In Defense of the LA Education Workers’ Strike

Photograph Source: Mike Chickey – CC BY-SA 4.0

The enemies of labor unions and public education are unhappy, and I can’t say I blame them.

Service Employees International Union Local 99 had been battling the Los Angeles Unified School District for a decent contract for three years, but when they struck–and when United Teachers Los Angeles struck in solidarity with them–SEIU quickly won the contract they had long sought.

From the political right there has been a predictable backlash against the 65,000 Los Angeles education workers who struck March 21-23. What follows is a defense of our unions and our strike against some of our opponents’ main accusations.

SEIU & UTLA Are Greedy

For two+ years conservatives have correctly pointed to the ravages of inflation (“Bidenflation”) and its insidious assault on our living standards. Yet, strangely, when it comes to the SEIU and UTLA, all this is forgotten.

Witness these comments on SEIU’s demand for a 30% salary increase:

+ SEIU “walked off the job this week because they want a massive 30% pay hike.” (Southern California News Group Editorial Board)

+ [SEIU wants] “a whopping 30% across-the-board pay raise” (Aaron Withe, CEO of the Freedom Foundation)

+ “SEIU Local 99 is demanding a whopping 30% increase in wages for school employees (Lance Christensen, California Policy Center)

However, the 30% raise the SEIU sought covers four years–7.5% a year. This is hardly unreasonable: according to the US Social Security Administration, prices rose 5.9% in 2021 and 8.7% in 2022. So far this year inflation is running at 6.2%.

Moreover, inflation impacts lower wage workers like those in SEIU more heavily than people with higher wage jobs. It’s difficult for such workers to handle inflation by cutting back their spending when they’re already spending 95% of their take-home pay on basic necessities.

ULTA’s demand for a 10% a year raise is also being panned.

Christensen lectures UTLA, “There are other ways to resolve pay disputes without using students as pawns in contract negotiations.” Well, LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho stonewalled UTLA through two dozen weekly negotiating sessions–one way to resolve this dispute would be for LAUSD to negotiate in a way that would resolve this dispute.

John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou host the popular John and Ken Show on KFI AM 640 in Los Angeles, reaching 1.2 million listeners each week. On the eve of the recent strike one of the hosts said, “UTLA wants 20% over two years–10% more a year? They’ve got to be kidding–they’re just greedbags…they don’t care.”

That UTLA is striving to get raises–cost-of-living adjustments, really–to defend our livelihoods against the ravages of inflation is hardly surprising.

That’s what the massive 1945-1946 US strike wave was about—wartime price increases ate away at workers’ wages, which were largely stagnant.

From March 1945 to December 1946, over five million workers struck, fighting to preserve their living standards against inflation rates not much larger than what we face today. How were these popular post-war strikes any different from what SEIU and UTLA are doing today?

UTLA Repeatedly Closes Schools for No Reason: the January 2019 Teacher Strike

In “Teachers Union Closes L.A. Schools Yet Again” in the libertarian Reason, Matt Welch writes that “Keeping kids locked out of schools has become quite the specialty for United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA),” criticizing us for our January 2019 strike.

In LAUSD’s unions could support policies to help all Californians, Edward Ring, co-founder of the anti-union California Policy Center, criticizes us for our 2019 strike, snickering that UTLA “struck for a full week for higher pay and benefits–it was for the kids, they said.”

Neither Ring nor Welch detail what that strike was about, but our demands were student-centered and righteous, and have made LAUSD schools and teaching conditions visibly better over the past four years. What we fought for and won included:

+ Hiring additional full-time counselors to bring the student to counselor ratio down to 500-1.

+ Smaller class sizes

+ Enforceable class size caps–previously, LAUSD would often declare spurious crises and use them as a pretext to violate agreed-upon class size limits

+ Hiring more full-time school nurses and full-time teacher librarians

+ A 30-minute duty-free lunch for Early Educators

+ One planning period a day for Regional Occupational Center/Program (ROC/P) teachers

+ A LAUSD dedicated hotline and attorney for immigrant families

The strike was not about salary, and we accepted the same salary after seven days of striking that we were offered the Friday before the strike began. The only difference between what we were offered before the strike and what we later accepted is that our strike forced LAUSD to drop a condition attached to the raise that would have made it harder for new teachers to gain certain health benefits.

The COVID School Closures: UTLA Coerced LAUSD Into Closing Schools for No Reason

Welch condemns UTLA for the March 2020 to June 2021 COVID school closures, writing that UTLA “successfully pressured LAUSD leadership to keep school buildings closed for more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.”

Welch’s depiction of the school closures as another UTLA v LAUSD battle that UTLA won simply isn’t true. Right or wrong, both UTLA and then-LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner saw the issue similarly and were largely in agreement on the closures.

