have to be renegotiated as well. Let’s see what happens. As mentioned earlier, the teachers have picked up the necessary knowledge and experience for a strong fightback. It’s a good idea to start organizing now.

Teachers’ Strikes Happening Now!

West Virginia Teachers Approve Strike Action

Teachers and other school workers in all 55 West Virginia counties voted last week to call a work action against a reactionary omnibus education bill moving through the state legislature.

The teachers gave overwhelming approval for a strike or other unspecified protest. American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia (AFT-WV) President Fred Albert said that the “work action” could mean anything “from picketing at schools to work stoppages.” He also refused to give a deadline.

The threat of renewed strike action comes nearly a year after the nine-day strike which was sparked by the determined wildcat action of teachers and school workers in the southern coal counties. The wildcats, in defiance of the unions, spread the strike statewide and galvanized subsequent teacher walkouts across the US. The union misleaders eventually forced a return to work without meeting any of the teachers’ essential demands.

Increasingly angry over the failure of the legislature to fully fund their healthcare or provide adequate funding for classrooms, teachers in the state are now livid over Senate Bill 451. This pro-privatization bill ties promised raises and insurance changes to charter schools, vouchers and anti-strike measures.

Senate Bill 451 was approved by the House Education Committee with a 15-10 margin Friday evening, including some changes from previous iterations. Among them was the removal of the “education savings accounts” that would siphon off money off from public districts into vouchers for private and religious schools. The Education Committee also recommended placing a limit on the number of charter schools that could open in the state—but still introduces the scourge of unregulated, for-profit schools into West Virginia.

Denver Colorado Teachers Strike

Denver teachers are set to walk out today in their first strike since 1994. Negotiations between the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) and the Denver Public Schools (DPS) have dragged on for 15 months without a contract. Teachers voted by 93 percent to strike on January 22.

The Denver strike highlights the growing determination of educators to beat back the concerted bipartisan assault on public education.

The fight of 5,600 Denver teachers follows the six-day strike of 33,000 Los Angeles teachers and the march of 2,500 Virginia teachers in January, which in both cases, pitted teachers against Democratic-run state governments. This follows strikes by tens of thousands of educators last year in Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Washington state, and in the cities of Jersey City, New Jersey, and Pueblo, Colorado.

Chicago Charter School Strike is in Its Second Week

One of the reasons the bosses so loved charter schools is that they were intended to be non-union schools where the lower wages would permit private companies to siphon public funds for education and to destroy public education and the teachers’ unions. But surprise, surprise, the charter school teachers organized themselves!

The strike by 175 teachers at four Civitas campuses, part of Chicago International Charter School (CICS), has entered its second week with teachers and staff seeking raises, smaller class sizes, a reduction in healthcare costs and more support staff.

The strike began February 5 after talks broke down over teachers’ demand for an eight percent raise in the first year. CICS says it would accept the proposal only by eliminating crucial support staff, like social workers and counselors. According to the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), negotiations continued throughout the week last week. The schools have been kept open by administrators with students doing online activities.

In ongoing negotiations, the CTU is calling on CICS to use “some portion” of its $36 million set aside to support instruction to meet teacher demands, but no figure nor any number of counselors or support staff has been given. A spokesperson for CICS told the Chicago Tribune last Friday that the length of the teachers’ workday and year, and whether the maximum class size of 28 or 29 students, are also at issue.

Earlier this week, CTU reported a “subject matter” hearing on charter management where CTU officers and staff gathered to testify to city officials about allegations that CICS is siphoning off millions of dollars a year from school communities.

The four schools—ChicagoQuest, Northtown, Wrightwood and Ralph Ellison schools—are managed by Civitas Education Partners and have an enrollment of about 2,200 students. This walkout is the third strike of charter teachers in the US; the first took place at Acero Charter Schools, also in Chicago, last December. The second run by the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) union. Charter schools are publicly-funded by taxpayers but privately managed.

Striking CICS teachers said police had been called to the picket at CICS Wrightwood twice Thursday and Friday by Civitas management, though there was no reason for any police presence. Teachers are also charging that they are being intimidated on the picket lines by Chicago police.

Teachers have also spoken out on social media to demand CTU not accept any class size “loopholes.” Last December, the CTU shut down the four-day strike at 15 Acero Charter Schools which got them a reduction on class size limits by just one student or 31 students per room. Teachers have complained that these sizes are still unmanageable and sometimes dangerous. Compare this to the enormous class sizes of 39 or more in Los Angeles.

Oakland students walk out as school board prepares major cuts

In Oakland, teachers are in their second year of working without a contract, as negotiations between the school district and the Oakland Education Association (OEA) have dragged on for over 20 months. Last week, teachers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, with 95 percent voting in favor and a high rate of participation of 84 percent of all teachers. The looming strike in Oakland will likely take place after the teachers strike in Denver, which is set to begin today.

Last Friday, at least 4,000 high school students across Oakland either stayed home or walked out of class in a “sickout” coordinated by the students themselves, as a demonstration of solidarity with their teachers and their determination to fight to improve public education. Roughly 200 students, along with some parents, rallied outside Oakland Technical High School and marched down Broadway to the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) headquarters downtown.

In an email that was widely distributed to teachers and students, the group of students organizing the sickout, “Oakland Student Organizers,” said its “primary goal is to establish students as a substantial force within the school district by reminding the central office that we both control their funding, and—through our parents—elect their bosses.” It added, “We have the right to a quality public education, and we will fight for it.”

In an effort to intimidate students and mitigate the impact of the sickout, OUSD Communications Director John Sasaki sent out a district-wide call Thursday to all families and staff, in which he warned that students participating in the sickout would miss the opportunity to supposedly have access to “on-site admissions opportunities and millions of dollars in scholarships to historically black colleges and universities.” The district’s effort to mitigate the walkout proved unsuccessful, as the vast majority of high school students stayed home or went to the rally.

At the rally, Samuel Getachew, a junior at Oakland Tech, told KQED, “Students are primarily the people that are affected the most by educational issues.” He continued, “This is an action that will hopefully lose [the district] a lot of money, and through that, make them realize that not only are students willing to participate in these conversations, we want to so badly that we’re willing to do anything it takes.”

The “sickout” followed two teacher-led wildcat “sickout” strikes that took place in December and January, in which hundreds of teachers participated. Both actions have also been organized independently of the OEA, which has acquiesced to the district’s stalling tactics. The OEA deliberately isolated Oakland teachers from Los Angeles teachers during the strike last month, in the hopes of preventing a statewide teachers strike.

Summary

This teachers’ and students’ rebellions are by no means only an American affair. “Red pen” teachers have been marching every weekend across France, Tunisian teachers have been on strike since October, New Zealand primary school teachers are threatening to resume their walkouts and similar struggles have erupted on virtually every continent over the course of the last year.

While the world’s billionaires increase their wealth by $2.5 billion a day, teachers find themselves in the front lines of the fight against the degradation of essential social rights by capitalist governments around the world, which claim there is no money for public schools or to pay teachers decent wages.


[i] Survey conducted by the Thomas and Dorothy Leavy center for the study of Los Angeles.

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