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UTLA/Reclaim Strike Showed What Labor + Community Can Do

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teachers strike, holding signs and fists and musical instruments

UTLA leader Alex Caputo-Pearl reflects on the labor and community organizing that built the winning 2019 strike—and the ways strikes build power for the long fight for racial and economic justice.

The fourth anniversary of United Teacher Los Angeles’ (UTLA) and Reclaim Our Schools LA’s January 2019 strike brought moving reflections from all quarters. The reflections showed the determination of UTLA members and parent/youth/community allies engaged in deep struggle and the joy, solidarity, creativity, and love that are central to it.

During the current national upsurge in labor organizing and militance across economic sectors, the LA strike reflections this year took on added meaning – and can provide insights into building a structural-change-centered labor movement and our understanding of the centrality of strikes and walkouts.  While geographic, political, and sectoral contexts differ, many insights here can be applied and adapted across the country as general best practices in organizing and strategy.  In 2019, through standing on the shoulders of others who had been laying groundwork for years, through our own methodical work, and through the support of many across the country, we won big locally, broke new ground on racial justice, shifted public narrative, strengthened the national movement, and profoundly democratized the union. The victories testify to the power of deep collaboration between the union and the communities of color that over 90% of our students call home.

In the strike, we won enforceable class size caps (which very few districts have) for the first time in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).  Before the strike, LAUSD put class size numbers on a page, but they meant nothing because they were not legally enforceable.  There were hundreds of K-3 classes with over 30 students in them, and many high school classes with over 50.  Our victory required every class to come down to cap numbers, impacting classes all over the district at every grade level.  The strike put us in the driver’s seat on class size for the first timewinning enforceable caps in 2019 means we can use every round of bargaining from the strike forward to push caps down. 

In the strike, we won a salary increase among the highest in the state at the time and beat back the district’s attempt to create a two-tier healthcare plan, one of the most insidious attacks on workers and unions.  LAUSD wanted educators hired after 2019 to have a weaker healthcare plan than those hired before 2019.  If we had not won this, our union would have had a divisive dilemma at its core.   

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In the strike, we won unprecedented Common Good bargaining victories on racial justice, including:

  • The elimination of racially discriminatory, criminalizing searches of students at an initial set of schools, which would, six months later, critically contribute to the youth movement’s victory in eliminating those searches at schools district-wide.  This strike victory, and the process leading to it, contributed to building organizational foundations necessary to win cuts to the school police budget a year and a half later during the racial justice uprisings.
  • The establishment of an LAUSD Community Schools Initiative, with UTLA and Reclaim key to its steering committee.  The Los Angeles model has now expanded locally, powerfully overlaps with the district’s Black Student Achievement Plan, and is deeply influencing the national growth of a Community Schools model centered on community engagement and decision-making, the assets and needs of communities, and a curriculum based on racial justice and community connection.
  • The establishment of an Immigrant Defense Office to help LAUSD families facing attacks.
  • The establishment of a Green Space MOU that has led to the creation of green space at over 40 LAUSD schools, with more coming.

In the strike, we won key victories against privatizationcritical in that Los Angeles had been a national centerpiece for school privatization since the mid-2000s.  We defeated the LAUSD Superintendent’s “portfolio district” plan.  For the first time, we won language supporting LAUSD public school fights against the co-location of corporate charters on their campuses.  We forced the LAUSD Board, with a majority of members elected with the support of corporate charters, to call for a moratorium on charter school growth in LAUSD.  This contributed directly to winning State Assembly Bill 1505, the first substantial regulation of corporate charter schools in California in 25 years.  LA political icon Jackie Goldberg was inspired by UTLA and Reclaim’s organizing, entered the School Board race, won, and shifted Board dynamics on privatization.  The same week as the strike on LAUSD, UTLA members at the Accelerated Charter School led the second charter school strike in US history, and won – as unionized charter educators supported LAUSD educators, and vice versa, in powerful displays of solidarity.  

In the 2019 strike, we won special education improvements and the creation of a special education article in the contract for the first timesetting the stage for the ongoing fight for special education.  We won additional counselors, librarians, and Health and Human Services (HHS) staffing, and the first-ever HHS staffing ratios in the contractsetting the stage for the ongoing fight for staffing and mental health.  We won important gains in Early and Adult Education.   

We helped win something in the strike that we didn’t know we were fighting for at the time the best school COVID health standards in the country.  COVID hit the US one year after our strike.  With the memory of the strike fresh, LAUSD did not want another public fight.  This was critical in winning top-of-the-line COVID standards and saving thousands of lives.   

Strikes shift the story

To draw insights to build the labor movement, we must look beyond the contract and policy victories of strikes.  We must look at the broader impacts that strikes and walkouts, and the challenging work leading up to them, can have on shaping public narrative, building unions into high-participation, democratic, racial/gender justice organizations, and building breadth, depth, and trust within labor/community coalitions.   

With the strike, and the years leading to it, we helped shift the public narrative on educator unions, corporate charters, school funding, and education policy.  UTLA became and remains tremendously popular in Los Angeles, which has been critical to School Board election victories since the strike.  The shine has been taken off charters: LA voters now associate corporate charters with billionaire privatizer funders, and the number of corporate charters has declined over the last two years in California for the first time in two decades.  A month after the LA strike, Oakland educators went on strike; the LA-Oakland connection had been forged through years of work together within the California Alliance for Community Schools (CACS). 

