Tuesday, January 24, 2023

LAUSD Up -- Periodic Reporting on the Los Angeles Unified School District - Episode Four

deja vu all over again

Hello and welcome to our periodic report on the conditions inside the LAUSD. These days you might be forgiven for feeling like you've seen this before. 

A couple of updates from previous posts:

  • Apparently last year's data breach started long before the district admits. Shocking, I know. Potential victims should receive a "Notice of Data Breach." Still, according to the district, even though dates of birth and addresses of some students and staff were affected, the breach "does not appear to extend to the payroll records and Social Security numbers for the tens of thousands of district employees." Take that for what it's worth. District contractors were not as lucky. They were significantly impacted and lost payroll records. I guess they probably should contact the district and check their mail.
  • Did somebody say acceleration days? The acceleration days seem to have come and gone with nary a ripple. The Daily News reports that although some 70,000 students signed up, "only about 40,000 attended one or both days in person" according to Chief of School Operations Andres Chait."
         "One or both" is a nice dodge. In other words, of the 140,000 student days signed up for, perhaps as few as              20,000 actually occurred. That's slightly less than the 60,000 (120,000 student days) originally reported by           the district. That the district and superintendent overestimated themselves and puffed up the numbers                  should come as a surprise to exactly no one.

Now for the news:

First, congratulations to Jackie Goldberg for her election as president of the LAUSD school board. After teaching in Compton Unified for sixteen years, Goldberg was first elected to the LAUSD Board of Education in 1983, serving two terms before also serving on the Los Angeles City Council and in the California State Assembly.

Goldberg was once again elected to the school board in 2019, shortly after the strike, and her election marked a shift in what had been a period of antagonistic, pro-charter dynamics on the board. Her elevation to president, the election of Scott Schmerelson as vice president to replace pro-charter Nick Melvoin, and the November election of Rocio Rivas to replace Monica Garcia may spark progress on a new contract for UTLA. 

In the meantime, the stonewalling over a new contract continues as we enter 2023. Much of the stuff the union is proposing this time sounds a lot like the stuff from 2019 as teachers continue to fight for their students in spite of opposition from what is often referred to as a "school" district but what might be better called the "boss" district.

Met mostly with sneers and silence from the district, LAUSD teachers have been working without a contract since June of 2022 and the district's bargaining position seems to be "no." Over a series of more than a dozen "bargaining" sessions, the district has barely budged, offering two 5% salary raises over the next two years and some one-time bonuses meant to be the shiny object suckering teachers into taking their eyes off the ball. 

The bonuses do not count for base rate nor pensions, and will not incentivize new candidates to dedicate themselves to careers that won't start for years, well after the bonuses have evaporated into the mist. And a one-time bump that disappears just as you're trying to buy a house, or your own kid heads off to college, and that doesn't benefit your retirement doesn't look great for veterans either. 

Now, for those of you who think teachers are already paid well, you either don't know or don't want to know the truth. I've written about it several times such as here, and here. Teacher pay nationally has not kept up with inflation much less made anybody rich, and in Los Angeles the cost of living makes recruiting and retaining teachers even more difficult. 

For those of you screeching on social media about paid vacations and test scores and--gasp!--teachers unions, and especially those of you accusing the union of corruption and teachers of not caring about their students or even being "groomers," I say this as a dues-paid lifetime member of UTLA and former union rep and organizer for my school: you are full of shit and go fuck yourselves. I may be out of the classroom, but I'm not out of the fight.

Not only was LAUSD's latest money offer inadequate, but the district proposal rolls back a crucial element of the 2019 settlement: class size caps.  In 2019 we fought for and won the elimination of squishy "may not be achieved due to circumstances" class size language, and although class size maximums are still too high, the district now proposes that they be allowed to place an indeterminate number of students in a class. That is not a typo. 

If you're a teacher and your class is at the limit, and your school decides to program a couple more students into it, CONGRATULATIONS! You get a fixed payment of an extra $500 per semester. If they put in two more? Five hundred. Ten additional students? Still just five hundred bucks. Twenty? You do the math. 

It's almost like LAUSD is not bargaining in good faith. So what happens next?

It's hard to know if the changes in the school board will have any impact on negotiations, especially as salaries and class size are only two facets of UTLA's Beyond Recovery platform of proposals. It is noteworthy that the vote to hire Alberto Carvalho as superintendent was unanimous (I first wrote about the guy here and here). Baffling in light of what we knew then, which is very much the same as what we know now. 

