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CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY : In L.A., Some People Don’t Count : The teachers’ union can enhance its position by helping to ensure that the burden of budget cuts is equitable.

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From one end of this town to the other, in the public sector and the private sector, the message is clear: Some people don’t count. The very people who have the least capability of economically fending for themselves and their families are the ones policy-makers and corporate executives put on the chopping block. This is fundamentally unjust, we challenge it.

The Los Angeles Board of Education’s proposal for slashing $220 million from its budget is blatantly unjust because the largest personnel cuts are concentrated in jobs with the highest percentages of people of color. For example, custodians, 93% of whom are people of color, are confronted with a 16% cutback. At the same time, assistant principals, less than half of whom are people of color, face a 5% cutback in their ranks.

No one who is deserving of the title of community leader would tolerate injustice being visited upon those who we claim to represent, or passively accept such mistreatment without a struggle. Therefore, we developed a set of budget proposals that were inherently more fair because they required every district employee to share the burden and no group (ethnic or otherwise) to bare the brunt of the budget cuts.

The proposal was the result of much work and consultation among leaders in the African-American community. Last Saturday, the Black Leadership Coalition on Education, along with Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, convened an unprecedented emergency meeting with more than 100 representatives of the African-American community, including school administrators, teachers, union leaders, community leaders, parents, religious leaders and education activists. We met not only to express outrage over the threat of layoffs, but also to apply everyone’s creativity to the problem and come up with a proposal that looks to the future, offers an alternative to layoffs and goes beyond knee-jerk protest.

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Equity has been the primary principle of concern to the Black Leadership Coalition in this budget-reduction process. In other words, we asked ourselves the question: “Is this a fair process and are the results equitable?” On the basis of our historic understanding of racial and economic justice, we concluded no, in each instance.

Because of the composition of the district’s workforce, the current board proposed budget cuts will have a major impact on workers of color.

An injury to one is an injury to all--this is a basic tenet of the American labor movement. Major unions representing Los Angeles school employees should live up to this principle by working toward a more equitable resolution of this budget crisis. Even though United Teachers-Los Angeles felt that it could not support our proposals, as the most influential bargaining unit in the district, it has a major responsibility in this regard. Such a move would strengthen the position of all employee unions--showing an unequivocal concern for the well-being of the children, enhancing their public image as caring organizations, and giving them a powerful moral position from which to continue good-faith bargaining in the future. The district will owe them one.

The major players--board members, administrators, unions, parents, students and the community--representing all ethnic groups in the Los Angeles Unified School District have an unprecedented opportunity to come together for the children.

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