LA Teachers’ Strike: Friedrichs, the Union-Busters’ Warhorse

In June the US Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that non-union workers cannot be compelled to pay agency/“fair share” fees to public sector unions. This decision has been widely predicted to spell the doom of unions, and the Los Angeles teachers’ strike was the first major post-Janus strike.

Given our tremendous success, one can assume that unions are not on death’s doorstep after all. But well-funded anti-union forces have been stepping up their attacks on teachers unions, and trying to encourage union members to “opt-out” of union dues.

What hit unions in 2018 almost hit us in 2016–Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association was a similar suit to Janus, and it too made it up to the US Supreme Court. The unions would have lost, except Justice Antonin Scalia died shortly after the case was argued in front of the Supreme Court, leaving only eight members to decide the case, and the lower court’s decision stood.

Plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs is now back as the voice of the opponents of teachers unions. She and her new book Standing Up to Goliath: Battling State and National Teachers’ Unions for the Heart and Soul of Our Kids and Country are being vigorously promoted by Breitbart, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Southern California Newspaper Group, and others.

Friedrichs has been a prominent critic of teachers unions and public education in general, and of United Teachers of Los Angeles’ recent strike in particular.

For example, her piece The unions’ war on kids (Los Angeles Daily News, 1/20/19) was given big, front of the opinion page coverage in Los Angeles’ 2nd biggest newspaper as well as several others during the strike. Below I discuss this Friedrichs column and one other—her words are in italics, my commentary is in regular type.

Friedrichs writes:

Disturbingly, union activists are placing kids on picket lines. 

No teachers were “placing” any kids on picketlines, except for when a striking teacher brought his or her kids to the picketline, which was common. Does Ms. Friedrichs know what’s good for kids better than their parents?

It is true, however, that tens of thousands of students voluntarily showed up on picketlines or marched in teachers demonstrations. They did this because they realized that we were fighting for them.

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 came to each of the four downtown rallies.

Innocent families delivering children to school are surrounded by angry mobs. My friend is terrified to take her kids to school in Los Angeles Unified. 

Friedrichs was right, there were mobs of people on our picketlines—teachers, students, and many parents and community supporters. And they were angry—not at families or students (both of whom have overwhelmingly supported us) as Friedrichs implies, but at a school district that has starved our schools for funds.

United Teachers of Los Angeles’ position on students coming to school during the strike was no position—we did not advise in favor or against it. Parents—supportive of us and knowing that no learning was going on without teachers anyway—withheld their students from school on their own volition.

She’s angry at the unions, but as a parent and taxpayer, she’s voiceless.

Angry at us for fighting for smaller class sizes for her kids? For fighting to have a nurse and a librarian for her kids? If this person actually exists, she’s very confused.

Teachers like me are appalled. We’re hired to serve children and families not abuse, indoctrinate, and use them as pawns for the union agenda.

“Abuse”? Who is being abused? And we’re not “indoctrinating,” we’re educating. As one of our students who joined one of our downtown rallies told us, “We’re really getting an education now!”

But “teachers’ unions” who “represent” us are rabid. Their “future is inextricably linked to the well-being of public education,” because public-school teachers provide them billions annually in tax-free revenue. So, using teachers’ dues, unions developed their #RedforED and “Great Public Schools” campaigns — deceptive titles for an all-out war on kids.

The tactics of this “war on kids” involve fighting for more funding for these kids’ schools. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “War” should be made of sterner stuff…

While lining the pockets of their favored politicians, unions organized nationwide strikes ordering teachers to protest for moratoriums on charter schools and widespread denial of parental choice, because most choice schools are non-union.

Teachers unions do give money to politicians, but then again, so do the many billionaires aligned against public school unions. Our contributions are far more legitimate–after all, we’re educators, so we should have a voice in education policy.

And no union has been “ordering teachers to protest for moratoriums on charter schools”—we protest because, unlike Friedrichs, we understand the harm done to public education by the charter industry.

“But teachers like me support school choice. We’re harshly bullied when we put kids ahead of unions, so thousands of horrified teachers trapped in unionized public schools shut their mouths and march.

“Harshly bullied”? How?

The results are catastrophic. Tenth-grader Nicole suffers from epilepsy-induced “absence seizures”…[in public school] She was hopeless, and her seizures increased…

Maybe if her school had the funding to have a school nurse, maybe if her teachers didn’t have to serve such an overwhelming number of students, the public school could have “met her needs.” In other words, UTLA’s strike (and victory) helps children like Nicole.

…Thankfully, a charter school opened offering Nicole’s family a choice…Nicole told me, “My teachers had more time to work with me and if the class didn’t understand something, they would slow down and teach it again.”

That’s nice that her teachers had more time to help her—maybe if public school teachers had the privilege of the small class sizes that charter schools enjoy, they could’ve helped Nicole also.