Times education reporter Howard Blume writes--accurately--that "[t]he school board, including Goldberg, has so far stood publicly united behind Supt. Alberto Carvalho in negotiations and policies." Four years ago, according to the Times, Goldberg "supported the teachers union’s claim that the district could use its reserves to meet teachers’ demands." Whether a similar argument has traction in present negotiations remains to be seen.

At any rate, education autocrat and world-class suit-wearer Alberto Carvalho, in one of his first official acts apart from photo ops from his never-ending public relations carnival and publicity tour, suffered a stinging defeat over the acceleration days, and is likely eager to demonstrate his authority.

Regardless of how the money shakes out, Carvalho is certain to target any power-sharing elements of any prospective contract. We've seen Big Shots before, both at the district level and on school sites around town. They come in ready to kick some ass and they hide behind their professed concern for kids as they unironically bash teachers to prove it. Thing is, teachers can actually do their jobs without a superintendent. Superintendents without teachers are just clerks.

Nevertheless, this has all the makings of a drive to break the union as a partner in LAUSD schools and schooling, and the stalling and stonewalling is clearly a tactic designed to frustrate and enervate. It would be self-defeating if UTLA were to, out of frustration or fatigue, take the bait and settle for cash. It would be tragic if that became their only option to keep their membership together because they failed to cultivate support.

I urge UTLA to begin preparations for a strike. That means a strategic information battleplan to mobilize community support and bolster teacher awareness and solidarity. 

Don't look for help from the press. The L.A. Times is already printing alarmist scolding from Chapman University's Joel Kotkin and "tech-entrepreneur" Marshall Toplansky, reliable "naysayers" whose podcast, "The Feudal Future Podcast," claims to "explore what we can do to liberate the global middle class." 

Their Times piece, in which they argue that "California’s regulatory and tax regimes discourage new investment" and accuse Governor Newsom of "hand[ing] out thousands of dollars of goodies to struggling households," and "creat[ing] massive direct subsidy programs for housing and healthcare," characterizing it as "largesse," leans heavily into entrepreneurship and venture capitalism. It is titled "California’s budget surplus has vanished and its economy is in danger. It can go one of two ways." It's not hard to figure out which way they recommend. 

It's not that the authors don't have a point--or at least a point of view--it's that the Times is forever promoting tax relief and deregulation on its way to "schools cost too much." This is no exception. 

More annoying and perhaps more dangerous if allowed to stand unchallenged, is the Times' propensity for characterizing teachers and our union as self-serving, as if we care only for personal advantage rather than for the needs of our students. In his latest, education reporter Howard Blume, who has been better recently, defaults to describing Goldberg's election as "signal[ing] a potential school board majority shift to priorities of the teachers union" without acknowledging how thoroughly those priorities align with and support the needs of students.

No, the press is unlikely to be helpful. It is up to UTLA to communicate a clear, coherent message and unite teachers and cultivate broad support. What's needed is a strategic information battleplan. People--and especially members and potential members--need to know in concrete terms what the fight is about. Some of it sounds... aspirational. "Support for anti-poverty programs in Los Angeles"? I'm all for big ideas, but I want to know how we get them done. 

However, most of the program is ambitious and extraordinary, and detailed. But I'm not going to lie. When I read it, it's a little overwhelming. 

This is better.

Still, I think members need to have a clear-cut answer that we can all remember. Something that's unassailable and unambiguous. Something we can deliver to friends and family, to our students and their parents. An answer to "What do you guys want?" that receives an "Oh, I get it."

I think we did a pretty good job of this in 2019. The UTLA team and then-president Alex Caputo-Pearl crafted a cogent message out of "69 pages of demands to the school district," and they made the rounds talking to members at school after school in order to deliver it. A lot of people have taken shots at Caputo-Pearl, particularly for the settlement, but the overwhelming support for the strike (and the strikers) speaks to the advance preparation. 

I was able to walk out of those meetings and into the rooms of my colleagues and talk about the issues in ways that spoke directly to the immediate concerns of members. I was even able to speak to nonmembers about the importance of unity, focusing on the fact that our demands were crucial for making every teacher's workspace and every student's learning space better. 

"Think about your class sizes," I'd say. "Think about the size they need to be for you to do a better job." "Now think about how big they would be if you had no union fighting to make them smaller." I'd ask them if they thought their paychecks would get bigger or their classes smaller without a union. I'd ask them if their days were too long, and how long they thought those days would be if the district had their way. Tenure. Pensions. Grievance protections against bad bosses.

