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California

LAUSD teachers’ strike: The sun’s out, L.A. strikers gather, and hopes rise for a settlement

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 16, 2019 Westminster Elementary School Kindergarten teacher Beth Clark st
Striking kindergarten teacher Beth Clark makes her case to passing motorists on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

If striking Los Angeles teachers needed an omen as they rallied in Grand Park downtown Friday, Mother Nature obliged. After four days of picketing in rain and chill and gloom, the sun burst forth.

“Do you feel your power?” union President Alex Caputo-Pearl asked the masses, who stretched from the steps of City Hall through Grand Park all the way to the Music Center.

They thundered their response.

Union treasurer Alex Orozco reminded teachers that bargaining teams could hear them on the other side of the stage, inside City Hall.

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Thousands raised fists, thrust signs skyward and chanted: “Let’s go, team! Let’s go, team!”

With the celebrity help of singer Aloe Blacc, musician Tom Morello and actor Sean Astin, teachers made noise and memories — and also made their point.

The theater of this rally and numerous others this week have made it difficult for the school system’s bargaining team to make its own points: that it was the union that walked away from negotiations, and that the district faces serious financial problems.

But both teams seemed ready to get down to business.

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“We need our educators and our students back in school come Tuesday morning. The onus is on us ... as leaders to do what we have to do,” said L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner in a late afternoon news conference. He said that he met with Caputo-Pearl and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti at 6:45 a.m. and that he’d been in and out of bargaining efforts as needed.

“Too many students are missing out on the education they should be getting,” he said. “We need to solve this now.”

It was unclear at midday if the union’s big event would prove a climax or just one more rally-the-troops moment in a protracted job action.

Still, the L.A. teachers’ strike ushered in its fifth day with optimism.

Teams from L.A. Unified School District and United Teachers Los Angeles began the new round of talks about noon Thursday and didn’t finish that session until just after midnight Friday.

The length of the first day of new talks was one hopeful sign. Another, perhaps, was a mutual understanding that neither side would discuss the content of negotiations in public. Competing news conferences had become a forum for harsh rhetoric and accusations of bad faith.

Talks resumed before noon Friday and were expected to stretch into the evening.

At Grand Park, the crowd streamed in a sea of red from every direction. On one side, school band directors led students in playing “Uptown Funk,” holding up sheet music or clipping it onto the gate barriers.

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Some in the crowd chanted, “We are the parents, the mighty, mighty parents,” and raised their signs to the beat.

One parent on hand was Sylvia Barrera, whose daughter Rosie, 9, attends Stanford Avenue Elementary in South Gate. Rosie was with her mother rather than in class.

All week, Barrera has opened her house on Ohio Avenue to striking teachers, allowing them to use the bathroom, pouring coffee and handing out pastries.

“At least they’re talking,” she said, of the union and the district. “There is something happening, and that gives us hope.”

Not all parents were cheering on the rallies. The Westside parent of a fourth-grader, who did not attend Friday’s event, said she was troubled by the union’s messaging and militancy.

The parent, who requested anonymity over concern about retaliation against her child, said she asked both the district and a teacher whether she should keep her child home from school during the strike.

A district staffer told her to do “what I think is best for the kids — either keep them at home or send them to school,” she said. The teacher asked her to be supportive by keeping kids at home.

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“I actually feel like LAUSD is giving me a more encouraging and supporting message, which is, ‘Put the child first.’”

English and history teacher Audra Feld, 36, picketed outside Gage Middle School on Friday morning before she made her way from Huntington Park to downtown.

Salary isn’t top on her list, she said: She wants the district to provide for a nurse every day, not just one day a week. Students also need more counselors, she said; some have to handle hundreds of students.

“Both parties will lose my trust for a long time,” she said, if they come out of this marathon bargaining without making progress in these areas.

“We’re not sure where the money is coming from,” she said, “but someone has got to find it.”

Watching the back-and-forth between Caputo-Pearl and Beutner has been hard, she said. “I feel like my parents are getting a divorce.”

