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A radical change for two union militants

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

At United Teachers Los Angeles, veteran classroom instructors Joel Jordan and Joshua Pechthalt were longtime outsiders, considered a bit too radical for a union long known for its progressive politics.

Now, as leaders at the nation’s second-largest teachers union, they are applying their ideas in ways that could reshape Southern California’s politics and schools.

On Tuesday came the largest practical demonstration of the union’s new approach to date: a three-year union contract.

The agreement was sealed after months of unusually confrontational rhetoric and aggressive public protests staged by the union’s leaders. And the deal’s details -- particularly its mandate for class size reduction and new job protections for union activists -- reflect the long-standing emphasis by Pechthalt, Jordan and their allies on broadening UTLA’s advocacy beyond salary and benefits.

“This contract is a representation of our vision, in a concentrated and limited form,” Jordan said after a news conference to announce the agreement.

In the months ahead, union leaders say, they intend to use a similar approach in two other big battles: the March 6 elections, which could reshape the Los Angeles school board, and the implementation of a state law that, if it survives court challenges, could grant Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and perhaps the union itself greater influence over the district.

UTLA’s more aggressive stance is personified by A.J. Duffy, the dapper, occasionally bombastic union president who communicates with the membership and tussles with the press. But according to people both inside and outside UTLA, the strategy has been shaped by the little-known Jordan and Pechthalt, self-described “union militants” who now hold key leadership posts.

Jordan, a top staffer, and Pechthalt, a vice president, have long ties to activist politics and to Villaraigosa, a former UTLA staffer who once represented Pechthalt in a grievance against the Los Angeles Unified School District. Along with Duffy and two other allies, Pechthalt and Jordan were unexpectedly swept into power in elections two years ago by a membership frustrated at stalled contract talks.

Their dissident status had been cemented over two decades. They staged demonstrations without the approval of union leadership. They supported bilingual education when California voters didn’t, opposed standardized testing as it became popular and questioned whether homework was necessary. They published a newsletter criticizing the labor movement and their own union, particularly its focus on electing school board members to secure power and good contracts.

Instead, they said, UTLA should reinvent itself as the base for a social movement that would engage in aggressive organizing of parents and communities, confront even friendly politicians and use militant tactics rarely employed by staid public employee unions.

“UTLA has never realized its full potential, which is to organize at schools, with teachers, parents and the community,” Pechthalt said. “We need to create a broader movement for public education.”

But this approach has caused alarm among some in the union and in political circles. Rank-and-file teachers and even other UTLA officers suggest that in their zeal to change the organization, the new union leaders have neglected some of the nuts and bolts of unionism.

“UTLA is a labor union and has the structure and mechanisms and funding and politics of a labor union,” said Warren Fletcher, a union chairman at City of Angels School downtown, who has been both ally and critic of Pechthalt and Jordan. “I’m concerned that we’re approaching things from the perspective of some sort of grand movement.”

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Jordan, 64, an avuncular alternative-school teacher, and Pechthalt, a funny, mustachioed social studies teacher, met 20 years ago. They were introduced by a mutual friend, UCLA professor Robert Brenner, a classmate of Jordan’s at Beverly Hills High School.

A trumpet player in his youth, Jordan became radicalized during the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, where he was a student. He left graduate school to teach in the Oakland public schools. He quit to drive a truck and later became an organizer in Los Angeles for Teamsters for a Democratic Union. By 1980, Jordan had returned to teaching. He eventually took a job at Mid-City Alternative School and stayed close to Brenner.

“We both developed the same sort of emphasis, a first principle that the activity and organizing of the membership of a union, rather than the leadership, is the key to power,” Brenner said.

Pechthalt, 53, took a class from Brenner at UCLA during the 1980s on social theory and comparative history. Pechthalt was the son of radicals. His father, a Colombian immigrant, was a chicken farmer turned politician who briefly moved the family back to South America when Pechthalt was a child. His mother, a bookkeeper, actively opposed the Vietnam War.

Brenner had a lasting impact on Pechthalt. The professor argues that the world economy and global capitalism are in decline, a view that Jordan and Pechthalt say they share.

“Joel and I developed a critique of the narrow trade union perspective,” Pechthalt said. “With the tightening of the economic pie, the only way to challenge that was to build a broad-based social movement for public education.”