At several area meetings during this period–meetings where school chapter leaders  hear from UTLA officers and have the opportunity to ask them questions–we were told “there isn’t a lot of daylight between our position and Beutner’s.” Beutner’s public statements repeatedly confirmed this.

(While I appreciated Beutner’s position, at first I did find it a little disorienting: the opponent who in 2018 and early 2019 we had vilified–largely with justification–was now our ally.)

The COVID School Closures: UTLA Callously Closed the Schoolhouse Doors on Our Kids

Welch portrays the COVID school closures as a UTLA powerplay done without regard for the wellbeing of our students. Yet, consider the circumstances in the summer of 2020: COVID was surging – the U.S. led the world in cases – and the vaccine was a mere hope, not a reality.

When teachers unions balked at opening schools without proper safety precautions, President Trump expressed surprise and anger, demanding that we “Open the schools!”

We were surprised he was surprised: The American Federation of Teachers had been promoting its proposals for safely reopening schools since April of that year.

The Trump administration should have used the six months between when COVID hit and the autumn when the school year normally starts to prepare safe protocols. Instead, Trump complained that implementing the Centers for Disease Control guidelines for safe schools would be “expensive,” while scapegoating teachers unions and threatening to cut off funding for schools that did not fully open.

Similarly, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos refused to declare that schools should follow CDC reopening guidelines. DeVos was taking her cue from the president, who had earlier predicted that COVID would somehow just evaporate. “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear,” he said.

Can we blame teachers for fearing the Trump administration wasn’t taking the pandemic seriously?

When LAUSD reopened in August 2021, it did so with the best COVID protocols in the country.

The COVID School Closures: UTLA Used COVID as a Pretext to Negotiate a 16-Month Paid Vacation for Teachers

Recently on the John and Ken Show on KFI AM 640, the hosts opined:

“It’s embarrassing to go on strike after you just took a year and a half off…teachers were sitting home for 16 months…16 months in their pajamas and their fuzzy slippers.”

No, distance learning was not ideal, but neither was it worthless.

The last day of school before the schools closed was Friday, March 13, 2020. That weekend I got out some power tools and made my converted garage into a classroom, with a whiteboard, a camera suspended from the ceiling, and a large screen so I could see all of my students’ faces.

Retooling in-person lessons to work as online lessons was time-consuming, and certainly some classes worked better than others. However, I never had a single class period in all that time that conformed to the “useless classes” narrative pushed by our critics.

Beyond class attendance, the only objective or universal measure of the success or failure of my students in distance learning was from my AP US Government class. In both May of 2020 and May of 2021, the students’ passage rates, while not as good as in other years, were still well above both the California and national averages.

I acknowledge that my experience–I teach high school juniors and seniors–cannot be equally applied to all of K-12. Nevertheless, looking at the 16 months as a whole, my students learned about 85% of what they normally do.

Understanding that many teachers had young children at home that greatly limited their ability to conduct their classes the way they wanted to, I have no reason to believe that most teachers did not do the best they could under the circumstances. I resent the accusation that my colleagues and I were freeloaders who spent 16 months lounging around at home at the expense of the taxpayer.

UTLA Supporters Bullied LAUSD Teachers Into Striking

A common tactic of anti-union forces is to portray strikers as being threatened and frightened into joining strikes.

Writing for, anti-union warhorse Rebecca Friedrichs imagines UTLA dissidents being victims of “union mafia tactics” from “thuggish unions”.

When the John and Ken Show hosts interviewed an anonymous anti-UTLA Los Angeles Unified School District Elementary School teacher, among the conservative talking points she recited was her complaint that, regarding the strike, “many of us get bullied by other staff members who say we need to go all for one and one for all.”

The hosts ended up unwittingly defending UTLA on this issue, mocking teachers who claim they’re “bullied” by UTLA:

“I really get irritated or annoyed when people say, ‘I’m getting bullied’–you’re a grown man or a grown woman…[so] they’re going to point fingers in the teachers’ lounge? Is everybody that timid and weak?”

There was no violence on UTLA picket lines either in 2023 or in 2019. (In 2019, then-UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl instructed chapter chairs to ensure that there be no physical conflict on the picket lines. He correctly asserted that if there were, then this would be the story the media reported, instead of keeping the focus on our pro-student strike demands).

As for the idea that UTLA strikers’ actions were coerced by fear or bullying, not even the most cynical and reactionary of UTLA’s opponents could have watched the strike’s massive opening day rally at LAUSD headquarters at Beaudry and thought that UTLA and SEIU did not have the support of the vast majority of their members.

UTLA & UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz Are Anti-Semitic

Among the myriad accusations conservative critics throw at UTLA, one of the most loathsome and distorted is the charge that UTLA and its president Cecily Myart-Cruz are hostile to Jews.

In The union chiefs holding education of 500,000 Californian schoolkids to ransom, a 2,500 word UK Daily Mail hit piece largely aimed at Myart-Cruz, Stephen Lepore writes that she “led the union while it planned to vote on joining the ‘Boycott, Divest and Sanction’ movement against Israel.”

