Thousands of signs were ready, along with thousands of teachers to hold them. Nothing, it seemed, could stop a Los Angeles teachers’ strike from starting Thursday.
Then, the day before, came a midday announcement from the teachers union: The strike would have to wait until Monday.
United Teachers Los Angeles didn’t make the decision Wednesday because of progress in contract talks. A deal still seemed beyond reach for the time being. Instead, the delay was due to a legal technicality.
Union leaders were concerned over whether they’d given the Los Angeles Unified School District a required 10-day notice that they were terminating their labor agreement. Absent that notice, lawyers for the school system could potentially let the strike begin and then force teachers back into classrooms for several days, disrupting momentum.
UTLA officials decided not to take that chance but blamed L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner for pursuing legal maneuvers rather than meeting their demands.
“Unlike Beutner and his administration, we do not want to bring confusion and chaos into an already fluid situation,” UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said in a statement. “Although we believe we would ultimately prevail in court, for our members, our students, parents and the community, absent an agreement we will plan to strike on Monday.”
Even that start date remains somewhat open to question. A hearing on the notification issue will be held Thursday in L.A. County Superior Court.
In court papers, school district lawyers argue that the union has yet to comply with notification rules set out in its labor agreement. They say the 10-day countdown has yet to start, because during this period the union is not allowed to “encourage” a strike.
UTLA publicly announced a Jan. 10 strike weeks ago, which is why its leaders believe they have given everyone ample notice. Its lawyers also point to a Jan. 3 email to the district — although that was fewer than 10 days ago.
The union had hoped to win the argument in court and strike Thursday, but for two days, its efforts to get a hearing were thwarted.
On Tuesday, Supervising Judge Samantha P. Jessner would not proceed because the union had not met new court deadlines to file papers electronically by 10 a.m. the day before.
On Wednesday, the court had trouble tracking down the case within its system. A court clerk said the union might have checked the wrong box in the filing. As a result, the records landed in a long line of pending class-action lawsuits in a different building, she told attorneys in a sidebar conversation.
By midday, it was clear the hearing was not going to happen. And by then the union had decided to delay.
At school district headquarters west of downtown, meanwhile, teams from the union and L.A. Unified met Wednesday in another effort to settle their differences. No announcement was expected.
Beutner, meanwhile, traveled to Sacramento to give state lawmakers an overview of what to expect if teachers strike. Democratic lawmakers who attended said the district did not make any particular requests for assistance.
“It was a basic nuts-and-bolts update,” said Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) after he left the briefing in the state Capitol. “The focus was on how the students would be taken care of and what to do with phone calls.”
A California Teachers Assn. representative and a reporter were both told they could not attend.
In contract talks this week, the school district upped its previous offer by $75 million to add staff to schools and decrease class sizes, though it did not change its wage proposal. Officials have offered teachers a 6% raise spread over the first two years of a three-year contract. The union wants a 6.5% raise that would take effect all at once and go into effect a year earlier.
UTLA has pressed for “fully staffed” campuses, framing its activism as a fight for the future of public education. The union Monday removed a demand to give teachers more control over standardized testing and budget decisions at schools.
Beutner contends that, although some union demands are worthy, the district does not have the money.
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti has talked to both sides and said there was reason for optimism.
“Both sides made serious offers,” Garcetti said, “to focus on the issues we all agree on: smaller class sizes, more support staff, decent pay and improving existing schools instead of opening new ones.”
Garcetti’s last point referred to the growing presence of privately run charter schools, which are mostly nonunion and compete with L.A. Unified for students. The union wants a moratorium on new charters, which would probably require state legislation and be met with intense opposition from charter school supporters.
The mayor’s recent involvement has raised the question of whether Gov. Gavin Newsom also should get involved. He was urged to do so in a Tuesday letter from local foundation leaders Fred Ali, Antonia Hernández and Robert K. Ross.
“For the sake of so many low-income students and families who will be significantly harmed by a strike, we urge you to intervene immediately,” they wrote. “Your involvement is needed not only to resolve this immediate crisis in Los Angeles, but also to lead the way in increasing funding for public education across the state.”
Newsom’s office provided no immediate response, but on the eve of his Monday inauguration, he made it clear he was watching the situation.
“This is profound in terms of its scope and scale,” Newsom said during a Sunday news conference. “The stresses that our teachers are facing are real…. We’re going to have to do more, and there’s no more important district, in terms of its size, than L.A. Unified. So all of us have a role to play, and to the extent that I’m needed, I’ll be there.”