During UTLA’s last strike, a nine-day walkout in 1989, Pechthalt and Jordan organized a rally in Exposition Park with Villaraigosa’s help. In 1992, Pechthalt led a one-hour wildcat strike at Manual Arts High School, which included 30 teachers and 1,500 students, to protest cuts. The district tried to discipline Pechthalt; Villaraigosa guided his successful grievance.

About the same time, Pechthalt and Jordan began publishing A Second Opinion, a newsletter that frequently criticized UTLA. Among their contributors were other dissidents, including Julie Washington, now a vice president, and David Goldberg, now union treasurer.

“We need to once more begin transforming the image of teachers as friendly Caspar Milquetoast do-gooders into a unified, mobilized and proud bunch of unionists,” Pechthalt and Jordan wrote in August 2004.

By then, Jordan was running a campaign to take over the board of directors and three officer positions with a slate of dissidents called United Action. The slate did not field a presidential candidate, and did not think Duffy, the only challenger to incumbent John Perez, stood a chance.

But Duffy, an unsinkable sort who favors fine suits and two-tone shoes, was undeterred. The son of a Brooklyn insurance executive, he was slow to learn to read and “was a tremendous disappointment to my parents,” he said. In his 20s, Duffy moved to Philadelphia, where he lived in a commune and started a day-care center.

After moving to Los Angeles, Duffy earned his teaching credential. He taught social studies at Drew Middle School near Watts and special education at Franklin High in Highland Park. He frequently ran afoul of principals but sharpened his fighting skills in grievances.

Though campaigning for the union presidency on his own, Duffy found he agreed with Pechthalt and Jordan on the need for militancy; United Action endorsed Duffy, and vice versa.

Their timing was good. In February 2005, the frustrated membership elected the entire slate, including Duffy.

The new leaders claimed some victories for their new approach. They persuaded teachers to wear red shirts on Tuesdays as a sign of union solidarity. They pushed the district to reduce some of the mandatory assessments of students that teachers complain take class time. They also supported other unions. Duffy and Pechthalt were arrested during a demonstration in favor of airport hotel workers last September.

The leaders’ philosophy also led them to a deal they came to regret with Villaraigosa to support state legislation granting him more influence over the school district.

They opposed his initial bid for a full takeover, instead pressing him behind the scenes to pursue a partnership with the union. The compromise legislation, AB 1381, was negotiated behind closed doors in Sacramento. That secrecy, along with provisions granting more power to the superintendent, upset some of UTLA’s rank and file, and opponents gathered signatures for a referendum on the deal.

After AB 1381 became law (it has since been blocked by a judge), members voted to overturn the union’s support of the agreement, leaving UTLA an official opponent of the law its own leaders negotiated.

“Many of the current officers of UTLA do not have a clue what the rank-and-file membership has to say about educational reform or raising student achievement or protecting public education and does not seem to take the time to even bother to find out,” former union vice president Becki Robinson wrote to The Times after the deal.

The reversal left Villaraigosa deeply skeptical of the union’s ability to deliver on any agreement, said sources close to the mayor. In school board races this spring, the mayor and the union are backing different candidates.

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Union officers saw the contract fight, in part, as a chance to make amends for AB 1381 -- and mobilize as they had promised.

They sponsored a tour of campuses to highlight overcrowding and held two massive rallies of teachers. They broadcast radio ads calling for smaller classes and more authority for parents. And they repeatedly threatened to strike.

“We have to destroy this district,” Duffy, 62, told teachers last month at Nightingale Middle School in Northeast Los Angeles. “We have to pull it apart. We have to dismantle it. The only way to do it is with conflict.”

The contract was sealed Monday, as the union began a strike authorization vote. District officials said negotiations gained momentum when Jordan personally joined the talks.

The deal produced a 6% raise -- less than the 9% the union had previously demanded but more than some school board members thought was prudent. Union leaders, for their part, emphasized their gains on non-salary issues that were often the subject of articles in the old dissident newsletter.

The contract includes both reductions in and caps on class sizes (which will average about one or two fewer students per class). It gives new protection to teachers active in UTLA; anyone transferred for their union activities can appeal to a mediator.

Said their ally Washington, who was on the negotiating committee: “This is just a beginning.”

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joe.mathews@latimes.com


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