After months of contract negotiations, Los Angeles teachers have announced that, unless the LA school district leadership gives a dramatic set of last-minute concessions, they will begin a strike on January 10. The stakes of the struggle could hardly be higher. In the second-largest school district in the country, educators have thrown down the gauntlet against the forces of big business, gentrification, and privatization — including those within the Democratic Party.
The teachers’ revolt sparked by West Virginia has now spread to the “bluest” state of them all, California. LA’s schools show why the crisis of public education can’t be blamed only on Republicans. Huge class sizes, low per-pupil funding, rampant charter schools, over-testing, a lack of counselors, nurses, and librarians — these are the fruit of years of Democratic rule in the city and the state capitol.
“Corporate Democrats are getting money from the same billionaires and corporations as the Republicans,” explains United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) Secretary Arlene Inouye, “so essentially all public educators in this country are targets.” In Los Angeles, deep-pocketed pro-charter ideologues recently installed Austin Beutner — a billionaire investment banker with zero educational experience — as superintendent. Their plan is straightforward: drastically downsize the school district to push students into privately run charter schools.
Despite the fact that the district is sitting on $1.86 billion in financial reserves, Beutner has refused to meet the union’s basic demands for lower class size, more school resources, and charter accountability, since such improvements would undermine his privatizing mission.
For Inouye, “this is a struggle to save public education; the existence of public education in our city is on the line.” It’s also a struggle over the future of the Democratic Party. Los Angeles is a microcosm of, and a major front in, a larger national battle that has pitted working-class insurgents like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez against the business-bought Democratic establishment.
Though school privatization today is currently associated more with Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, Democratic Party leaders have been just as responsible for the decimation of public education over recent years. And from Colorado to New York, top officials of the Democratic Party continue to promote the charter school agenda.
Los Angeles is no exception. Austin Beutner may look and act like the evil villain in a children’s movie, but like most of the enemies of public education in Los Angeles and California, he’s a liberal, a longtime party funder, and a proud Democrat.
So are Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez, the swing-vote school board members who rode into office last year in the most expensive school board race in US history; billionaire charter school backers like Eli Broad and Reed Hastings made over $9.7 million in contributions to ensure their election. Both Gonez and Melvoin worked in the Obama administration and are supported by Arne Duncan, Obama’s infamously anti-union, pro-charter secretary of education.
On a statewide level, California’s Democratic governors and legislators — who currently have a supermajority in Sacramento — have done little to stem the tide of privatization. Nor have Democrats taken steps to fully fund education by pushing to reform Prop. 13, the regressive anti-tax policy that has gutted state coffers since 1978. As a result, to quote UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl, “California, supposedly the pride and model for the Democratic Party, is at forty-three out of the fifty states in per-pupil funding.” Unsurprisingly, Los Angeles isn’t the only city in California on the verge of a teachers’ strike — Oakland educators will very likely be going out in early 2019 as well.
At best, the Democrats have upheld the status quo. But in California, and across the nation, the status quo is no longer tolerable for millions. LA’s strike — like the popular upsurge around Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and their calls for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal — suggests that working people want a break with neoliberal austerity and are even willing to take drastic action to make that break happen.
Elected in 2014 with a mandate to transform the union, the new UTLA leadership has spent the last four years preparing for this battle. Rather than sticking with the labor movement’s self-defeating reliance on electing and lobbying mainstream Democrats, the union has consciously upheld the militant spirit of the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike and the recent red state rebellions. “I’ve been blown away by what we’ve been able to organize,” said Rosa Jimenez, a teacher in LA’s Koreatown and a parent of a fifth grader. “We’ve been working so hard, for so many years, to get to this point.”
Winning won’t be easy. Superintendent Beutner is the mouthpiece of powerful economic and political interests — and he shows no signs of backing down. The powers that be understand that a victorious strike in Los Angeles could detonate a wave of similar actions in blue states across the nation. The spread of this kind of labor militancy would not only threaten their plans to downsize public education — it would also give unprecedented popular leverage to the electoral insurgency headed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, the only potential presidential contender to have consistently supported the strike wave.
There’s no way to predict today how these battles in Los Angeles and beyond will unfold. One thing does seem clear though: 2019 is shaping up to be another year of fiery teachers’ strikes. And this time, they won’t only be targeting Republicans.