Saturday, April 11, 2009

The battle for our schools heats up in LA

Check out this article on some inspiring struggle against layoffs and budget cuts in LA:

The battle for our schools heats up in LA

Randy Childs of United Teachers Los Angeles looks at the union and community organizing that is challenging layoffs in the LA schools.

April 9, 2009

AS BUDGET cuts loom, there's a climate of uncertainty in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

There's the ominous possibility of massive layoffs affecting the people who serve the children of LA in our schools, including more than 3,600 classroom teachers. There's also the prospect that even deeper cuts could be precipitated by a state budget revision expected in May from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who's already slashed billions from education.

On the other hand, there is the possibility that thousands of these jobs could be saved immediately using federal stimulus money.

And most importantly, there are the early stirrings of a potentially massive movement that is pushing demands that LAUSD slash its bureaucracy and the state raise taxes on California's millionaires in order to stop the cuts to our schools.

At the center of this struggle is United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), which represents more than 45,000 teachers, counselors and health care providers in LA public schools.

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THE UNION is now planning for a one-day strike sometime next month to protest job cuts. But activism has been under way for some time. For example, on March 30, about 125 parents, teachers and students gathered outside Local District 5--one of LAUSD's notoriously wasteful "mini-district" offices--to protest teacher layoffs and class size increases, and to demand cuts instead to the administrative bloat.

One parent donated a huge length of pink cloth from the garment factory where she works to serve as the symbolic "pink slip" that the community wants to give to the LAUSD bureaucracy instead of classroom teachers. This "pink slip" was inspired by a banner made by Crenshaw High School students at a similar protest the week before in front of their mini-district office on the other side of the city.

The protesters demanded a meeting with Local District 5 Superintendent Carmen Schroeder so that she could hear personal testimonials from angry parents and probationary teachers who had already received reduction in force (RIF) notices.

In just over two weeks leading up to the protest, parents and teachers had held two organizing meetings at nearby Roosevelt High School and collected over 500 signatures on petitions to the school board to stop the cuts at our schools. Similar organizing meetings and community forums against the layoffs are spreading across the city.

Schroeder came outside to meet the crowd, trying to assuage people's anger by saying that she was "heartbroken" about the layoffs, and that the district was doing all it could to keep cuts away from the schools. But she was promptly confronted by a parent who told her, "You say you're sorry, but words aren't enough. We want actions!"

LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines received similar treatment at Dorsey High School on March 27. Dorsey teachers only found out the night before that he was coming to their school, but still managed to organize a gauntlet of "Riffed" teachers to meet him at the school entrance that morning.

The teachers challenged Cortines to eliminate the district's "periodic assessments"--an extra layer of wasteful standardized testing that Cortines plans to spend tens of millions of dollars a year to maintain while laying off teachers and raising class sizes.

"We will need to confront Cortines and [school board] members wherever they go," explained Noah Lippe-Klein, the UTLA chapter chair at Dorsey. "We need to storm every board member's office with a coalition of teachers, parents and students...and we need to encourage even higher-stakes tactics across the district as we build toward our one day strike in May."

On the same morning that Dorsey teachers confronted Cortines, dozens of teachers at another high school staged a one-hour walkout against the layoffs.

On the morning of March 31, a group of 75 students at Florence Nightingale Middle School held a press conference declaring April 21 "Save Our Teachers Day" and calling on elementary, middle and high school students across the district to form "Save Our Teachers" clubs and organize marches in front of their schools that day.

Also on March 31, the LAUSD school board postponed a vote to authorize the layoffs recommended by Cortines in a meeting room that was packed with angry school employees and community members.

Outside, SEIU Local 99, the union of LAUSD's school custodians, cafeteria workers, classroom aides and other school workers, organized a picket with signs demanding, "No Layoffs! Don't Cut Schools!" In addition to the 3,600 teachers faced with layoffs, Cortines is also proposing pink slips for 528 school-site office workers, 810 custodians, 196 cafeteria workers, 90 special education classroom aides and 82 library aides.

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THE SCHOOL board's decision to postpone the vote pokes a small hole in the armor of "inevitability" with which Cortines has carefully cloaked the cutbacks and layoffs. Meanwhile, rumors are swirling in the union that the LAUSD was on the verge of rescinding as many as a thousand of the planned teacher layoffs. If it's true that the powers that be are backpedaling, then now is the time for our side to push harder than ever.

While all this is going on, UTLA has been in the midst of contract negotiations in which LAUSD has been demanding pay cuts for teachers despite receiving a 4.5 percent "cost-of-living adjustment" from the state at the beginning of last school year. In late March, union negotiators reached a tentative agreement (TA) with the district in which the union repelled Cortines' efforts to cut teacher pay, and gained modest improvements in contract language related to grievances and safety.

Nevertheless, union negotiators accepted a salary freeze and a three-year deal that would make pay increases unlikely any time before 2011. And since RIF procedures are governed by separate state laws, the layoffs were not subject to these negotiations.

UTLA's officers have argued that the TA is the best we can get--and a strategic necessity at this point in order to focus our resources on fighting back against the layoffs. This logic convinced the union's 50-member Board of Directors (BOD) to vote almost unanimously in favor of the deal. But a week later, the union's House of Representatives voted 91-79 to recommend that UTLA members vote "no."

A long line of angry members lined up at the House meeting to speak against the TA, arguing that its concessions send the wrong message to a district determined to defend its bloated bureaucracy by cutting schools to the bone.

These union members also argued that UTLA's announcement of a TA de-escalates the struggle at a moment when the fight of our lives is just beginning over the layoffs and budget cuts.

UTLA's tentative plans for a one-day strike are a step in the right direction, but the demobilizing contract agreement with LAUSD is a mistake. Rank-and-file teachers should follow the lead of the House and vote "no" on the tentative agreement--and step up the fight to win a good contract and to oppose the layoffs.

Right now, teachers, parents, and students need a confident, militant leadership for the struggles to defend public education--struggles which can clearly involve large numbers of people. UTLA can provide that leadership--but it has to expand its base of rank-and-file activists to mobilize the full strength of our union.

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