2018 has been the year of the teachers in the United States. It began with the statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia in February, which was followed by walkouts in Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kentucky in April and May. Even in traditionally anti-labor states with conservative, pro-business local governments, teachers have made a historic stand, asserting the rights of their students to a just and progressive education system and of all teachers to treatment with dignity and a good standard of living. Voting with a 98 percent majority August 31 to authorize a strike, the 35,000-plus members of United Teachers Los Angeles joined this wave of actions later in the year.
A March for Public Education was held December 15, in solidarity with all educators and students. It drew over 50,000 teachers, administrators, students, parents, and supporters, making it one of the largest demonstrations in Los Angeles since the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. UTLA teachers haven’t gone on strike since 1989, and their current position makes it clear that they will strike if necessary in early 2019. Their demands include regulation of the Los Angeles charter school sector, wages for educators and staff that reflect the city’s rising cost of living, mental health services for students, an end to overtesting, smaller class sizes, participatory budgeting by parents and educators, and resources to be directed towards immigrant families, special education, green spaces on campus and materials for teachers, who have to personally spend an average of $500 on supplies for their students each year.
Speeches and chants were directed mainly at the Los Angeles Unified School District and its Superintendent Austin Beutner, a former investment banker with personal ties to the charter school industry (privatized charter schools have grown 287 percent statewide since 2008, and now enroll 1 in 10 California students). He has supported an agenda of privatization and dividing up the district, one of the country’s largest, into smaller ‘networks’ since his appointment earlier this year. Beutner has gone on record saying that LAUSD does not have the funds to meet all of the teachers’ demands and ensure the district’s financial solvency, despite UTLA’s arguments that the district’s $1.9 billion in savings can be easily used to fulfill its contract demands, not to forget the annual $550m being spent on unregulated (private) charter schools.
“Beutner Beutner you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side,” called out the thousands-strong crowd as it marched.
Approaching Grand Park in the center of downtown Los Angeles, where the rally started, crowds of thousands of people wearing red union shirts were visible making their way to the mobilization. UTLA had decided to go with red shirts in a show of solidarity with previous teachers strikes this year, which also filled city centers with #RedForEd strike demonstrations.
Liberation News spoke to educators who complained of the huge teacher-to-student ratio in their classrooms, with some teachers having up to 45 students in a room, among the country’s worst. Many talked about the lack of nurses on school grounds, with one teacher stating that they have a school nurse who is only available one day out of the week, meaning the school sends sick or injured students home. One teacher commented on the lack of books in their middle school library, with its rows of empty shelves. While teachers spoke of needing to fight stagnating wages – the district has proposed a 2 percent raise for educators, even though school board members saw a 174 percent pay raise in 2017 – conversations with teachers showed a predominance of concern about the well being of their students and the communities they come from.
The rally started with speakers at Grand Park, in front of City Hall, and then proceeded to march south down Broadway and then west on 3rd St. A river of red shirts almost physically shook the 3rd street tunnel with chants of “Education is a right!” and “Who’s got the power? … We’ve got the power! What kind of power? … Union Power!”
The energy was optimistic, militant, and exuberant. The march made its way to the corner of 2nd St. and Grand avenue, ending poignantly in front of the Broad Museum, an institution owned by the multimillionaire housing magnate Broad family, key supporters of charter school-led privatization.
As educators and union organizers spoke, thousands of marchers continued to reach the end point for up to an hour afterwards. As chants of “Strike! Strike! Strike!” rang out, the speakers and crowd were palpably full of hope for the future, angry at Beutner and the privatization agenda he represents, and rage at the sad state of schools in Los Angeles (California ranks 46th out of 50 states for education standards, despite having the 5th largest economy on the planet).
UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl warned that if LAUSD could not reach an agreement by January, they would strike early in the new year. As the rally wound down and the attendees started to filter out through various streets, there was a strong sense of the power the crowd had wielded that morning, and the results it could achieve going forwards into the strike next year. All workers should stand in solidarity with UTLA members in their fight against the dismantling of public education and the privatization of our school district. As one of the chants said, this town is indeed “union territory.”