Teachers’ Union In Los Angeles Poised To Strike

By Lynn Olson — May 03, 1989 16 min read

Teachers in Los Angeles have voted overwhelmingly to strike the nation’s second-largest school system at the end of this month if a contract is not reached by May 29.

Nearly 87 percent of the more than 20,000 members of United Teachers of Los Angeles who cast ballots chose to reject the district’s latest offer and authorize the May 30th walkout, tallies showed last week.

The vote marks the latest escalation in an increasingly polarized and bitter contract dispute that has been going on for more than a year.

Bargainers on both sides of the table, including the school-board president, Roberta L. Weintraub, now predict that a strike is inevitable.

As tensions continue to mount, many are asking what went wrong in this sprawling urban school district and how they can put the system back on track after what one person describes as a “year on hold.”

Citizens throughout Los Angeles are “increasingly concerned over the polarization that has developed between the two sides,” said John W. Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League.

Both parties “are now engaging in an excessive amount of posturing,’' he contended, “and as a result, the negotiations process has completely disintegrated.”

Although salaries remain a crucial sticking point, money has also become a “symbol” for a much larger set of issues, observers say, including an elemental struggle for power over the city’s schools.

The heated conflict has led to the creation of an extremely unusual joint task force between the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association that has spent the last month investigating the contract dispute. The utla is the only merged nea-aft local in the nation.

Bud Helstad, director of employee relations for the nea and a task-force member, said he hopes the report will help steer the negotiations “back on track.” It was scheduled to be released this week.

Meanwhile, many people are lamenting what they describe as a classic adversarial labor dispute, at a time when other large urban districts are moving toward more cooperative bargaining styles.

Tensions Mount

Los Angeles’s approximately 32,000 teachers have been working without a contract since June.

The already tense situation began to escalate at the beginning of this school year, when the union’s leadership asked teachers to engage in a work slowdown in order to put pressure on the district.

Since then, teachers have been boycotting after-school activities, faculty meetings, yard duty, and other unpaid, nonteaching responsibilities. District officials have responded by docking a portion of teachers’ salaries, as much as $1,500 per teacher in some instances.

The situation deteriorated still further when the state education department accused approximately two dozen Los Angeles schools of cheating on statewide tests.

The district’s decision to hire a private law firm to investigate the allegations was interpreted by many teachers as a signal that top-level administrators did not trust them and were prepared to blame them for the incident.

Thousands of teachers boycotted administering the tests for two months, until an agreement was reached. Under the accord, Superintendent Leonard M. Britton reiterated that he had not intended to accuse teachers of tampering, and the two sides drew up new procedures to strengthen test security.

“Some teachers were really angry at that lack of trust,” recalled Phyllis J. Hart, a counselor-liaison with the school district. “The district had a marvelous opportunity early this year to support teachers, and it wasn’t handled well.”

Things took another turn for the worse this winter, as thousands of teachers prepared to withhold official first-semester grades from the district as part of the work slowdown. That threat led to protests and walkouts by high-school students across the city who were worried about their college and financial-aid applications.

Teachers, who had been using alternative union-designed report cards to provide information to parents, turned in their official forms only after a county judge declined to bar the district’s threat to withhold teachers’ paychecks.

Approximately 80 percent of Los Angeles’s secondary-school teachers have since refused to turn in official midsemester grades due April 6.

Diane Munatones, a spokesman for the district, last week admitted that the series of punitive actions by the school system exacerbated the labor-management dispute.

But she insisted that such steps were necessary, given the strident bargaining tactics that “made students the victims.”

The threatened strike could again endanger students’ official grades, as well as high-school graduation, promotions, and the start of the summer-school session. The school year is not scheduled to end until June 26.

Further complications arose this month in hotly contested school-board elections. Two utla-backed candidates--Julie Korenstein and Mark Slavkin--are now scheduled to compete in runoffs on June 6, after they failed to win a majority vote. Ms. Korenstein, an incumbent, failed to win her seat by only 50 votes.

Several observers suggested that if the union’s candidates had won the elections, the utla might have been in a more “generous mood” at the bargaining table.

Even if the two union-endorsed candidates win the election, the new board will not be seated until July 1.

‘Contaminated’ Atmosphere

The sequence of events, coupled with what most describe as “namecalling” and misleading information on both sides, has led to what Miles Meyers, president of the California Federation of Teachers, characterizes as a “contaminated” atmosphere in which it is has become almost impossible to reach a settlement.

“In order to get a resolution, there has to be some kind of positive, open relationship between the two entities,” said one board member, Warren T. Furutani, “and at this point, it’s hard to find that connection.”

According to observers, Wayne Johnson, president of the utla, has been a master at playing on the frustrations and resentments of an already dispirited teaching force that is not given enough support by a large and bureaucratic system.

“There are legitimate resentments about how people are being treated,” said Bill Honig, state superintendent of public instruction. “So it allows a person who wants to play on those resentments to do so, and I think that’s what’s going on.”

“The real crime,” he added, “is that Los Angeles is not in great shape anyway, as far as performance is concerned. They really couldn’t afford to waste a year, but they have essentially been on hold.”

