LA Teachers’ Strike: When Just One Man Says, “No”

“When just one man says, ‘No, I won’t’ Rome begins to fear”

So said Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, the leader of the renowned ancient slave revolt, in the movie Spartacus. The closer we came to a strike, the more furious the conservative establishment’s attacks on United Teachers of Los Angeles became. Their fear is palpable.

Teachers are supposed to submit to the massive underfunding of our schools and tackle the problems in our usual way–self-sacrifice. This means working insane hours, trying to do what can’t be done, and spending our own money to buy what Los Angeles Unified School District will not. It means being blamed for the district’s shortcomings and the negative effects poverty has on our overwhelmingly impoverished student body.

Finally, we said “No.”

Our strike is so obviously popular that teachers unions’ more sensible opponents have refrained from attacking us, instead mouthing platitudes about “what’s good for the children.” But not so with the more open enemies of unions, teachers, and public schools.

To pick one example of many, yesterday several newspapers of the Southern California Newspaper Group ran In the LAUSD teacher strike, the union chooses greed over students. In it Brad Polumbo and Patrick Hauf of the libertarian media nonprofit Young Voices level numerous bewildering accusations against Los Angeles teachers. Polumbo and Hauf tell us:

The likely results of this strike are disturbing. The district’s schools plan to stay open, but will be incredibly stretched for staff and almost entirely filled with substitute teachers.

Actually, at secondary schools most staffs are not stretched thin, because there aren’t many students to supervise anyway.

LA Superintendent Austin Beutner began the strike by telling a news conference that so few teachers had walked off the job that only 3,500 UTLA members were striking. This was an incredible statement to make, given that at that very moment an angry mob of 50,000—including tens of thousands of striking teachers—was marching from Grand Park to his office.

Having first tried to pretend that the strike was no big deal, Beutner quickly pivoted, complaining today that so many teachers were out and so few students attended that the district lost $25 million in revenue in one day.

My high school is illustrative of both. Both days, 106 out of 107 UTLA members honored our picketline. Over the two-day period, a mere 16.8% of students attended school. At a school with 2,100 students, we had half as many students on the picketline Monday as we did in school. At $68 a head, in two days LAUSD has lost almost a quarter million dollars in revenue at my school alone—and we’re one out of over a thousand schools.

Polumbo and Patrick Hauf write:

By striking for higher wages, amid other demands regarding classroom size and increased support staff, these teachers are selfishly leaving their students to fend for themselves. Indeed, during negotiations, the school district offered teachers a 6 percent raise that would go into effect over the next two years.

Besides LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner, Polumbo and Hauf seem to be the only ones who don’t realize that this strike is not about salary. As UTLA has made clear numerous times, it’s about class sizes and proper staffing.

In fact, Beutner keeps trumpeting LAUSD’s offer of a raise of close to what UTLA has asked for, and seems bewildered that it hasn’t led to a settlement. But there’s nothing to be bewildered about—this strike is not about money for us, it’s about money for our students.

(I would add that the 6% with strings attached raise Beutner is offering took us 17 months of negotiating to get–originally LAUSD offered no raise at all. Moreover, it is not even a raise, it’s just a cost of living adjustment that still leaves us significantly behind where we were 10 years ago. It’s indicative of just how little the district has to offer us that this is what they proudly point to.)

Polumbo and Hauf  write:

Furthermore, the tensions from teacher strikes hurt students, divide communities, and damage a school’s atmosphere—and for what?

“Divide communities”? Not at all. Beyond all the support we’ve received from parents—including the many who have walked our picket lines with us–one of the touching things about this strike is the unity forged between teachers and students.

At my school 100 student volunteers have shown up as early as 6:15 AM and provided key logistical support in setting up and breaking down our pickets. They made picket signs and proudly walked our picketlines. They then arranged to take the bus to the North Hollywood redline station and go downtown to the rallies—dozens have come each of the past two days.

As one told me, “we’re really getting an education now!”

One government student was even quoted in the Washington Post today:

Max Jimenez, an 18-year-old senior at James Monroe High in the North Hills section of Los Angeles, joined throngs of protesters at a rally Monday, coming with several classmates. Making his first-ever appearance at a protest, he said he was taking a lesson from his AP government teacher — about the importance of standing up for his beliefs — to heart.

