Mayor’s Ties to Teachers Unions Paid Off
When Los Angeles teachers staged a strike in the spring of 1989, Joshua Pechthalt and Joel Jordan helped set up picket lines at schools and rallies in Exposition Park. During the nine-day walkout, the two teachers grew close to a young United Teachers Los Angeles organizer named Antonio Villaraigosa.
This week, Pechthalt and Jordan, now among the union’s leaders, helped reach an agreement with their old friend, now L.A. mayor, that would give him some power over the Los Angeles Unified School District.
With the powerful California Teachers Assn. joining the talks, Villaraigosa and the teachers produced a deal that, if adopted by the Legislature, would give the union a long-sought goal: more control over curriculum.
“It’s always easier to work out arrangements and have a dialogue with someone you know from a previous life,” said UTLA President A.J. Duffy, who has also been friendly with the mayor for years.
The agreement has put a spotlight on UTLA, which represents 47,000 teachers, and the 335,000-member CTA. UTLA is an affiliate of both CTA and the California Federation of Teachers, an unusual arrangement because most local teachers unions affiliate with one or the other.
In addition to Villaraigosa’s work as a UTLA organizer more than a decade ago, he had a consulting contract with CTA as recently as 2001. As he struggled this week to make a deal and avert a high-profile defeat of his school takeover plan, the mayor in one sense went home again.
“Both Joel and I spent a lot of time back in the day gabbing with Antonio,” said Pechthalt, who recalled how Villaraigosa handled his grievance in the early 1990s after the teacher staged a mini-strike at Manual Arts High School. “The things we were advocating 20-some years ago, we’re still organizing around.”
The close relationship between the mayor and the teachers unions has quickly become a point of criticism.
“My shock and dismay is that L.A. Unified’s teachers union, UTLA, joined hips with Antonio,” school board member Julie Korenstein, who herself has received campaign donations from UTLA, said angrily at a news conference Wednesday. Asked if she had changed her mind Thursday, she said: “Actually I’m more angry. This is one of the biggest back-door deals we’ve seen.”
As big institutions that represent dues-paying members of a popular profession, UTLA and CTA are powerful politically, but with different personalities.
A recent meeting of the UTLA governing body was a freewheeling nighttime session that saw loud denunciations of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Wal-Mart and the Republican Party. The weekend-long meeting of CTA’s elected leadership council was more businesslike, with teachers methodically discussing and dissecting educational legislation.
CTA is known for its pragmatism, willingness to negotiate with friend or foe, and political sophistication. Though the union is considered the most important Democratic interest group in California, it has employed a Republican pollster whose clients include President Bush. CTA has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Villaraigosa’s political career, but opposed his mayoral takeover plan. Without CTA’s backing, Villaraigosa’s effort had little chance in the Legislature.
“CTA is the only entity that could have forced Villaraigosa’s hand,” said Dan Schnur, a Republican political consultant and commentator. “They also were the only people who could have saved him by making a deal. There’s no other organization or individual in the state that could have brought this to a close.”
UTLA, which was forged out of a strike and a merger of rival groups representing L.A. Unified employees in 1970, has a more militant past and present. Last year, the membership voted in a new slate of leaders, many of them dissidents within the union, who pledged to aggressively pursue community organizing and progressive politics.
Both CTA and UTLA have resisted the federal No Child Left Behind Act and complained about the proliferation of standardized testing and state standards. The unions also made a priority of securing for teachers more power to choose their own curricula, textbooks and professional development.
UTLA’s leadership has adopted principles for school reform that demand “more school-level control over budgets, school schedules, curriculum and assessments.” But the union’s new leadership has spent its first year in office meeting with teachers, preparing for contract negotiations and cutting $1 million from the union budget. CTA sponsored legislation in 2002 to make curriculum a subject of collective bargaining, but the bill went nowhere after it came under intense public criticism.
The deal with Villaraigosa has revived the unions’ hopes that teachers will win more autonomy and relief from standards and testing.
“In 2002, the idea was radioactive for Democrats in the Legislature,” said Mike Antonucci, a Sacramento-based union watchdog who is sharply critical of the deal and of the unions’ push for more teacher autonomy. “Now with this deal, because it’s part of a restructuring, legislators have cover to support it. It’s unbelievable that the unions pulled this off.”
After fighting off a state ballot initiative to establish school vouchers six years ago, CTA dispatched one of its most seasoned staffers, Don Attore, to set up a community outreach office inside UTLA. Attore proved a key player in promoting closer cooperation between the unions.
During negotiations in recent weeks, officials of the statewide union encouraged Villaraigosa and UTLA to focus on where their goals matched: streamlining bureaucracy and putting more power in the hands of schools and teachers. The talks were eased at times by Villaraigosa’s telling stories about the 1989 strike, his work as a UTLA organizer and his old friends Pechthalt and Jordan.
“Everybody likes to talk about history, particularly dramatic history like the ’89 history,” said CTA President Barbara Kerr, who marveled at how long the mayor and UTLA officials had known each other. “I was born in Los Angeles and never really lived there. It’s such a small town in its own way.”
The talks gathered momentum Monday when Villaraigosa and UTLA leaders flew to Sacramento. The deal was sealed in a 90-minute meeting Wednesday morning in the Capitol. There, they compared proposals again and worked out details on the demonstration project that would give the mayor authority over three low-performing high schools and the middle and elementary schools that feed them.
Said Duffy: “It just became clear that we were standing on the same piece of ground.”
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