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Is the L.A. teachers union tone deaf?

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It was back-to-school night in August. A time for new beginnings and high hopes at Thomas Starr King Middle School on the Silver Lake/Los Feliz border.

Then came an awkward moment.

With new parents and students in the room, a teachers union rep got up on a soapbox to lay out the labor issues that could lead to a strike.

“He could not have been more tone deaf,” said Tomas O'Grady, a parent who was in the room. “What a stupid thing to do, for a new group of parents excited about this school.”

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O'Grady said the speaker is “one of the most amazing teachers at King,” so out of kindness, O'Grady reined him in by suggesting this was not the time or place for a labor rally.

“In an attempt to protect him, I spoke up. Because if it was anyone else, I’ll be honest, it wouldn’t have been to protect him, but to reprimand him.”

I offer this as a snapshot of a big problem for United Teachers Los Angeles, and in larger measure, the entire district.

To borrow O'Grady’s words: Is UTLA tone deaf?

You could argue, as I have, that L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy’s lack of collaborative skill and political finesse led to his demise last week after 3 1/2 years of running battles with board members and union leaders.

But as clumsy as Deasy was, did he have anyone at UTLA to dance with?

The union has shown little flexibility: not on salary negotiations, tenure, student testing, teacher evaluations or anything else. How do you negotiate with that?

UTLA’s political strategy is borrowed in part from the Chicago Teachers Union, which led a strike two years ago that won pay increases for teachers but left bitter feelings all around.

At a teacher union convention in July, new UTLA leader Alex Caputo-Pearl waxed about “social movement unionism.” He defined it as being “explicit about fighting for racial and social justice. It’s explicit in fighting against privatization.... It’s a unionism that is willing to strike.”

Hey, I understand the purpose of union rhetoric in the middle of contract negotiations, and I support some of the broad themes in Caputo-Pearl’s manifesto. But a strike would be disastrous for students, parents and even teachers. And it could drive even more families out of the district or into the charter schools the union so despises.

“I can’t imagine how angry I and everybody else would be if there’s a strike,” said O'Grady, who organizes parent volunteers at schools and said he’d feel betrayed if teachers go out. O'Grady said he supports raises for teachers, but he added that charters exist because the district hasn’t always delivered a preferable alternative.

“[Caputo-Pearl] needs to know that with most parents, while they may have sympathy for social justice, their primary focus is having a decent education for their children,” said Michael Stryer, a former UTLA member who now works for the reform-minded nonprofit Teach Plus.

Stryer questioned whether the current UTLA strategy represents the wishes of a majority of teachers, noting that turnout in union elections has hovered just above 20%.

“Frankly, teachers here in L.A. are not a radicalized bunch,” Stryer said. “To me, they don’t want the broad, sweeping set of social justice policies UTLA is trying to push forward. My view is that they want acceptable working conditions, technology that works, decent pay and attention to professional issues.”

But they may have a hard time at the bargaining table, said former UTLA chief A.J. Duffy. School districts have won a PR war, he said, casting blame on unions for protecting bad teachers and accusing them of resisting badly needed reform.

“That’s the picture of teachers now — it’s suspicion. I think at this point Alex’s job is going to be hugely difficult because he’s gotta fight that PR battle,” said Duffy, who recommended the union consider doing things like volunteer tutoring in underserved communities to build trust and support.

Caputo-Pearl didn’t disagree with the need to earn that support, and he said the union has begun reaching out to parents and community groups, trying to win support for smaller classes and more resources, as well as hearing what parents want.

O'Grady, the middle school parent, seemed a little skeptical.

“UTLA is about as good as LAUSD is at parent outreach and engagement,” he said. “They both do an embarrassing job.”

O'Grady said the teachers are doing just fine working with parents at his school, but he’s not making any bets on the higher-ups “working together, leaving their egos at the door, and saying, ‘OK, it’s not about us.’”

Caputo-Pearl did tell me that his first meeting with interim Supt. Ramon Cortines was positive, which is perfectly lovely, except that nothing is on the line just yet. Sooner or later Cortines will be gone, and the question is whether his replacement will be able to work with board members and the union or run screaming from the building.

Looking back now, it seems that Deasy’s reign was doomed going in. His aggressive and combative approach, which Caputo-Pearl described as treating public education as if it were “a corporate turnaround effort,” seems only to have made the union more combative and aggressive.

“It’s always the same rhetoric,” said David Cicarella, head of the teachers union in the New Haven, Conn., school district, which is often cited by both labor and management as an example of one of the few places in the country where a district and union stopped tossing grenades long enough to have a conversation.

Cicarella said he supports the issues UTLA is fighting for, but in New Haven, they realized if you gave a little, you got something in return. Remarkably, collaboration and compromise became politically acceptable.

“You don’t capitulate. You don’t knuckle under on everything,” Cicarella said."But there are things where the union can be more self-reflective. You can’t just always say [blank] that, you’re never going to do it. Because then you have nowhere to go from that position.”

Here’s hoping — for the sake of students, parents and teachers — that we may one day find our own new way.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATstevelopez


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