Teaching Profession

With Umbrellas and Picket Signs, L.A. Teachers Begin First Strike in 30 Years

By Catherine Gewertz — January 14, 2019 5 min read
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Los Angeles

Tens of thousands of teachers, nurses, librarians, and counselors walked off the job Monday in the nation’s second-largest school district, donning plastic ponchos in a chilly rainstorm to picket their schools for the first time in 30 years.

Outside Vine Street Elementary in Hollywood, cars in a steady rush-hour stream honked in support of teachers juggling umbrellas and picket signs on the sidewalk. They chanted, “Teachers united will never be divided” and “If we don’t get a contract, you don’t get no peace.”

Vine Street teachers, some of whom have been teaching at the school so long that they participated in the last strike, in 1989, said they need more funding so they can have a full-time nurse, librarian, and counselor. Currently, Vine Street has a librarian for a full week every other week, and a nurse two days a week. There is no school counselor.

“We need a nurse every day,” said kindergarten teacher Minoo Rashidi. “They are not there when we really need them. When kids get sick, some have diabetes or seizures. We need the support to help them. We don’t have [teaching assistants] like we used to. I have 24 kids with no TA. If something happens, there’s no one to help me.”

Ariel Magallón, a 4th grade teacher at Vine Street, said he doesn’t think the leaders of the Los Angeles Unified school district understand that “the cost of living has gone up since they gave us our last raise.”

“We need the resources to make our schools better. We’ll be out here if it takes three days, three weeks, or three months to get that done,” said Magallón.

Reducing class size is a key issue in the strike. Gricelda Carrillo, a special education pre-K teacher at Vine Street, said she handles a group of 10 children with special needs on her own. “For a special ed class, that’s a big class,” she said. “It’s really hard to manage the behavior.”

Administrators Take Over

Inside Vine Street Elementary, where all 25 teachers were on strike, principal Kurt Lowry was moving students through the auditorium and into classrooms for indoor physical education. “Thank you for being cooperative and patient,” he told the lines of children as they moved along. “You’re doing a fantastic job.”

As soon as Lowry had dispatched those children to P.E., he ushered a new group of about 50 students into the auditorium for English instruction. Returning to his teaching roots for the first time in 15 years, Lowry oversaw a lesson for 4th and 5th graders about writing an analytic essay. He had a few aides with him to help out.

Upstairs, in the library, Joseph Espinosa, a math coordinator from a regional office, prepared to launch into a math lesson for about 50 3rd and 4th graders. But first, he had to get them settled in rows of chairs.

“I’m Mr. Espinosa. I’m going to be your math teacher for the next couple of days,” he told the children. “Just put your backpacks under your chairs, because there’s nowhere else to put them.”

Outside the big windows, teachers could be heard chanting on the sidewalk, with cars honking in support.

Most rooms along the school’s hallways were closed and locked, since there were no teachers to staff them. Only 190 of Vine Street’s 440 students came to school today. Cafeteria staff said that they served a little more than half the number of the breakfasts they dole out on a typical day.

Districtwide, according to preliminary data, at least 141,631 students attended class on the strike’s first day—about one-third of average daily attendance at the district’s 1,240 schools. However, this number includes students at the district’s 216 independent charter schools, which are not affected by the strike. And about 50 schools hadn’t yet submitted attendance reports.

Emmitt Claiborne was one of the many students who stayed home.

“I’m at my godmother’s today because my mom just went to the hospital to have my baby sister,” Emmitt, a 6th grader, said in a phone interview. “She said she would rather have me home than sitting in an auditorium all day, so I’m helping my godmom clean and go grocery shopping.”

During a break, Lowry said the morning had gone as well as possible. He said he’s prepared to manage his school this way during the strike, but added that it’s “not ideal.”

“I don’t like the idea of having to do it, but I’m prepared to do it,” Lowry said. “We need resources for our teachers, and I hope for a quick resolution [to the contract dispute]. But we need to have everybody back in their normal positions.”

Contract Dispute Continues

A final bargaining session between United Teachers Los Angeles and the district last week fell short of averting the strike. The district sweetened its offer with $130 million to reduce class sizes and add 1,200 teachers, counselors, nurses, and librarians to the district’s 900-plus schools. But the union said the offer was still “inadequate,” noting that those staffing levels would be guaranteed for only one year.

In a press conference on Monday, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said the district is committed to resolving the contract dispute as soon as possible. A brief statement the district issued Monday morning reiterated that it “did not want a strike.”

“We urge [UTLA] to resume bargaining with us, anytime, anywhere,” Beutner said. “We’re in discussions with the governor, with the mayor, with the state superintendent of public education because it is our desire to have all of our educators well-supported, back in schools, serving the needs of our students.”

District leaders have repeatedly said they cannot afford the union’s demands. But they got more resources to bolster offers last week, when Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state budget proposal included a boost for school funding. And the county government has offered to provide the district up to $10 million for nursing and mental-health services.

The district and the union are not far apart on salary. The district has offered a 6 percent pay raise, with back pay for the 2017-18 school year, and the union is holding out for a 6.5 salary increase, with back pay going as far as July 2016.

No new negotiations were expected to take place Monday, although Beutner said his negotiations team will be available around the clock.

Addressing a crowd at a high school in the Los Feliz neighborhood Monday morning, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten joined striking teachers. (UTLA pays dues to both national unions.)

“On behalf of [our] 3 million educator members ... we are so freaking proud of you,” Eskelsen-García told the crowd. “You are standing strong for the profession and for our students.”

Education Week Staff Writer Madeline Will contributed to this post.

Top image: The front line of the LAUSD teacher rally and march began at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 14. —Morgan Lieberman for Education Week

Lower image: Students Ayden Hernandez, Joshua Castro, Max Lopez, and Adonay Miranda, from left, participate in a classroom exercise at Vine Street Elementary on Jan. 14. Morgan Lieberman for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.