In “L.A. teachers union proves yet again it’s not about the children”, Withe refers to her “anti-Semitic political agenda” and condemns “Myart-Cruz’s bizarre insistence that UTLA boycott Israel over its conflict with Hamas.”

This description is riddled with errors.

Withe is referring to a May, 2021 UTLA resolution put forward at the height of the crisis in Gaza which condemned Israel’s actions in Gaza and called for the United States to cut off assistance to Israel.

The resolution was not something that Myart-Cruz or others in UTLA leadership cooked up and imposed on our members–the measure was created by democratically-elected chapter chairs.

Every school elects a chapter chair. All chapter chairs have the right to introduce resolutions at area meetings. The resolution came from the rank and file, not leadership. (I’ve been a part of UTLA leadership at the chapter level for five years, and trust me, chapter chair is not a lofty role.)

The resolution, which was similar to those passed by many organizations in many countries, cited statements from the Israel-based human rights group B’tselem as well as Human Rights Watch.

I’d add that over the past decade UTLA, the American Federation of Teachers, and other teachers’ organizations have passed numerous resolutions condemning actions by various governments.

When we’ve condemned attacks on striking teachers by Mexican police, were we being racist against Mexicans? When we’ve condemned China’s mistreatment of the Muslim Uyghur minority, were we exhibiting prejudice against Chinese people?

Similarly, Americans should be able to criticize the Israeli government’s policies without being defamed as anti-Semites.

I’d add that the “anti-semtic” charge is odd, given that UTLA is one of the most heavily Jewish unions in the US.

For SEIU, LAUSD’s Poverty-Level Wages Should Be OK

Criticizing SEIU’s strike, the hosts of the John and Ken Show on KFI AM 640 explained, “These [SEIU] jobs aren’t meant for you to have a home and a family…you can’t have families if you make so little money—it’s not responsible, it’s not practical.”

John and Ken are to be commended for openly stating what many American conservatives believe but are too prudent to say–having kids and having a home are privileges to be reserved only for the social classes who can “afford” them.

Ring writes:

“According to the SEIU, the average annual salary for the 30,000 LAUSD service workers they represent is $25,000. But that includes all service workers, from part-time to full-time.

“About 75% of the members work fewer than eight hours per day, and with school in session only 180 days, or 36 weeks per year…is it reasonable for people working in these schools to expect to earn enough to cover a full year of expenses?”

It’s 38 weeks, not 36, but I will give Ring a little credit for acknowledging that “These are difficult questions.” But what’s missing is obvious–it’s very difficult for someone working for the district four, five, six, or seven hours a day, five days a week to be able to simultaneously get and hold down another decent paying job.

For example, Special Education assistants work a crucial job but, until the new SEIU-LAUSD agreement, were limited to only six hours, being cut out of most of the day’s last class period. How likely is it that they can acquire and keep a separate decent-paying job that can be threaded through this schedule?

Similarly, it’s hard to get a decent paying job that can be woven in between the weeks that school is in session.

UTLA & SEIU Will Raise Your Taxes

In After the LAUSD strike, watch your wallets, new tax hikes are on the way, SCNG columnist and editorial writer Susan Shelley tells readers to “watch out for statewide tax increases.”

Before the SEIU-LAUSD settlement, Ring lamented that “the unions representing SEIU membership in LAUSD may get the windfall they’re demanding”, and says that such wages increases are “one of the engines driving inflation: every time a government worker receives an increase, taxes rise.”

These are simplistic exaggerations. For example, the difference between the raise UTLA wants and the minimal 5% raise LAUSD is now offering would cost the district roughly $135 million a year.

Leaving aside that LAUSD has a current reserve of $5.1 billion, the California state budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year is $307.9 billion. The raise UTLA seeks which Ring sounds the alarm about amounts to roughly 1/2,281 of the current California state budget.

On a larger level, what exactly do Shelley, Ring, and their co-thinkers believe Los Angeles education workers should do? Are we really supposed to allow our livelihoods to be eaten up by inflation because at some point the raises we need in order to break even might become a tiny part of the burden borne by the California taxpayer?

Perhaps outpacing our critics’ distaste for unions and public education is their monumental disdain for UTLA president Cecily Myart-Cruz. It’s not hard to see why: Myart-Cruz denounces the problems they’d rather not hear about, and she does so very loudly.

Early in Myart-Cruz’s tenure, a friend of mine unfamiliar with her listened to her speak and at one point leaned over and asked me, “Why is she shouting at us?”

“She’s not shouting—that’s just how she talks,” I replied.

But what she’s shouting about are the very real needs of the low-wage, largely minority and immigrant underclass of Los Angeles. These are our students’ families, and it is entirely appropriate that Myart-Cruz and UTLA defend their interests–at whatever volume necessary.

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.”