UTLA’s (Not-So-Great) Victory

The union and their friends in the media are trying to spin their strike as a victory, despite all evidence to the contrary

Tens of thousands of teachers in Los Angeles returned to their classrooms yesterday following a six-day strike that disrupted the lives of over 467,000 students and cost the L.A. Unified School District over $151 million in lost revenue.

Tuesday morning, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, flanked by LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner and United Teachers of Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl, announced that a tentative agreement had been reached on a new contract. Within a matter of hours, UTLA officials had hastily organized a vote to ratify the document, which was eventually approved by a supermajority of the union’s members.

But before a single ballot was cast, union leaders were out in force portraying the strike as a huge victory. Caputo-Pearl told a crowd of supporters outside Los Angeles City Hall: “It is very rare that you go to the bargaining table with as many demands as we had and you win almost every single one of them.” Meanwhile, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten described the strike as a “paradigm shift” in an interview with the New York Times, and maintained, “The elite types who use charters as a force for competition will see this as a big blow.”

From the moment a tentative agreement was announced, UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl has been spinning it as a great victory.

As might be expected, a chorus of friends in the media jumped in to assist with the spin-doctoring, such as the laughably biased folks at Jacobin who insisted that “strikers were able to wrest major concessions from a billionaire superintendent intent on privatizing the district.” Capital & Main, a union-funded and controlled media outlet that masquerades as a legitimate news site, declared Caputo-Pearl and UTLA as the “big winners” in their standoff with the school district. Likewise, The Nation carried a piece from self-described “journalist” Sarah Jaffe, which included cringe-inducing lines like, “The look on UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl’s face as he announced the contents of the agreement was that of a man who knows his side has won.”

UTLA leaders over-promised & under-delivered

Yet as the details of the tentative contract agreement began trickling out, there was plenty of grumbling among rank-and-file members who felt that UTLA’s leadership had over-promised and under-delivered. As one commenter on the union’s Facebook page sarcastically joked, “Los Angeles emergency rooms are filling up with teachers who have knife wounds in their backs. News at 11.”

They have reason to be angry. Back in 2016, UTLA’s leadership raised dues by a nearly a third (an increase, on average, of about $1000 annually), insisting they needed the additional funds to bring the fight to their enemies. Instead, the union produced little in return. The very next year, a pro-reform majority was elected to LAUSD’s school board after an expensive campaign. They then went on to hire a reform-minded superintendent, Austin Beutner, to lead the district.

As the rank-and-file’s frustrations rose over their union’s inability to produce results, UTLA leaders kept promising they would exact major concessions from the district in a strike. But a closer look at the central elements of the new LAUSD/UTLA contract suggests that last week’s strike didn’t achieve very much:

  • MONEY: Although UTLA demanded a 6.5% raise for teachers, the contract provides them with a raise of only 6% (with 3% retroactive to 2017-18 and the other 3% retroactive to July 2018), which is exactly what LAUSD was offering before the strike. In fact, a state-appointed mediator had urged the union to accept this very same offer five weeks ago.

  • CHARTERS: As teachers headed for the picket lines last week, UTLA framed the strike as a fight against charter schools, which the union blames for the district’s dire financial straits, insisting that they drain resources from traditional public schools. UTLA’s leadership rallied its members around their call for a moratorium on new charter schools, but the new contract reveals they all but folded on this demand. While it allows the union to appoint a co-location coordinator at sites where charter schools share a campus with traditional public schools, they will only be able to advise – not veto – the charter co-location process. Supt. Beutner also agreed to put forward a non-binding resolution calling for a charter school cap for vote at the next LAUSD school board meeting, even though it will undoubtedly be defeated by the board, meaning it’s nothing more than window dressing.

  • CLASS SIZE/SUPPORT STAFF: UTLA did gain some ground on its demands for smaller class sizes and additional support staff, such as nurses, counselors, and librarians. The district agreed to reduce class sizes by about four students over the next three years and hire 300 nurses, 82 librarians, and 77 counselors by 2022. Yet as the Wall Street Journal pointed out in an editorial, LAUSD had already offered to add approximately 1,300 teaching and support positions before the strike began, so it’s questionable how much the union actually gained from the walkout.

  • STANDARDIZED TESTING: While the union demanded a reduction in the number of standardized tests administered in the district, the contract essentially allows UTLA to save face by creating a joint LAUSD-UTLA task force to develop recommendations around how to reduce testing by up to 50%. However, it doesn’t mandate that the school board actually adopt those recommendations.

  • MISCELLANEOUS: No teachers union contract would be complete without an endorsement of the community school model. After all, AFT and NEA have been promoting community schools as an alternative to charters for years, in spite of the fact that there’s little evidence the approach works and previous community school efforts (most notably in New York) have been a bust. Nevertheless, LAUSD threw UTLA a bone on this issue, promising to give 30 district schools an additional $350,000 over the next two years to adopt the model. In reality, this is little more than a symbolic gesture, since it would require far more money to transform these campuses into actual community schools.

Alex Caputo-Pearl leads striking teachers through downtown Los Angeles.

So what did Los Angeles teachers get for their extra $1000 in dues, as well as the thousands they individually forfeited as a result of their six-day strike? Not much. As long-time teachers union analyst Mike Antonucci noted in a recent op-ed in The Seventy-Four, “Had this exact tentative agreement been offered two weeks ago, the union would have rejected it.”

In short, if UTLA considers their strike a great victory, it’s hard to imagine what defeat looks like.

Read the new LAUSD/UTLA Contract:


Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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