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In L.A. strike, leading Democrats — including presidential hopefuls — side with teachers

In L.A. strike, leading Democrats — including presidential hopefuls — side with teachers
Sen. Kamala Harris, pictured in 2015, sent out a tweet on Monday supporting striking Los Angeles teachers. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Los Angeles became the latest flash point for the national standoff between educators and public school districts on Monday, as national Democratic Party leaders aligned themselves with thousands of striking teachers in L.A. and the broader labor movement.

The walkout by teachers, many wearing cardinal-red ponchos and carrying umbrellas as they marched in the rain through downtown L.A., drew support from several high-profile Democrats, including those with an interest in running for president in 2020.

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Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has launched an exploratory committee for the 2020 presidential race, singled out members of United Teachers Los Angeles and Los Angeles Unified School District in a tweet Monday, writing, “I’m with our teachers all the way.”

Another possible presidential contender, California’s Sen. Kamala Harris, also tweeted her support, saying “Los Angeles teachers work day in and day out to inspire and educate the next generation of leaders.”

Monday’s strike provided an opportunity for Democrats to reaffirm their support for public school teachers, particularly at a time when the national party is trying to recast itself as a protector of the middle class and when unions are losing power.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that teachers and other public employees cannot be forced to pay dues or fees to support their unions. The ruling has jeopardized the funding and membership of labor groups, who traditionally support Democrats.

At the same time, the L.A. teachers union is facing legal and political challenges to its influence. The number of privately operated charter schools is growing, competing with district-run schools for enrollment. In 2017, pro-charter-school groups spent heavily on candidates they supported for election to the Los Angeles Unified school board.

On Monday, United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl highlighted California’s economic inequities and its Democratic majority among public officeholders, saying that the walkout was happening in a “state as blue as it can be and in a city rife with millionaires.”

The strike, expected to affect nearly half a million students, followed similar walkouts by teachers in West Virginia, Arizona and other predominately red states.

If strikes in some of those states were viewed as part of an anti-Trump wave, the action by L.A. teachers is more complex, given the powerful role unions continue to hold in left-leaning California. Also, leaders of the school district agree with the union that more state money is needed at Los Angeles Unified.

“This isn’t West Virginia and this isn’t Wisconsin,” said former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a onetime union organizer who has become a staunch supporter of charter schools. “This is a pro-union state. The money is in Sacramento.”

The union wants higher pay, smaller class sizes and more support staff, but is at loggerheads with Los Angeles Unified School District, whose leaders say that if they met all the union’s demands, the district would be pushed to insolvency.

The L.A. situation has nuances, but those details weren’t apparent in any of the broad calls for support for teachers that rolled in from across the country.

Democratic National Committee Chairman and former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez said Monday that he stands “with the Los Angeles teachers marching for the pay, resources, and working conditions they deserve.”

New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez praised the teachers on Twitter for taking a stand, calling them “the unsung heroes of American democracy.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is contemplating a White House run, told reporters at City Hall that he hoped there would be a quick resolution to the strike. He also said the union’s goals made for a “righteous cause.”

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Garcetti’s comments were in line with what other Democrats said, but the mayor is in a much more complicated position. He can’t antagonize Los Angeles Unified Supt. Austin Beutner, who he is negotiating with to try to end the impasse.

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