Union Leadership

Many people suggested last week that the gulf between the union and the school district has been widened by the district’s fragmented school board, its past history of shaky labor-management relationships, and the character of leadership on both sides of the dispute.

Mr. Johnson, who is now serving an unprecedented third term as union president, is described by many as an extremely popular, charismatic leader who is out in the schools on a daily basis.

“Wayne will cancel any meeting if there’s a school-site event that needs to be done,” said Mr. Meyers of the California Federation of Teachers. “He has an awful lot of support, probably more than any utla president has ever had.”

Marilyn J. Landau, a mathematics teacher at Horace Mann Junior High School, argued that all of the utla’s 22,000 members “support what the president is doing.”

Others describe Mr. Johnson as an extremely effective, “old style” union leader.

But his critics contend that Mr. Johnson has failed to use the union’s leadership position to advance educational goals within the school system, particularly for poor and minority youngsters. And at least some teachers are beginning to question his motives during the protracted contract dispute.

“I don’t know what Wayne really wants,” said Phyllis L. Baker, a 7th-grade teacher at Horace Mann Junior High School. “Does he really want what’s best for me and best for the children, or does he really want to go down in history as the president of the union that broke the district’s back? ... And I’m not the only teacher who’s questioning that.”

For his part, Mr. Britton said he had “hoped, in some ways, to have more of an educational statesman” than Mr. Johnson has proven to be, “where the person is interested not only in the dollars, but in the atmosphere, in trying to work together.”

“I see some evidence of his coming around,” he added, “but some of his union tactics go back 20 or 25 years.”

Britton: Kudos and Brickbats

In contrast to Mr. Johnson’s outspoken, populist style, Mr. Britton is a relatively quiet, behind-the-scenes leader. He is also a newcomer in a school district that had not hired a superintendent from outside the system since 1948.

Ironically, observers say, Mr. Britton was chosen largely because of his reputation for building positive labor-management relationships in Dade County, Fla., where he helped to bring about a number of reforms.

They add that Mr. Britton’s relative newness--and his lack of an already intact political constituency--has made him a “relatively easy target” for the union, which is now asking for his ouster.

“I think Britton is pretty much dictated to by a segment of people on the school board, and I think he’s very weak,” Mr. Johnson said last week. “I truly believe that the man is really in over his head.”

Those allegations were strongly disputed by members of the school board, who insisted that Mr. Britton still had their full confidence.

In an interview last week, Mr. Britton acknowledged that he may have moved too fast to try to implement shared decisionmaking in Los Angeles, without providing enough inservice training and preparation time to bring people on board. But he maintained that he had not made any major mistakes either.

A Divided Board

The school board itself is extremely fragmented. Only four of seven board members supported the district’s latest contract offer, which would provide teachers with a 20 percent pay raise over three years. The union is asking for a 21 percent salary increase over two years.

In addition, only three of seven board members back the union’s request for face-to-face negotiations between the board, utla’s seven elected officers, and the state mediator.

“The board is so divided at this point that to sit down face to face has no prospect of changing the situation,” argued one board member, Alan Gershman.

“Here we have an adversarial relationship on the board itself,” said

Ms. Korenstein, “and then we have an adversarial relationship with the union. So all we end up doing is bickering and fighting, and we don’t accomplish what we need to do.”

Mr. Mack of the Urban League attributed the problem, in part, to the fact that board members are elected to represent particular areas of the city, rather than the district as a whole. As a result, he said, “a form of provincialism and myopia has set in that has complicated the process.’

Mark Ridley-Thomas, co-chairman of the Black Leadership Coalition on Education, said that while some of the issues dividing the board and the union are “bona fide,” others are “bogus differences.”

“There are persons engaged in this impasse that simply do not like each other,” he said, “and it’s playing itself out in terms of this public-policy crisis.”

Ms. Weintraub, president of the board, last week attributed the stalled negotiations primarily to an issue of “power and control.”

“It’s just a question of who’s going to run the school district,” she said.

“You’re looking at a situation where the union wants to shut down the schools,” she added, “and basically get control of the schools and the district, and even hire and fire the superintendent and elect board members. And if it happens, it happens.”

But Mr. Johnson insisted that “the district is attempting to break down the union.”

“We’ve gotten too large and too powerful and too vocal,” he said.

The last teachers’ strike in Los Angeles, in April 1970, lasted five weeks. Although a relative period of calm followed, union leaders note that in the 48 months since March 1985, they and the school district have been engaged in bargaining for all but four months.

At least one observer attributed the protracted, and often difficult, nature of the bargaining process to the rules governing labor negotiations in California, which he described as rigid and inflexible.

But others dismissed that suggestion, noting that several large urban districts in California have been able to work out collegial bargaining relationships.

‘Lack of Credibility’?

One of the murkiest and most heated issues in the contract debate is whether the district can afford to accept the union’s demand for a two-year contract, with pay raises of 11 percent in the first year and 10 percent in the second. Mr. Britton last week termed that demand “totally unrealistic.”

