LA Teachers Strike Wins Big
After the upsurge of strikes by teachers in Republican-led states, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) organized a major strike of their own. The LA strike stands out not only for taking place in the second largest school district in the country, or for happening in a Democrat-controlled city and state, but because of the demands the strike won, including important anti-racist measures. These victories included smaller class sizes, reduced standardized testing, a full-time nurse in every school, additional counselors and librarians, an end to racist “random searches,” and the establishment of an immigrant defense fund. The militant, democratic, community-oriented strategies of the rank-and-file group that took over the union in 2014 proved to be very effective.
Cecily Myart-Cruz is the Vice President of UTLA, and she was a speaker at the DSA National Convention in August. DSA Convention delegate RAMY KHALIL had the opportunity to sit down with her to find out more about how the union won and discuss some key issues facing the labor movement.
RAMY: You helped form a left-wing group in your union. Why did you decide to do that?
CECILY: Yes, Union Power Caucus, which we still have today. In 2011 people in this progressive group filed an initiative called “The Schools LA Students Deserve,” and that was before we got into office. It passed with 77%. It was modeled after Chicago and St. Paul because they had “Schools Chicago Students Deserve.” We passed this initiative with 77% of the vote! [But] the union president shelved it, just said that we don’t have to do that. That told us that things need to change.
Then in 2013 Alex [Caputo-Pearl] took me out to eat and told me, “I’m planning to run for president and I'd like you to run for VP.” I was like, “that sounds interesting, but no, because I am a consummate teacher and I want to be teaching my middle school kids.” He asked me three times and finally, a friend of mine said, “Cecily, you go really hard in the paint for students and community and parents for the union. If you could just do the union stuff all the time you'd impact the lives of so many.” I thought about that, and I told Alex “okay, I'm down to run.” We assembled a team and we got into the race.
RAMY: Did you change the culture of the union, not just at the top but among the rank-and-file membership?
CECILY: Yes, the biggest thing we did was school site visits. We have 925 school sites and we went out to the school sites on the first of August and practiced a model of 80/20—80% listening, 20% talking. We would get in there and people are like “I’ve worked here 25 years and I've never seen a union officer!” or “I don’t care, the union hasn’t done shit for me.” We’re listening to it, not getting defensive just actually listening and taking notes. But we’re not gonna third party the union, we are the union, together. I hear you, but how are we going to become solution-based? What do you need from UTLA so we can move?
It meant a deep organizing structure of going systemically to schools, listening. In the first few months, including staff, we were able to hit like over 800 schools for real. I think the first rally put out 17,000 people, and there were people that came out that hadn't come out to something in 20 years. That's where we knew that things were changing.
RAMY: How did you take up the demands of the teachers, and also of students, parents, and the community?
CECILY: When we were doing the listening sessions with our members, we did the same sessions with students, parents, and community because we wanted them to be active participants in our work. They were key.
For example, we all wanted to end random searches, which we know statistically are not really random but target students of color. We’ve been asking [the school district] to end it, and they agreed to a pilot program where 28 schools won’t have any random searches. The students felt that was a victory, but we didn't stop there, we kept pushing. This June they conceded that starting in 2021, [there will be] no more random searches throughout the district.
We also wanted a million dollars to create an immigrant defense fund, because we have a few thousand teachers and students who are undocumented that are scared, and we needed the district to do this. The struggle this year is going to be implementing that and all of our wins.
We had direct action where the coalition of parents, students, and community orgs would pick a target and go to that house and blast them at night. They did that for the school board president, and she called the police on them and said “How dare you?! My family is here!” Well, you live here too, and you’re a target.
They had the megaphones out in the rain and it was great. They went to a privatizer’s home, they went to our superintendent’s home, and he was mad as hell.
RAMY: What do you think of charter schools? Do they provide choice to parents?
CECILY: In Los Angeles in the last 10 years, we've had 287% charter growth. When charters started, they were supposed to interface with the public schools and share what they’re doing that's different that we could do in a public school. That did not happen. It became where the district is broken on purpose. They create a crisis, they starve your school, and then they blame the educators. That's the whole playbook of the privatizer. Six hundred million dollars comes out of our general fund every year to fund the charters in the district. That is crazy insane.
We are organizing charter school teachers because they’re workers just like us, and we have to organize the unorganized. When we went out on strike, the charter school Accelerated, [whose teachers are] UTLA members, went out on strike for 8 days. We held strong picket lines there with them as well, and they won their demands, which is unheard of. That was the first strike in California of charter schools.
RAMY: Many candidates want unions’ support. What do you think of the presidential candidates?
CECILY: As a black biracial woman Kamala Harris is not my candidate because she's criminalized black people, she's criminalized black youth, and that's a problem for me. Cory Booker's a black man. He's a corporate Democrat. That is not a choice for me. He sat at many lunches introducing [Trump’s education secretary] Betsy DeVos who doesn't know anything about education.
People are afraid to call out Democrats being corporate Democrats. We have a ton in the California Congress who take corporate and charter industry money and then say “oh, but I'm going to help you.” You’re not doing nothing for me. We have charter bills we can't get you to pass because you are afraid because you got charter money. Now that's not the politician for me.
If you're speaking up on parent rights and community rights; you're not afraid to say Black Lives Matter, real education and full funding; then we'll talk. We have a statewide bill coming up called “Schools and Communities First” [to restore $11 billion to education by ending a commercial property tax loophole]. If you are a politician and you are not standing up for Schools and Communities First, to hold corporations accountable that slip through this [tax] loophole, then you are not a friend to public education.
You can go to any of the 925 work sites and you can ask “Who's Eli Broad? Who's John Arnold? Who are the Koch brothers?” and they know who are the enemies, who is on our side. So when we talk about politicians, we ask: are you standing with us, or are you standing with the billionaires? Which one? Which side are you on?