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Published in Print: April 17, 2002, as Los Angeles Teachers Elect Hard-to-Define Union Leader

Los Angeles Teachers Elect Hard-to-Define Union Leader

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It was a nail-biter of a race in the nation's second-largest school district, but in the end, Los Angeles teachers chose John Perez to lead their 41,000- member union in a runoff election that concluded last week.

John Perez

The 55-year-old former high school social studies teacher captured the presidency of United Teachers Los Angeles with 50.5 percent of the vote, nudging out former elementary teacher Becki Robinson, who won 49.5 percent, union officials reported. Only 10 percent of eligible members cast votes, a common participation rate for such elections, said Steve Blazak, a union spokesman.

No challenge to the results had been filed as of last week, he added.

Mr. Perez, who, like Ms. Robinson, currently serves as a vice president of the union, will take office July 1, replacing Day Higuchi. Mr. Higuchi, who has held the post for six years, was not permitted to run for re-election under union term limits.

The president-elect said last week that he would "make the classroom a number-one priority," by advocating for teachers to have more say in administrative decisions. He also aims to increase teacher salaries, a responsibility that will likely fall to him if current contract negotiations with the 737,000-student district are not closed by summer.

"This district does not have competitive salaries," Mr. Perez charged. "You can't attract people and retain them."

The average teacher salary in the Los Angeles Unified School District is about $46,000. The national average is $44,604, according to a report released this month by the National Education Association. ("Salary Stagnation?," Teaching & Learning, this issue.)

District administrators did not return a phone call seeking comment on the election.

Some community leaders, however, said a change in union leadership was welcome.

Currently, union leaders and district officials "are off in different corners," said Susan Way-Smith, the president and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a nonprofit organization that collaborates with both management and labor to provide teachers with professional development.

"This election gives them the opportunity to sit back and start new relationships," she said.

Progressive Reformer?

In the initial round of the election, held earlier this spring, Ms. Robinson drew more votes than Mr. Perez did. At that time, Ms. Robinson pulled in 32.6 percent of the vote, while Mr. Perez earned 25.3 percent. Two other candidates collected the remainder.

A majority is needed to win an elected post in the union, which is affiliated with both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers.

Allegiances shifted, however, during the weeks prior to the runoff.

"I lost by 98 votes out of 10,000," Ms. Robinson said. "It shows we have a divided union."

Mr. Perez and Ms. Robinson were considered the most progressive of the four presidential candidates.

"I'd say [Mr. Perez] is viewed as an old-line unionist and is a bit more confrontational" than Ms. Robinson, said Joshua Pechthalt, a high school history teacher who was elected as a regional UTLA director. "Her approach was to temper labor-management animosity. People who voted for [Mr. Perez] believed that you have to be strong and go militant to the bargaining table."

Some teachers perceived Ms. Robinson as supportive of what they considered to be regressive programs initiated by the district, Mr. Pechthalt said. Many saw her as an advocate for Open Court, a scripted reading program.

Ms. Robinson, however, said she never supported that specific curriculum. Instead, she said, she endorsed research-based programs. But she added that Open Court appeared to be "extremely beneficial to our students," for the short time it has been in use.

While some union leaders around the country characterized Mr. Perez as a progressive reformer willing to take chances, others described him as an old-school union boss more interested in bread-and-butter labor issues.

Some have been impressed that Mr. Perez has backed two bills now in the California legislature that would broaden the kinds of issues that can be incorporated into teacher contracts.

If such legislation is enacted, California teachers' unions would have the power to negotiate K-12 standards, assessments, and even dress codes, in addition to the more traditional matters of wages, hours, and benefits. ("Calif. Bill Would Allow Unions More Say on Academics," March 6, 2002.)

Vol. 21, Issue 31, Page 11

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