The L.A. teachers’ strike of 2019 would have been tough enough to end with only two opposing protagonists: the school superintendent, trying to rein in spending, and the union chief, who was seeking expansive and expensive change.
But the two had attacked each other’s stands so stridently for so long that often it seemed there were four people scrapping: those two men and their caricatures.
On Jan. 16, three days into a teachers’ strike that was turning the city upside down, it was hard — because of the bruising attacks — to get L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner and teachers union President Alex Caputo-Pearl into the same room to talk, said L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who had stepped in to mediate.
Beutner’s admirers think of him as a no-nonsense problem solver, who tells it like it is. Caputo-Pearl and other union leaders had cast him as the front man for mega-rich reformers bent on dismantling traditional education and unions.
To his admirers, Caputo-Pearl is a teacher who chose to work in high-poverty areas and has devoted himself to building a social-justice movement. Beutner’s allies had cast him as an ambitious demagogue, and the superintendent insisted that Caputo-Pearl was bent on a strike — at whatever cost to the district — even before negotiations began.
Garcetti tried to get Beutner and Caputo-Pearl to meet Jan. 16, but it didn’t happen. The mayor said he could never get a yes from both men at the same time, although Beutner disputes this account, insisting he would have been available.
The two sides remained far apart after nearly two years of bargaining — which only served to harden the mutual suspicion and bad feeling.
“It could seem so childish on both sides, even though these are good people,” Garcetti said later.
So what was it that finally led to a deal on the first day of the strike’s second week? What headed off disaster, besides the coffee, chocolate and lemonade that never ran out during a final 21-hour session that lasted through a sunset and a sunrise and almost fell apart at the end?
No laughing matters
Garcetti played a pivotal role, though he got off to a bumpy start.
The first meeting of the two full bargaining teams did not take place until Jan. 17, Day 4 of the strike, which started Jan. 14.
By then, thousands of teachers clad in red had twice filled downtown streets in mega-rallies outside City Hall and had picketed every campus across the nation’s second-largest school system. Fewer than a third of students were showing up at schools with skeleton staffs.
Families were struggling to cope, students were not learning, and Los Angeles Unified was losing about $15 million a day — because funding is based on attendance.
Inside his wood-paneled news conference room, Garcetti tried a joke.
The first day of negotiations, he said, the room would be large and the food good. After that, the space would get smaller and the cuisine worse until, if necessary, they’d all be crammed into a small closet, eating stale pizza.
He saw maybe three smiles and many clenched jaws.
“There were a lot of faces locked into the anger of the moment,” Garcetti said later.
Earlier that day, Garcetti had finally, if briefly, brought Beutner and Caputo-Pearl together in his office. He’d laid out ground rules: confidentiality, positivity, no surprises, commitment. The bottom line: Stay put and grind it out, no matter what.
L.A. mayors don’t have any authority over the school system. Some mayors have tried to assert it. Garcetti hadn’t, which bothered some critics. But he also hadn’t alienated either side, and he and senior deputy Matt Szabo had experience mediating labor disputes.
Garcetti had civic and personal reasons to resolve the strike. The city had pulled detectives off investigations to provide extra security to elementary schools. And if, as rumor suggested, he wanted to run for president, he could not announce while a war waged over his city’s schools was being featured nationally on front pages and the nightly news.
After that first tense gathering, Garcetti and his aides separated the teams, shuttling messages and proposals back and forth.
“We pretty much never saw their team, which is good,” said Dan Barnhart, a union team member. “At that point, it was good.”
One key messenger was former L.A. school board President Steve Zimmer, who’d taken a job at the mayor’s office after losing a costly and bitter campaign for reelection in 2017. A Zimmer-led school board would have been closer to the union. It never would have hired Beutner. But now Zimmer’s job was to help forge a win for Beutner as well as the union.
The mayor’s other mediator was Najeeb Khoury, who heads the city’s labor board. Months earlier, before he’d taken the city job, he’d been the district’s lead negotiator in this same dispute. He’d left feeling frustrated at the stalled talks, and now they had reappeared, zombie-like, in his life.
Khoury and Zimmer worked details, sometimes writing or revising proposals for the teams to consider.
Garcetti and crew wanted to keep Beutner and Caputo-Pearl talking directly with a daily check-in, which happened on Friday, Jan. 18, at 6:45 a.m. in the library at Getty House, the mayor’s residence.
The early meeting time allowed Caputo-Pearl to take part in strike activities, an allowance that frustrated some on the district side.
Early on, the union managed to set the agenda for the discussions, insisting on negotiating 23 items.
The wish list had been compiled by talking to members, parents and students, and each point had its advocates on the team. The union team included Adrian Tamayo, who has taught children with disabilities, and Matthew Kogan, who’s worked in adult education. The co-chair of the bargaining team, union secretary Arlene Inouye, is a speech pathologist. Erika Jones has taught kindergarten.
“We wanted our entire package addressed, whether it was going to be yes or no,” Jones said.
The union, for example, wanted an uninterrupted 30-minute lunch for teachers of preschoolers and kindergartners. They’d sometimes been called in to help supervise kids on their break.
