- Interview by
- Eric Blanc
After a powerful week-long strike, Los Angeles teachers on Tuesday evening voted by a super majority to approve a new settlement with the school district. By withholding their labor and winning overwhelming public support, strikers were able to wrest major concessions from a billionaire superintendent intent on privatizing the district.
Some of the most important wins for LA public schools include: a full-time nurse in every school, as well as additional counselors and librarians; the elimination of Section 1.5 of the contract (that allows the district to ignore class size caps); a steady decrease in class size across the board; a 6 percent pay raise with no trade-off health-care concessions; increased union oversight regarding charter co-locations; political support for a statewide moratorium on charters; and a wide range of steps forward regarding common good demands such as expanding community schools, ending racist “random searches,” building green spaces at schools, and establishing an immigrant defense fund.
Though Tuesday’s voting process was unfortunately rushed into a few short hours, a vast majority of LA educators nevertheless feel that this is a historic victory for public education in LA and across the country. After Tuesday’s massive victory rally in front of City Hall, Jacobin’s Eric Blanc sat down with United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) leader Arlene Inouye to discuss the strike’s meaning and impact.
Arlene, you’ve been on strike for over a week, you’ve been bargaining all night, and just a few minutes ago you announced a tentative agreement to a huge rally of tens of thousands of educators. Can you describe how you feel right now?
I know I’m tired — I feel it in my body. But I’m going to miss this, I’ll tell you that much. It’s just an amazing feeling to see a sea of red of educators feeling so happy, feeling so empowered. After years of being beaten down, LA teachers are now able to feel proud about who we are and what we do. There’s no real word for my feeling right now — exhilaration maybe? It’s just very, very special to be able to have this experience. It’s beautiful.
Why do you think the district ended up conceding these last demands over the weekend? It’s pretty surprising, since they’ve been fighting so hard against you for months.
One thing is that we have a tough bargaining team — and we made it clear to the district that there were some basic demands that we had to get. We stood strong on our principles.
But what really moved the dial was the fact that we had thirty-two thousand members picketing at every single school, together with fifteen thousand parents and community members. And we had fifty thousand members and supporters out here rallying almost every day. That’s real power. So they knew that if they didn’t meet our demands, we’d prolong the strike — and they didn’t want that. We had tremendous leverage and that’s why we were able to get everything we thought was critical — and more.
Los Angeles is an infamously hard city to organize because of its size and its geographic dispersion. The organizing drive led by the new UTLA leadership since you all were elected in 2014 has got to be one of the most impressive drives of organized labor in decades; the growth and transformation of the union has been incredible. Chicago’s 2012 strike was amazing, but this seems even deeper to me.
We’ve really been building over the past years. I learned that there’s nothing that can stop you when you’re very organized, when you have the structures, the internal systems, the rank-and-file participation, the staff, and when you’re working together for a common agenda. I’m still amazed about what we as a union have been able to accomplish.
We were able to motivate our members and to walk them through the steps of overcoming their real fears and doubts; we were able to help them take a big risk. We stood strong for the issues of all our members, not just our teachers. When you’re inclusive like that you really experience unity. We were all able to come together.
Educators across the city seem transformed . . .
Exactly. The isolation and the barriers that a lot of educators feel on the day-to-day — the strike broke all that down. An outpouring of love, that’s what I’ve felt during this strike. There’s been a real sense of community, of love for each other.
Of course, it’s hard to go on strike — but once you get there, it’s exhilarating. I honestly had no idea how much power it would give our members, it really changed the whole face of everything in this city.
And the strike validated all our members. I think every one of them today feels that, “I won this, we won this all together. We do have collective power. We can’t do it individually, but we can do it together.” What amazed me, driving from school to school, was to see all the members out there picketing and dancing in the rain.
Nothing will be the same after this. We now have to look as a union at how we can harness all this energy — and incorporate all the new leaders that have emerged — for the struggles ahead. I think the sky’s the limit. I hope other unions will really be encouraged and inspired, and I believe they are, because I’ve been getting sent a ton of messages from across the country.
We were inspired by Chicago and we were inspired by the red states. Our actions all encourage each other — and this movement is just going to grow. I’m so proud to be part of this struggle for public education, for social justice, for women, for racial justice, for all working people. And our unions are the place where we really have the power to bring this all together.
I’ve been blown away by the level of parent and student support at the picket lines and at huge rallies like today. How do you explain this level of community backing?
It’s been years in the making, working with parents and the community. But then things over the last few weeks just really took off organically.
I think parents saw that we were fighting for their students. Our messaging was clear: this strike wasn’t just about our salaries. Our action took place because we care about our students and because the conditions of our schools have to change. So I think parents felt our sincerity.
It was really moving seeing all the generosity of parents and community. For example, I saw a parent at an elementary school open up her house across the street to all strikers. You could use her bathroom, of course — but they also had a child care section, hot food, and soup on the stove for everybody.
Teachers I spoke with over the past few days have felt the outpouring of support. Lots of them have told me that this strike was the first time that they’ve really been thanked by parents and the community for being an educator. When I hear stories like that, it means the world to me. That’s what it’s all about.
Educators across the country are confronting the same policies of privatization and budget cuts, imposed by both Democrats and Republicans. Do you think the example of Los Angeles is going to encourage more teachers and more unions to take similar work actions?
I believe that what we just experienced will change the face of not only LA but states all over this country — and maybe even abroad. This is a global as well as a national fight to save public education against the privatizers.
The spirit, the joy, the validation, you can’t bottle that up, it’s going to get out there. It’s so contagious, it’s so infectious, this movement is just going to keep growing. It has to.
It feels like today is a big victory — but the struggle to defend and improve public education in LA and in California isn’t over, is it?
There’s definitely more to do. We’ve begun a big legislative battle to win funding for California public education through the Schools and Communities First Act. It’ll be on the 2020 ballot and it will restore $11 billion to education by ending Prop 13’s commercial property tax loophole.
For years now, we’ve been part of a real broad coalition around this issue of taxing the corporations. This is the kind of ballot initiative that I get excited about. Some forces from above keep on bringing up things like a parcel tax, but that’s a regressive tax. I think working people already pay enough in taxes — it’s the wealthy who need to pay their fair share. So we’re going to keep fighting on this taxation issue, there’ll be a big battle in 2020.
On the question of privatization, we need a charter school cap on a statewide level. We actually were able just now to get the school board to agree to pass a resolution for a charter school cap in California. There’s no way that would have happened before the strike.
And now, through the strike, there’s a ton more visibility and consciousness among the public about charters and the $600 million they drain from LA schools, their financial mismanagement, and so forth.
We’re fighting hard on privatization in Los Angeles — I think we really put the spotlight on this question statewide. Working people in LA now understand that we have billionaires who control our school board and that we have a superintendent who’s a Wall Street banker. Our parents know the difference between their children’s teacher and the moneyed interests that are currently controlling our school district.
Through this movement and this strike we’ve shown the power and beauty of public education — and why it needs to be preserved. We made that the new narrative.
Through struggles like these, things are starting to turn and public opinion on charters is changing. And so we’re going to be working with Tony Thurmond, the new California superintendent of public education, to get a charter school cap statewide.
Are there any final words you’d like to pass on to teachers and organizers looking to Los Angeles for inspiration?
Our strike is a lesson for unions across the country: the status quo isn’t okay. It’s time to step up, to be courageous, to put yourself out on the line because working people can’t continue with the current situation of economic inequality and divisions within our communities — it’s time to rise up.
People have seen that we have real power, that we can win. Now’s our day. We’re going to shine and we’re going to keep rising.