In a campaign anchored by California Calls, the long-time community/labor lead on tax reform to fund schools and services, the LA and Oakland strikes shifted the narrative on school funding and generated support for what  became Proposition 15 on the 2020 state ballot.  While Prop 15 ultimately lost by less than four percentage points, it broke through the decades-old myth that winning progressive tax reform in California is impossible.  

Nationally, educator unions became the center of the education narrative. Buoyed by the historic Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012 and the Red for Ed strikes and walkouts during the late 2010s, the 2019 UTLA/Reclaim strike won support from major US Presidential candidates.  Along with UTLA and other educator unions’ endorsements of Bernie Sanders later in 2019, and tremendous work by the movement around Sanders and DSA, this narrative shift contributed decisively to Biden’s federal education policies being significantly better than Obama’s.   

Strong actions build high-participation, democratic unions 

Our strike solidified the democratic and racial/gender justice transformation of UTLA, initiated in 2014 when the Union Power rank-and-file caucus took power in what was then a pummeled and low-participation union on the edge of financial collapse.  Union Power had been buoyed by decades of local caucus work and by collaboration with Chicago’s Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) since 2009.  In 2014, UTLA began a methodical focus on ensuring the election of member chapter chairs at all 850 worksites – the most critical unit to what would become our over-99%-out strike.  We trained and supported chapter chairs on structured one-on-one organizing conversations, list work, and building member density. 

Learning from Jane McAlevey and others, we tested chapter chairs and the overall reach of the union program through a series of union-wide, escalating action-based structure testspetitions, red shirt days, sticker-up days, before-school picketing, parent leafleting, regional rallies, faculty meeting boycotts, city-wide rallies, strike vote, strike.  We trained chapter chairs on leader identification and building Contract Action Teams around themselves at 1-to-10 leader-to-member ratios.  These approaches gave us the ability to have democratic dialogues across 35,000 members, and surfaced and developed hundreds of new rank-and-file leaders, mostly women and people of color, and significantly early career educators and LGBTQ+ educators.  

Throughout these transformative years, we ensured that the UTLA Board of Directors (an elected body of 46 mostly rank-and-file members) was leading, with central roles in bargaining, organizing, community work, and strategy.  We profoundly strengthened the rank-and-file member Steering Committees in each of UTLA’s eight regionswhich include 140 rank-and-file members in addition to the Board – by ensuring that each Steering Committee was elected, trained in organizing, involved in strategy, and clearly connected through organizing structures to chapter chairs at all worksites in their respective areas.  

By the time of the strike, the Board and Area Steering Committees had feedback loops with all 850 worksites, gained critical experience, and developed organizational muscles that have now become permanent.  In our 2022-23 bargaining, the Area Steering Committees have become an expanded city-wide bargaining and organizing team of rank-and-file leaders.  The UTLA staff has been foundational to every step of this workand indelibly shaped by this work, becoming one of the best union staffs in the country.  

Strikes build labor-community power

The 2019 LA strike profoundly deepened leadership development, trust, and key structures in the community/labor coalition, Reclaim Our Schools LA.  Reclaim was founded in 2016, anchored by Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), which primarily organizes parents and community members, Students Deserve, which primarily organizes youth, LA Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), which provides organizing, communications, and research support, and UTLA.  As part of the union transformation and financial re-building launched in 2014, UTLA created a parent/community organizing department and began making financial contributions to ACCE, Students Deserve, and LAANE, significantly increasing each groups’ capacity to organize, based on collective Reclaim goals.  

Supported by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS) and the Bargaining for the Common Good network, Reclaim’s founding and its strengthening during the strike has been a racial justice and union democracy breakthrough.  A series of 2017 Reclaim community forums helped develop the UTLA contract demands for which we eventually struckin particular, the proposals around student searches, Community Schools, green space, immigrant rights, school funding, and pushing back privatization.  This is a model for centering communities of color in contract campaigns, and for unions extending democratic collaboration on high-stakes issues beyond the union’s membership.  

In the lead-up to the strike, Reclaim created “Committee of 100” meetings for parent, youth, and community leaders to develop organizing skills.  During the strike, hundreds participated in the Reclaim “La Escuelita,” a daily meeting of parents, youth, and community members that engaged political education and planned daily actions—among them mass protests at the houses of School Board members, the LAUSD Superintendent, and billionaire privatizers.  

Trust among the Reclaim anchor organizations grew even firmer when UTLA refused to back away from Common Good demands under the pressures of strike negotiations, and when UTLA members saw daily viral videos of parents, youth, and community leading militant solidarity actions.  Many of the parent, youth, and community leaders who developed skills in the Committee of 100, La Escuelita, and strike actions are now leaders in Reclaim’s latest structural evolution — parent/youth/community/educator teams in each of the seven LAUSD board districts.   

Overturning structural racism and economic injustice will require many campaigns over many years.  We won’t win everything with one struggle, strike, or walkout.  As part of this journey, the 2019 UTLA/Reclaim strike showed some of what we can win.  The transformation of the union that preceded the strikethrough years of methodical work, trial and error, and at times very difficult struggleand the profound deepening of that transformation during the strike, yields critical insights.  These insights, while acknowledging key differences across contexts, can help labor in this encouraging moment, and be adapted across different geographies, political terrains, and economic sectors.  There is much to build on – and much more to do. 

Featured image: Composite from the Jan. 18, 2019 “Let the Sunshine In” rally during the UTLA/Reclaim strike. Photo by Joe Brusky for the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. License CC BY-NC 2.0.

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