They got it. They did not get everything.
It fell to district staff to see what they could make work or wanted to make work. Tony Atienza, director of financial policy, calculated costs; Pedro Salcido worked out proposals. Another key participant was Deputy Supt. Vivian Ekchian, whom the school board had passed over in choosing Beutner.
Ekchian had been a teacher for 10 years, a principal, a senior administrator, head of human resources and had led negotiations for the previous contract. She’d been a late addition to the negotiating team. It would have been understandable if Beutner — who took the job last May — had hesitated to trust her. He was relying on her now.
Almost every discussion ended up at the same spot: money.
“We’re still on Mars and they’re still on Venus when it comes to financial analysis,” Beutner told Garcetti, repeating a consistent refrain.
A fundamental goal of the union was to drive down class sizes by having more teachers, but the two sides could not agree on how much each teacher would cost on average — which would affect how many teachers the district could afford.
The union put the price of a new teacher at $86,000 per person including benefits, pension contributions and other expenses. The district team said the figure was $114,000. Garcetti insisted that they settle on $100,000 and just move on.
Szabo made a mental note to keep budget figures out of discussions — because the two sides would never agree.
The Saturday check-in with the three leaders was in the afternoon in a private room at Taix, a restaurant in Echo Park.
By this time, district negotiators were exerting more control of the financial parameters of a deal, making it all the more important for the union to have wins not tied to big dollars: more green space for schools; a legal fund for immigrant families; fewer random searches of students for weapons; a working group to examine excessive standardized testing; more say about how campuses would be shared with privately run charter schools.
In an interview, Beutner emphasized that such efforts as adding green space and helping immigrant families with legal costs would depend on outside funding sources.
“Everything we did is within the dollars we have,” he said.
By Sunday, Caputo-Pearl and Beutner were working out some deal points directly. They also started making calls together from the mayor’s office: to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, to political organizer Anthony Thigpenn, to Gov. Gavin Newsom. They were laying the groundwork for collaboration on improved funding for schools — via state government and ballot initiatives.
And yet tension also persisted. Beutner was upset that the union was going ahead with strike planning for Tuesday. He thought a deal could avert a strike before that needed to happen.
The toughest issues were last: class size reduction and the size of the salary increase. Progress was stalling.
Talks are eclipsed
It was Sunday night, about 8. Garcetti decided to call a timeout.
He wanted to show everyone the lunar eclipse from City Hall’s 27th floor observation deck. First, the district staff, then the union members went up two sets of brass-fitted elevators, then up a curving staircase and through the grand Tom Bradley ballroom. Garcetti coaxed the union team by noting the blood red moon was union red.
The field trips were separate because the mayor “didn’t want anyone to push anyone off of the top,” joked math teacher Julie Van Winkle.
Zimmer initially chafed at losing time, as he calculated his accumulating lost sleep in negotiating sessions that were stretching till midnight. But the break was welcome, he said, and “people understood that this was so intense that we can’t even enjoy this together.”
And the 21-hour marathon had not yet even begun.
Union members had taken over the stately news conference room. Some took catnaps on the side benches. They also took turns leading yoga stretches.
Beutner’s team caucused in a more cramped conference room and also colonized nearby offices.
As Monday negotiations stretched deep into the night, the teachers union announced the strike would continue on Tuesday. Even with a settlement, they’d need time for their members to vote on the deal.
It soon became clear that the strike might last even longer.
The holdup was Section 1.5 of Article 8. It allowed the district to bypass agreed-on class sizes by citing financial hardship. For L.A. Unified the option provided flexibility to find workable solutions in times of budget cuts. To the union, the clause made any agreement on class sizes meaningless. And the district had been using it to bypass class-size limits.
The two sides debated for hours.
Beutner declined coffee and found chocolate he liked in Garcetti’s office. Caputo-Pearl was downing lemonade. Garcetti remembers his back beginning to throb.
The union stood its ground. The strike would continue.
It was past 5 a.m.
Garcetti pulled aside Beutner and Caputo-Pearl. He said he was willing to go public with the holdup and blame could then land on either side or both sides for the continuing strike.
The three separated. Garcetti hitched on his overnight backpack to leave.
Then Beutner called Garcetti over.
“Get Alex,” he said.
Caputo-Pearl was talking to his team one last time before dealing with the day’s strike activities. He wasn’t interested.
“Get Alex,” Beutner said to Garcetti again. “I’m going to give him what he wants.”
Garcetti pulled Caputo-Pearl aside, saying he thought Beutner was ready to drop the clause the union hated so much: “I think you should give this conversation a chance.”
The three moved once more into Garcetti’s office.
“Is that a clean drop?” Caputo-Pearl asked.
Beutner said yes. He also said yes when Caputo-Pearl asked the question again in two different ways.
Beutner stuck out his hand. Caputo-Pearl didn’t take it.
Caputo-Pearl later said he had not noticed the gesture, because he was thinking about how his negotiating team might already be leaving the building, and now he had to stop them before they did.