…[At the charter] I didn’t have headaches, and my seizures happened less during class.”

I had guessed that Ms. Friedrichs—an outspoken Christian conservative—believes that Jesus healed the sick, but I hadn’t realized that she apparently believes charter schools do too.

Threatened by charters, the National Education Association adopted Business Item 47: “NEA will develop and promote resolution … calling for county-wide and state-wide moratoria on new charter school authorizations in every state …”

The NEA—and UTLA, which made a similar call in December—are correct. But many beyond unions are calling for charter moratoriums. In 2016-2017 the Anaheim Union High School District’s Board of Education, the president of the Oakland school board, and the Santa Clara County Board of Education each called for slowing or stopping charter growth.

California charters must obtain authorization from local public school districts dominated by union-funded politicians. If charters unionize, they’re supported; if not, they’re burdened with constant attacks.

Most charters aren’t unionized, and they’ve been proliferating greatly in California over the past couple decades. If these really are “union-funded politicians,” they aren’t doing much of a job.

[After a corruption scandal closed a charter school] About 1,200 kids who were thriving in their family-centered charter were forced back into traditional public schools — their teachers were shoved back into unions, too. 

Teachers were “shoved back” into the only institution that defends them, their ability to do their jobs and serve children, and earn a decent wage. To learn more, see my column Why teachers unions are good for your children (Los Angeles Daily News, 1/18/19).

[One teacher] said: “My former co-workers now cry as they drive to work…”

My colleagues and I in LAUSD deal every day with conditions worse than what Friedrichs describes, but we don’t “cry” as we drive to work. Then again, we’re all brainwashed…

I shared Nicole’s story with the California Senate Education Committee…a union-backed senator verbally attacked me — she waited until I was off microphone and defenseless — then isolated me so severely colleagues who witnessed were traumatized for days.

Her scolding began, “I was going to quietly vote no on this bill, but as a 30-year union member I have to address Ms. Friedrichs and let you know that your words and your actions harm thousands of people, thousands of workers.” (See it for yourself: 1:04:14 here)

Yes, by all means listen to it—all the senator said was that Friedrichs’ actions against unions (including her lawsuit) hurt working people, which is completely true. The fact that Friedrichs claims this relatively mild, completely merited professional scolding “isolated me so severely colleagues who witnessed were traumatized for days” throws every other claim she makes into question.

…So now you know how bully unions terrorize teachers, parents and kids.

“Bully”? “Terrorize”? Friedrichs hasn’t provided the slightest example of either one.

I would add that in one column Friedrichs manages to use the word “bully” (or bullied) four times, as well as well as “abuse”, “traumatized”, “terrified”, “rabid”, “horrified”, “threatened”, “attacked”, and “terrorize.” All in reference to a group of people–3/4ths women–who have devoted their lives to helping children.

In #RedforED: Grassroots movement or union propaganda? (Los Angeles Daily News, 1/12/19)–also published in Los Angeles’ 2nd biggest newspaper as well as several others on the eve of the strike–Friedrichs writes:

Los Angeles teachers wearing “#RedforED” t-shirts are threatening to strike for higher wages. Their salary schedule ranges from $50,368 for new teachers to $112,963 for senior educators.

Actually, the LAUSD salary scale tops out at only $81,560. Here’s the scale–marked up slightly with my own princely salary. (Teachers are C basis, we advance to the right with years of experience and advance down the list with more education. The chart does not reflect a $500 yearly bonus for having a Master’s Degree.)

High-performing new teachers earn $62,000 less thanks to counterintuitive union rules that forbid merit pay, but the district already offered 6 percent to increase the range from $53,390 to $119,740…

Well, I was recently recognized by LAUSD Deputy Superintendent Vivian Ekchian for “exceptional levels of performance” but nothing in the Deputy Superintendent’s letter mentions me losing $62K—Ms. Friedrichs, can you help me find it?

The 6% raise we just won–which took 17 months of bargaining to get to–takes us from $81,560 to $86,454. I’m not sure where Friedrichs gets up to $119,740 but again, if she can tell me how to get that, I’d be grateful.

That’s a pretty nice living for a 10-month job.

Yes, a 10-month job where one must work 60-70 hour weeks for 40+ weeks a year. The flexibility that summers offer is nice—though many teachers supplement their mediocre wages by working during the summers—but there aren’t many people who’d be willing to work the way we do 80% of the year.

Yet #RedforED protests rage on. Under the guise of, “We’re raising our voices to support every student,” educators are shuttering Los Angeles schools. 

Well, we only “shuttered” them after 21 months of fruitless negotiations to get LAUSD to give our students what they need and deserve—that doesn’t seem too hasty. We worked 18 months without a contract.

They’re demanding a moratorium on charter schools — the very schools many students need.

Charter operators brag about their students’ test scores, but charters aren’t succeeding—they’re cherry-picking.

