Community backing key to LA teachers’ successful strike

Teachers walk the picket line at Sheridan Street Elementary School during the strike in Los Angeles.
Nicole Tarango

Teachers walk the picket line at Sheridan Street Elementary School during the strike.

One of the most distinctive elements of the successful nine-day teachers’ strike in Los Angeles in January was the high level of community support the teachers had.

That was the result of a deliberate effort by United Teachers Los Angeles, the 32,000-member American Federation of Teachers affiliate, to build mutually respectful alliances with parents and community groups around a common agenda.

“UTLA is part of a growing national movement that is centered on the idea of bargaining for the common good,” said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl in an interview in 2017. “By the time we get to the bargaining table, we’re taking demands and proposals that have come out of months of working with community organizations, youth and parents, and that bring to light things that are not typical, mandatory subjects of bargaining. If a subject falls outside the norm but we think it’s important to sustaining the civic institution of public education, we won’t hesitate to make it an issue.”

The numbers paint a portrait of the needs. About 81 percent of Los Angeles public school students rely on the district’s free- or reduced-price meals. Roughly one-fifth of the students are English language learners and about 15 percent need special education services. Latinos account for 73 percent of all students in the highly segregated district.

UTLA officials insisted all along that the strike was about much more than pay. The union fought for and won improvements in teaching and learning conditions: reductions in class size and funding for more school nurses, librarians, counselors and other support staff and wraparound services for students.

The strike struck a blow to the city’s charter schools, which have been siphoning students and resources from public schools. The Los Angeles school board, controlled by a pro-charter faction, agreed to pursue a resolution supporting a statewide moratorium on new charter schools. Los Angeles has more charter schools and more charter school students than any other school system in the country.

Jeremy Zwang-Weissman, a science and music teacher at the city’s Virgil Middle School, said the union membership understood it was striking on behalf of the broader community.

“I was doing what I needed to do for the sake of my students,” Zwang-Weissman said. “Public education has been in dire straits for many years.”

The union played a vital role in the strike’s success, he said.

“The union brought a whole lot of organization; they brought a whole lot of leadership; they brought a whole lot of collective information that allowed those of us at our school sites to lead the charge,” he said.

Holly Jackson, who teaches 1st and 2nd grade at John W. Mack Elementary School, said the work the union put into building relationships in the school communities was pivotal.

“We’ve been really busy at schools creating connections with parents,” said Jackson. “Outside of the regular parent conferences and things like that, a big part of the union work for over a year was for us to reach out to parents in different ways and get them on our side.”

Jackson said that work paid off by “helping the community see” the link between “how things are going for their child at school” and “how things are going for teachers.”

How were things going? Jackson — a single mother of two — had to take a second job as a Lyft driver for several years to help make ends meet. Eventually, she had to sell her car entirely.

While parents became aware of the teachers’ struggles, teachers were concerned about the inequities their students face.

“The big issues are racial and social justice here in the city,” said Jackson.

To help address those issues, the deal negotiated between the union and the city reduces random police searches of students and creates an immigrant defense fund.

Nicole Tarango, a 6th-grade teacher at Sheridan Street Elementary School, saw the results of the bonds teachers built with their communities when she walked the picket line at her school.

“We had support from so many community members,” said Tarango. “Small businesses would donate coffee every morning. A lot of parents would bring us donuts.”

Tarango felt buoyed by the parents’ presence while picketing and marching in the rain.

“It was so beautiful to see that support,” she said. “These parents are working all day. The fact that they take time to come out shows their support.”

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