“I’ve only seen this . . . in movies,” Jimenez said, marveling at the crowd.

Another government student, Leila de los Reyes, met and took a photo with LA Mayor Eric Garcetti at today’s rally, explaining:

It didn’t have to come to this point. The point where students are missing school and teachers, students, and parents are out there rallying and striking. When will students get the rightful education we deserve, no matter our social class?

Polumbo and Hauf write:

In this case, it comes down to pure greed—with a hint of jealousy. As a response to charter schools’ steady enrollment increase since 2012, the union is also demanding a cap on them within the district. Study after study shows that school choice programs are far more beneficial to students than traditional public schools, yet teachers unions want to put a halt on that success for their own benefit.

Actually, studies show nothing of the sort. Charter schools get better test scores than traditional schools–and do better in academic competitions–simply because they accept the students they want and exclude—or, later, expel—the students they don’t. (To learn about this issue, click here.)

To choose an example that might appeal to Polumbo’s and Hauf’s libertarian/conservative hearts, charter claims of superiority are like saying that the best economic policies in the Western Hemisphere over the past 10 years have been those of Barack Obama. After all, the US had a better GDP than any other country during this period, didn’t it? (Like the charter claims of superiority, it’s a claim without context.)

One of the best things about the LA teacher revolt is the way it has helped wake the country up about the charter scam. Many articles in recent days have debunked the myth that charters are better and have detailed the way they’ve damaged traditional schools.

It was especially satisfying today at our massive rally outside the offices of the California Charter Schools Association’s offices downtown. The CCSA bought the LA School Board (in what was the most expensive school board election in US history) and the boardmembers they bankrolled installed Beutner as superintendent. Today the ladies and gentlemen of the CCSA no doubt looked out their office windows and realized that they’d been made.

Polumbo and Hauf write:

Meanwhile, contrary to popular belief, most of these teachers aren’t even underpaid…teaching is a 10-month job in a county where many people work 12 months.

I’ll address this ignorance in a moment, but to be fair to Polumbo and Hauf, why should they think some knowledge of education is a prerequisite for writing articles about it when it wasn’t even a prerequisite to become the superintendent of LAUSD? (Beutner has no experience or background in education except for the fact—as he himself pointed out—he had attended public school 40 years ago.)

Yes, Polumbo and Hauf, we work 10 months out of the year and–surprised you didn’t mention it–our classes do end at 3:15 each day. However, 3:15 isn’t the end of our work day; that’s just the end of our first shift.

The second shift — which begins after we’ve already been at school for almost eight hours — includes helping students after school, grading essays, tests and other papers, researching and planning lessons, contacting parents, entering grades, attending meetings, making copies and numerous other tasks. Preparation work continues on weekends.

During the school year I work almost every Saturday and Sunday, as well as most vacation days, and I average a 70 hour work week. To conclude that our work mostly consists of our time teaching during the school day is as absurd as looking at a performance of a Broadway show and concluding that the actors’ workload is only the time they’re performing live.

Over Thanksgiving and spring breaks I work most of the time, too—usually I give a major essay or major open answer exam right before that, and use three or four days of the break to grade all of it and catch up on other recent quizzes. I work most of Christmas break, too—usually I use it as time to research and lay out what I plan to teach in the spring.

Over summers I work also—though not as much—preparing for the fall, reading the new textbooks, researching, cutting clips of historical movies or shows, attending AP conferences, setting up my room, etc. The extra unscheduled time—it’s not free time, because I have to work some of it—certainly has benefits which most people don’t enjoy. But most people wouldn’t be willing to work 70 hour weeks three-quarters of the year either.

Hall of Fame baseball player Carl Yastrzemski, whose extraordinary conditioning allowed him to play as a major league regular until he was 44 years old, once said he wished he were paid by the hour. Beutner—whose excuse/mantra for not spending money on our schools is his dubious claim “we’re broke”—has also spoke cuttingly of teachers on occasion. However, if Beutner would like to pay us by the hour, I’d be thrilled. The only problem is that then Beutner’s school district really would go bankrupt.


Glenn Sacks teaches social studies at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He was recently recognized by LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner for “exceptional levels of performance.”