However, over the last six months when I've asked my friends about updates, they tell me they haven't heard anything. I know it has been better lately, and I know a news blackout around negotiations is not unusual, but members need to know if talks are continuing (or not) and what next steps might look like and what they should be doing to prepare. I have seen no evidence that timidity in the face of tyranny mollifies the tyrant. Power concedes nothing without a demand. 

Prior to 2019, I can remember being frustrated that the union wasn't more forthcoming with respect to contract negotiations, and I know my friends still in the business are now. It doesn't have to be this way.

In a really good article in The New YorkerJennifer Gonnerman explores the long relationship between UPS and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and there's a lot to pay attention to in the context of UTLA's present battle.

With respect to messaging and preparation, the Teamsters have been working for a year to prepare the membership for what's to come and for what will be necessary in order to be successful. Through designated organizers they have been running rallies, meetings, informal discussions, as they prepare for battle. UTLA doesn't have a year, so it needs to gear up existing efforts. You can't grow a job action unless you cultivate the membership. 

The message needs to be clear and constant. Sean M. O’Brien, General President of the Teamsters’ told Gonnerman that the two-tiered compensation and protections of UPS workers was going to be a "strike issue" in the upcoming negotiations. 

What are UTLA's strike issues? The elaborate and extensive Beyond Recovery platform is admirable, and I understand the drive to connect local concerns to broader global struggles, but can the union really ask members to strike over green spaces? 

If the answer is yes, then how do we justify that to our members face to face in their classrooms? How do we explain to parents and our students? To the public? I'm not saying back away from the big ideas in the package, but rather find the five or ten things that you message on. Over and over. The answer to the question "What do you guys want?"

The UPS Teamsters also face many of the same obstacles faced by UTLA and teachers around the nation. There are non-union private contractors (Amazon). 

"The drivers of those vehicles are not Amazon employees; they work for delivery services that have contracts with Amazon." 
 "These convoluted arrangements make it much more difficult for Amazon to be held legally responsible for the drivers’ treatment. It also makes unionizing them nearly impossible; if drivers at a delivery company try to unionize, Amazon can simply cancel that company’s contract."

O'Brien relates how "the government has allowed this independent-contractor model to basically exploit obligations of employers." Any private school teacher and most charter school teachers can relate. He goes on to say that this fragmented model has "made it difficult for UPS, with its full-time drivers and regular start times, to keep up." He then "imagined what might be going through the minds of UPS executives: “How can we compete with this nonsense?” 

I used to say the same thing, about private and charter schools.

Even with a union, UPS workers face micromanagement and surveillance, coerced labor (driver Antoine Andrews says of new workers, "'They do know better...But they are scared.'”) and a driver's workday that does not end until their last package is delivered, birthdays and anniversaries be damned. Sound familiar? Now imagine work life without the Teamsters, without UTLA.

Vinnie Perrone, president of Teamsters local 804, knows one very important thing:

To succeed in their contract battle this year, the Teamsters will need to keep a united front—between inside workers and drivers, between veteran drivers and 22.4s, between “feeder” drivers (who drive tractor-trailers) and everyone else—and Perrone has been insisting on total solidarity.

The divide between "inside workers" and drivers, between veterans and newer workers reminds me of the way our veteran and less experienced teachers, our classified and credentialed personnel are often strangers when we ought to be allies. We need to be fighting side by side to strengthen each other's positions. Seeing contracts among different working constituencies as a zero-sum game only benefits the bosses. 

It's our job. It's everybody's job, a sentiment expressed slightly differently at a meeting in the union hall, by a member and former driver who was shot on the job and shuffled to another position:

Looking out over the crowd, he exhorted his fellow union members to stick together in the coming months, to not let their managers divide them. “My question to us is: How are we going to help them”—the union leaders at the front—“get us the best contract for 2023?” he said. “That’s the question we should all go home, talk to our families, meditate on, and, Monday morning, come in and fight. Because we need better language for everyone, from driver to preloader. We got to help each other out, brothers and sisters. We will not survive if we don’t.” 

Teachers are in a battle, and if we don't fight--against the "independent-contractor" model of schooling, for better pay and working conditions, for smaller classes, for more support for students, for more humane and just schools--the district is not about to just hand them over. 

The battle is not just for ourselves, but if teachers don't defend themselves and their co-workers, and their students and their schools against the autocrats with their blunders and bad ideas, who will? It must be teachers first, or who will step forward?

We need to get our story straight and buckle up. It's going to be a bumpy year.

Good Luck. See you next time.

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