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"I Want Them to Arrest Me, If That's What It Takes to be Heard!"

LA Teacher’s Sit-In Over Layoffs

by SARAH KNOPP

Fifty teachers along with parent supporters disrupted a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) School Board meeting March 10 and occupied the boardroom in an attempt to stop a vote on sending out "reduction in force" notices to almost 9,000 district employees.

Claiming a $718 million budget shortfall, the district is threatening to lay off teachers–both permanent and non-permanent–as well as counselors, administrators, custodial and support staff, and other district employees.

The board, led by Monica Garcia–an ally of LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa–slunk out of the boardroom and into an undisclosed location somewhere in the building. There, on display to the public only via a closed-circuit broadcast to the cafeteria of the building, they voted 5-2 to authorize Superintendent Ramon Cortines to send out the notices. Board members Julie Korenstein and Richard Vladovic dissented.

For the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) members who participated, the action was transformative.

We had planned the civil disobedience in advance, and the union paid for substitutes so that we could attend the board meeting. School board meetings always start at 1 p.m., so teachers attending is usually not possible.

The meetings take place in a room in a fancy glass building in the middle of downtown LA with seating for about 250. There are 740,000 students in LAUSD, so if only one-tenth of 1 percent of parents wanted to participate, the room would need to be three times bigger.

Most of us on the protest were seasoned activists, but when we chanted "One! Don’t cut the budget! Two! A little bit louder! Three! We need the money! Four! Our students!" for an hour in the hot sun before being permitted into the building, we all felt more angry, more energized and many times more confident than we had at such protests in the past. This time, they’d have to drag us out of there if they wanted to shut us up!

And while most of us were veterans whose jobs were not on the line, we were joined by a handful of probationary teachers who won’t be returning next year if the layoffs go through.

We were also joined in our civil disobedience by parents and grandparents who were organized by the community group ACORN. One of the protesters, 83-year-old Julia Botello, has 12 children and more than 30 grandchildren who have gone through the public school system. Four of her granddaughters are now teachers.

Julia had just stepped up to the mic to plead with board members not to make the cuts when they stood up to leave the room for their secret chambers. Later, surrounded by a dozen TV cameras, she said, "I’m calling on the president, the governor, and all those above us to help us…I want them to arrest me, if that’s what it takes to be heard."

When the school board left the room, the media stayed. School police were ordered not to arrest teacher-occupiers while the media was still present, so we were never arrested. As UTLA President A.J. Duffy explained to reporters and participants:

Some people say that what we are doing today is improper. Was it improper when they did it in the civil rights movement? Was it improper when César Chávez used civil disobedience to force Gallo wine to meet the demands of the field workers? Isn’t this how India won its independence from the British Empire? In fact, this whole country that we love was born out of civil disobedience!

Then, each of the teachers present took turns standing up and explaining what would happen at their schools if the cuts went through. Gym teachers who have used their own paychecks to buy volleyballs, teachers with more than 40 students in remediation classes, and a cohort from a social justice academy at a large high school, afraid to lose the energy, drive and innovation of their newest teachers–all told their stories. Teachers made it clear that layoffs resulting in larger class sizes will be a disaster for students.

Since we had the boardroom occupied, we used the opportunity to debate strategies, tactics and the next actions we could take to escalate the fight and involve more parents and teachers. Afterwards, we joined a support rally outside. Students from three prominent high schools had organized a bus to bring them to the protest. The action drew widespread coverage in the local media.

* * *

THE SIT-IN was the latest in a series of actions by UTLA in the last few months.

On June 6 of last year, the union organized a one-hour strike to protest state budget cuts targeting schools. The next big action came December 10, when some 10,000 UTLA members demonstrated at seven regional school board offices to protest LAUSD’s insulting "last, best, and final offer" that threatened draconian cuts to teachers’ health care coverage.

Since then, UTLA and seven other school employee unions have reached a tentative agreement on health care, a deal that turns back LAUSD’s most aggressive demands. That agreement will soon be voted on by members.

In parallel bargaining, negotiators for the teachers and LAUSD are far apart on the main contract. Key issues are salary and a series of non-monetary demands dealing with workplace democracy, shared decision-making, rights for school counselors and substitutes, and a fair grievance procedure.

UTLA has been rebuilding the union’s capacity to fight since a reform leadership took over in 2005. Teachers won a 6 percent raise in the 2006-07 negotiations. The re-opener rounds in years two and three of our three-year contract have so far yielded nothing but offers of less than zero from the district.

Employees who receive pink slips will not definitely lose their jobs until after a final school board vote in June. Many hope that by then, federal stimulus money will have provided a way for LAUSD to avoid most of the layoffs.

But we intend to make it clear to the district that if they don’t find the money by any means necessary to save every single job, they will pay the price of massive unrest.

David Rapkin contributed to this article.

SARAH KNOPP is a public school teacher in Los Angeles.

This article originally appeared in the Socialist Worker.