Until Thursday, there had been no negotiations since union leaders rejected a revised district offer a week ago.

Another positive sign Thursday was a meeting just before negotiations began between the two leaders. They were brought together by Garcetti, who was hosting the bargaining at City Hall.

Attendance at schools Thursday was the lowest yet during the strike, with about 17% of students showing up. L.A. Unified receives state funding — its largest source of revenue — based on attendance. Officials estimated the loss for the day at about $18.1 million less the amount that they are not paying the strikers.

Schools are being kept open by skeleton staffs of administrators, substitutes and employees who are not members of the striking union.

Juan Flecha, the head of the administrators union, wrote to Beutner on Wednesday that conditions at schools were “dire and unsafe.” He then told media that the schools should be shut down.

Beutner responded Thursday in a letter to Flecha and said “students and families are counting on our schools to stay open.”

This week, Service Employees International Union Local 99 members at 10 schools voted to forgo their own pay for one or more days and walk off the job in support of teachers. Local 99 has announced that its workers at 24 schools plan to stage sympathy strikes starting Tuesday if no agreement is reached.

Enthusiasm continues to permeate picket lines.

The union held its daily morning news conference and rally at Bell High School in southeast L.A. County, where at least 200 people staged a block party, complete with music, dancing and food.

At the buffet table were squares of sweet bread that looked suspiciously like official L.A. Unified coffee cake, one of the most familiar sights in the nation’s second-largest school district, but a treat that should have been forbidden to striking teachers.

“Our students are the core of our existence and they need so much,” veteran teacher Timi Picard said. “They need us to get back in the classroom. I hope this ends so we can get back to what we love doing.”

Principal Rafael Balderas looked on from the steps in front of the school.

The mother of a student participating in the protest ran up to give Balderas a hug.

Academic counselor Juan Gomez, who is on strike, came up with his two young children. Each wore a sign saying: “We stand with L.A. teachers.”

Balderas shook their hands.

“He’s also got a newborn at home,” Balderas said. “People have to remember that after this is over, we all have to work together.”

Also coming over to chat with Balderas was the union’s chapter chair for the school, Kenneth Goodson, a resource teacher.

“The momentum is switching a little bit,” Goodson said. “The politicians are pretty much on the same side as the teachers.”

There is something to what he said.

In Sacramento on Friday morning, a group of legislators representing the L.A. area called on the school district to negotiate earnestly with teachers.

“The district isn’t negotiating in bad faith, but I do think that the issue of classroom size needs to be taken more serious,” said Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), former head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

Beutner has said repeatedly that he sympathizes with teachers demands and that he wants to do everything the district can afford. The main limiting factor, he said, has been the district’s budget problems — and the union’s unwillingness to acknowledge them.

School board member Nick Melvoin, who supports Beutner, said it appears to him as though the union wanted to provoke a crisis to advance its larger political agenda. Now that it has, he said, he hoped serious negotiations could take place.

After more than 21 months of back-and-forth, there was still much to hammer out. On salary, the two sides are not that far apart: L.A. Unified is offering a 6% raise spread out over the first two years of a three-year deal; the union wants 6.5% all at once, dated back a year earlier.

At his afternoon news conference, Beutner announced that another union, which represents the building trades, settled for a 6% deal, as have nearly all other employee groups.

The district has sought to limit talks to a narrow range of topics. The union has laid out a more sweeping agenda, asking to give teachers more say in decision-making. The union also has demanded smaller class sizes and schools that are “fully staffed” with librarians, full-time nurses and more counselors.

The district has made revised offers that move in the direction of union demands, but officials have said they can’t afford to do more.

Garcetti, however, has suggested there were ways to break the deadlock quickly without breaking the bank.

After the rally, Caputo-Pearl shook hands and posed for photos with members.

In an interview, he said members were prepared to keep striking, but “we’re going to negotiate for as many hours as we can over this long weekend to get an agreement.”

Times staff writers Melody Gutierrez, Dakota Smith and Doug Smith contributed to this report.


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