School & District Management

The New Flavor of Teacher Strike: More Than Just Pay Raises

By Madeline Will — January 25, 2019 8 min read
Teachers, parents, and students picket outside City Hall in Los Angeles during the citywide teacher strike, which ended Jan. 22.

After six long, sometimes raucous days of striking, Los Angeles teachers ended their protest claiming victories that included lower class sizes, more support staff, and commitments from the district to invest in socially minded initiatives.

In other words, the contract negotiations went far beyond the bread-and-butter issues typical in labor disputes, and instead were centered on a more philosophical discussion of how the United Teachers Los Angeles views the future of public education in the city. That’s a model of bargaining that some say is likely to be replicated in Chicago this year, as well as in Oakland, Calif., where teachers are gearing up for their own strike.

This shift in collective bargaining—known as bargaining for the common good—comes after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that many have predicted will weaken unions’ coffers and membership rolls. Like in Los Angeles, teachers’ unions might start bringing broader social concerns to the bargaining table in an attempt to maintain community support.

“In L.A. and in other cities, teachers are trying to transform the nature of collective bargaining,” said Joseph McCartin, the executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, which studies and advocates for workers’ rights. “Historically, it’s just been about wages and benefits and maybe marginally about some of the conditions. [Now], they’re making the conditions central.”

Los Angeles teachers were striking for a 6.5 percent pay raise, with back pay to July 2016, smaller class sizes, more counselors, nurses, and librarians in schools, and a commitment from the district to rethink the growth of charter schools.

They didn’t get the pay raise—instead, the contract deal resulted in a 6 percent pay raise, with 3 percent retroactive for the 2017-18 school year. But teachers in the nation’s second-largest district made progress on essentially every other demand.

Los Angeles Unified has agreed to hire 300 more nurses, 82 more teacher-librarians, and at least 17 more counselors to maintain a 500:1 student-to-counselor ratio in secondary schools. District officials have also removed a clause in the contract that allowed them to raise class sizes for financial reasons.

See Also: Teacher Strikes: 4 Common Questions

The union was also pushing for a cap on the number of charter schools in the city, which could not be negotiated as part of a labor contract. But the district did agree to allow union representatives more input in charter school co-location, which is when a charter school is on the same grounds or in the same building as a traditional public school. The union has said co-location takes away resources from the traditional schools. The Los Angeles Unified school board will also vote on a resolution asking the state to establish a charter school cap.

The district has agreed to create 30 community schools, which have wraparound social services for students. Additionally, the district and the union will form a committee that will develop a plan to reduce the number of assessments by 50 percent, and partner to look for ways to create more green spaces on school grounds. Finally, the district will eliminate random searches of students in 28 schools, and provide legal support and an informational hotline to students and families facing immigration-related concerns.

Many of these are nontraditional labor demands—but they were important to students and community members who supported striking teachers. UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said in a news conference that when the bargaining process began two years ago, the union surveyed its members, students, and community members to draft a collective vision of the future of public education in Los Angeles.

“This is much more than just a narrow labor agreement,” he said. “It’s a very broad compact around things that get at social justice, educational justice, and racial justice.”

The union’s victory in Los Angeles, McCartin said, “is bound to have ripple effects.”

Indeed, in a press conference, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said the contract deal in Los Angeles was “extremely important” to his union’s bargaining team, which started negotiating with the district just last week.

“It shows what we can do if there’s a will and with enough force and with a commitment to funding the schools,” he said.

The Chicago union’s four main demands echo those of teachers in Los Angeles. It’s asking for better pay and benefits, smaller class sizes, more support staff, and “improvements on social demands,” which Sharkey said include more sanctuary schools and investments in affordable housing. The current contract expires at the end of June.

In Oakland, 375 miles north of Los Angeles, teachers are preparing to vote next week on whether to authorize a strike. They’re fighting for a competitive livable wage, smaller class sizes, and more support staff. But Harley Litzelman, a high school history teacher and a school site representative to the Oakland Education Association, said teachers are also trying to address “the toxic political agenda of the district.”

Inspired by the fight in Los Angeles, teachers are fighting against the expansion of charter schools and the cash-strapped district’s proposal to close as many as 24 schools, he said.

“We are leading a political movement,” Litzelman said.

Bargaining for the Common Good

Teachers’ unions organizing for their students and the broader community, rather than just their own members’ working conditions, is called bargaining for the common good, or social unionism. The Los Angeles teacher strike isn’t the first occurrence—experts point to the 2012 Chicago teacher strike as the seminal event—but it’s one of the biggest.

United Teachers Los Angeles had planned for a potential strike for a couple of years, working closely with the community in order to generate a groundswell of support, McCartin said.

“As one union has watched another, they’ve learned ways to bring the community in,” he said. “With L.A., this is a full-blown methodology now. I think you’ll start to see other teachers’ unions picking up on it.”

Even so, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said bargaining for broader social issues has been happening in pockets for years. Notably, teachers in St. Paul, Minn., have pushed for a reduction in standardized testing, smaller class sizes, and less severe disciplinary measures for students in their contract negotiations.

“This notion of bargaining for the common good is something AFT locals have been involved in for a long time, but because of the [Los Angeles] strike, it gets the attention it deserves,” Weingarten said. “Teachers want what children need.”

Just last month, Chicago charter school teachers went on strike for smaller class sizes and pay raises—but also for the 15-campus Acero charter network to provide sanctuary for undocumented students.

And of course, teachers in a half-dozen states walked out of their classrooms last year. A push for higher pay was a driving force behind many of those widescale protests, but teachers also framed their walkouts as a fight for their students.

Teachers across the state of Virginia will rally at the state Capitol on Jan. 28 for more school funding. Organizer Sarah Pedersen said in an email she expects between 2,000-3,000 teachers, at least.

Denver teachers are also planning a potential walkout, though with salaries at the forefront.

Becoming More Political

Jon Shelton, an associate professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay who writes about the history of teacher strikes, said many big-city teachers’ unions have inner caucuses that are progressive and take stances on racial and social justice. In places like Los Angeles and Chicago, those progressive members are in leadership positions, he said.

“I think for unions who have these caucuses and teachers who are becoming more politically conscious, this is becoming a more effective model of organizing,” Shelton said. “It’s proven to really galvanize a discussion about the present and the future of public education.”

There’s another factor that could influence the spread of social unionism: Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public-sector unions could not collect “agency” or “fair-share” fees from workers who declined to become members but were still represented in collective bargaining. The unions had argued that the fees only cover collective bargaining, and not political activities, but the justices ruled 5-4 that the arrangement still violated the free speech rights of nonmembers.

“Once the court took that position, then the natural response of unions is, ‘OK, if everything we do is political, we’ll get political,’” said McCartin, pointing to UTLA’s demand for an immigration defense lawyer, among other things. “We can now take off the straitjacket that we used to live under, where we could only ask for our wages, and we’re going to use the bargaining process to ask for much more.”

This tactic could also be another way to retain and recruit members, McCartin said. Because teachers can now stop paying dues to the union and still be represented in collective bargaining, observers expect teachers’ unions to lose members. The National Education Association has projected about a 10 percent membership decline over two years.

But people like being part of an organization that fights not only for them, but for their community, McCartin said. In Los Angeles, he said, teachers can now say the union “doesn’t just fight for me, it makes L.A. better.”


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