Gordon Lafer, Ph.D. of the University of Oregon, who conducted an extensive study on the impact of charter schools, says, “Charters sort and subdivide the student population…While charter schools are required by law to accept any student who applies, in reality they exercise recruitment, admission, and expulsion policies that often screen out the students who would be the neediest and most expensive to serve—who then turn to district schools.”

For example, Lafer found that in Oakland Unified School District–which shares many demographic and fiscal characteristics with LAUSD—28 percent of all students go to charters, but only 19 percent of its special needs students, 8 percent of its autistic students, and 2 percent of its students with multiple disabilities attend charters.

Nevertheless, supporters claim charters outperform traditional schools. Yet even the most inclusive, fair-minded charter operators still benefit from the selection effect. Pursuing a charter school is powerful evidence of a student’s and family’s commitment to education–a factor strongly correlated with academic success. Moreover, charters are able to remove disruptive students far more easily than traditional schools, an advantage LAUSD school administrators often speak of wistfully.

I benefited from this selection effect when I moved from our high school’s residential school to its magnet. Our magnet accepts everybody, just as any public school does. Yet in our magnet, major indices for student success, such as attendance, legal status, parents who speak English, parents who are educated, and others are significantly higher than in the residential school. Our magnet students outperform the residential students in practically all areas, and are greatly over-represented on academic and athletic teams and in student government. Yet my magnet colleagues would not think of claiming credit for this superiority. Charter operators, who benefit greatly from a similar selection effect, often lack this restraint.

What inspires well-paid teachers to deny the needs of kids they love in exchange for angry strikes they loathe? Union deception and brutality.

Brutality? Where? How?

[Wisconsin public school teacher] Tracie Happel…refuse[d] to join the massive union protests against Gov. Walker’s Act 10 reforms…so the unions destroyed her career…The administration questioned every student seeking evidence against Tracie…Tracie feared the union and administration would continue to harm the children because of their hatred for her, so she resigned.

This story doesn’t make a lot of sense–Ms. Friedrichs, you do understand that unions and administration (management) are on opposite sides, don’t you?

Great teachers find refuge from bully unions in charters…

I know a lot of great teachers who have no desire to slave away in a non-union charter, believe in their union and just went on strike to defend it. In fact, we have several good teachers who have come into UTLA and LAUSD as refugees from charter schools. They describe charter schools as places where idealistic young people slave away long hours for poor wages until they can’t stand it any more and leave. Then the charter just finds a new young teacher to replace them.

I know all about it—in my youth I worked for six years at non-union schools.

Tracie told me: “It scares me to death that unions might come in and take over my school…They’ll do all of the things they’ve done to ruin public schools to charter schools.”

Actually, the one group that is aware of and fights to defend teachers’ ability to provide students with a good education is teachers’ unions.

Teachers’ unions help children’s education because they protect a precious resource — teachers’ time. At nonunion schools teachers are often weighed down with unnecessary labor such as yard duty and supervising school events. These duties reduce teachers’ ability to spend time helping students and preparing for classes.

In fact, one of UTLA’s demands in the recent strike was to eliminate yard duty for counselors. During UTLA’s successful 1989 strike, yard duty for teachers was ended, benefiting our students.

At nonunion schools, teachers often must forgo their planning period to substitute for absent teachers. At union schools, substitute teachers handle most of this responsibility.

At union schools, “preps” — the number of separate class subjects teachers must prepare for — are contractually limited. At nonunion schools excessive preps can drain teachers’ time. It is far more work to teach three or four separate subjects in five periods than it is to teach one or two.

The two national teachers’ unions, NEA and AFT, boast total membership of 4.7 million educators, and dues average $1,000 annually. Do the math: $4.7 billion, tax free. Money used to push their angry, far-left social, sexual and political agenda. That’s why unions are “raising our voices to protect public schools.” Who cares about the kids. Kids don’t pay dues.

Several issues:

+ For one, we’re defending public schools because that’s what best for kids.

+ I don’t begrudge my union their dues—in fact, UTLA asked its members for (and got) a substantial dues increase a few years ago. Given UTLA’s strong performance during this strike, it was obviously money well spent.

+ I doubt NEA & AFT revenue is that high. Union dues are about $1,000 a year in a state like California—doubtless it’s less in most other states.

+ Only a small portion of our dues goes to political work, and unions have many other expenses beyond political work. Most of our money goes to working on behalf of teachers.

Odd that Friedrichs is unhappy that an organization with a few billion dollars is defending public education, but doesn’t seem to have any problem with the Waltons, Carnegies, the Broad Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and other billionaire-backed foundations giving money to fight teachers unions and public education.

There’s also a difference between these people—some of whom “earned” their money simply by being born, others who did good work in their day but nothing that should have earned them anything like the billions they reaped—and the teachers who fund the teachers unions. Unlike them, all the money we have we earned.


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.”