The district has offered teachers a three-year contract that would raise salaries by 8 percent in the current school year, 4 percent in 1989-90, and 8 percent in 1990-91, with the possibility of an additional 4 percent pay hike in the second year.

The board claims its package--including health benefits--would cost $590.6 million and require at least $80 million in budget cuts, including reductions in academic programs.

In contrast, the union alleges that the district’s salary offer would cost only $232 million, which could be provided for without cutting into essential services.

In trying to settle the dispute, one of the central questions is the district’s credibility in assessing its financial situation.

In 1986-87, for example, the district claimed that it could not pro4vide teachers with a significant pay hike without making $41 million in cuts--a claim that was verified by an independent fact finder.

At the end of the year, however, the district provided teachers with a 10 percent salary increase without making those cuts, and ended the year with a $217-million surplus.

School-board members last week attributed that surplus to an unanticipated increase in state revenues, including $37 million in impact-aid payments.

But the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report of the Los Angeles Unified School District, for the year ending June 30, 1987, shows that some of the surplus stemmed from the district’s having overestimated its expenditures by $127.9 million.

A similar report for the year ending June 30, 1988, shows a $207-million surplus in general-fund revenues, again due primarily to overestimated expenditures.

Mr. Johnson and other union officials claim that the school district is “always pleading poverty, year in and year out,” but that its own figures do not support that contention.

And other observers agree that there are questions about the district’s veracity when it comes to budgetary projections. “There’s probably a general lack of credibility on that,” said Walker Brown, executive director of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles.

But this year, officials insist, “there just isn’t any more money.” In fact, Mr. Britton says that while the board may be divided on other issues, the vote is 7-0 in terms of its inability to raise its offer.

Other highly placed sources suggested that even those board members who supported the district’s current salary offer are becoming uncomfortable, because of the cuts they may have to make without having a settlement in hand.

A report scheduled to be released by an independent fact finder later this month may shed some light on the issue. But it will not be binding on either party.

Salary Disparities

The fight over salaries also centers on whether the district is spending the money it does have appropriately.

Union leaders maintain that the district spends less than one-third of its $3.5-billion budget on classrooms--in the form of teachers’ pay, textbooks, and supplies--and nearly 70 percent on “nonteaching staff and other noneducational efforts.”

District officials assert that approximately 64.2 percent of the school system’s budget is spent on classrooms, and only 4.4 percent on district-level administration.

The utla has especially stressed the large gap between the salaries of the district’s top-paid administrators and those of its teachers. According to the union, 85 top-level managers earn over $80,000 a year and 15 earn over $100,000.

In contrast, the beginning salary of Los Angeles teachers is $23,440 and the maximum salary is $40,871.

Mr. Britton himself earns $141,080 annually and his driver/guard earned $90,733 in 1987-88, the union says.

According to Mr. Johnson, “that kind of excess has got to be changed.”

“We are totally dedicated to reducing the number of administrators,’' the union leader said last week. “This is a fight over a few percentage points over a couple of years. But more important, it is a fight to try to educate the public and force a restructuring and a reprioritizing of the school district.”

Meanwhile, board members and outside observers, including State Superintendent Honig, continue to insist that the district’s salary offer is a “strong” one. According to district officials, the package would make Los Angeles teachers the highest-paid among the nation’s 10 largest urban school districts.

But the utla maintains that its teachers do not fare nearly as well when their salaries are compared with those in nearby school systems.

Shared Decisionmaking

Other issues that the board and the union have been unable to settle include the provision of preparation time for elementary-school teachers and the elimination of unpaid yard duty; the restoration of any pay that was docked because of teachers’ boycott activities; and the implementation of a shared-decisionmaking program at individual schools.

Both sides claim they want to introduce shared decisionmaking at the school site--in which teachers, parents, principals, and other staff members would gain authority.

But the board has proposed that parents, administrators, and teachers at each school participate in decisions on a consensus basis, with an equitable distribution of power.

The union insists that teachers have a 50 percent-plus-one-vote majority on any shared-decisionmaking team, with no veto power by the principal to override the commit4tee’s decisions.

“That’s not consensus,” said Mr. Gershman. “And there are some of us on the board, including myself, who cannot accept that.”

The Silent Partner

Parents, in fact, remain a largely silent, uncertain part of the power equation.

“We would all like to see our teachers receive more money,” said Armida Navarro, a parent in East Los Angeles who has two daughters in the school system. “But the fact of the matter is that the way utla is doing it is like holding our children as hostages to get that money.”

Parents’ lack of public outcry is attributed, in part, to the large size of the city system and to the various ethnic constituencies and neighborhoods that parents represent.

“You have all of these little bands of parents who are organized all over the city, and nobody has tried to bring the parents together,” said B. Kwaku Duren, an economic-development specialist with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

In the last few months, Mr. Duren has been working with a new organization, called Parents United for Better Schools, to help bring together parents from across the city to accelerate the move toward a settlement.

“I think you can expect a public presence that’s much more vocal than it has been in relation to insisting that a settlement happen forthwith,” predicted Mr. Ridley-Thomas, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Los Angeles. “This has gone on too long.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 1989 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Union In Los Angeles Poised To Strike