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Opinion

Column: Will L.A. raise a fist — or shake it — when teachers strike?

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UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl announces at a press conference on Dec. 19 that Los Angeles Unified School District teachers will strike on Jan. 10, 2019 if a settlement is not reached by then.
(Los Angeles Times)

Are you excited yet, Angelenos? It’s coming. And soon.

Jan. 10 is the date that 35,000 teachers have set to go on strike if the Los Angeles Unified School District hasn’t offered an acceptable contract.

Not excited? Annoyed maybe? Indifferent?

That’s a problem.

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That so few of us care about the looming strike by United Teachers Los Angeles — which would be the first since 1989, when a nine-day stoppage “spread chaos” throughout the city, per a New York Times headline back then — shows yet another fray in our civic fabric. Even if you don’t have children in public schools — or even live within the district limits — the latest breakdown in the protracted negotiations between UTLA and LAUSD superintendent (and former Times publisher) Austin Beutner should concern you. Because soon it will affect everyone.

The superintendent is at the negotiating table, isn’t he? And now they want to walk out?

This may all seem like stupid infighting, with both sides pointing fingers and filing complaints that the other isn’t “bargaining in good faith” — but you’re going to care when a half-million kids have nowhere to go on a Thursday, and hundreds of thousands of parents have trouble getting to work.

We’re talking about a potentially weeks-long shutdown of the second-largest school district in the United States. The ramifications of such an event would disrupt L.A. like nothing since Carmageddon. It’ll be such a distraction that most people won’t care about the details as to why teachers have resorted to such measures, which just happen to matter for our collective future — how we can best educate kids, keep great teachers and pay for it all.

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How did we get to this point of apathy? Easy: It’s everyone’s fault.

Let’s start with conservatives, who developed a special loathing for teachers unions (and public employee unions, in general) because union dues fund liberal causes and candidates come election time. Conservative think tanks and philanthropists have sown seeds of skepticism about public-education-anything for decades, which means that when teachers say that their wages are low, their working conditions tough, and their cost of living untenable, the public just rolls their eyes.

There are many legitimate concerns about how L.A.’s public education system fails children. But declaring teachers and the union that supports them as the main enemy unfairly demonizes the tens of thousands of people who spend their lives guiding our children through the most important years of their lives.

Such pitched warfare leads to a UTLA that won’t brook any criticism whatsoever — because why bother when the loudest mouths want you permanently kneecapped?

The LAUSD’s real and perceived problems have led thousands of parents to abandon district-run neighborhood schools and put their kids into (non-union) charter or private ones. They’re at fault, too. They caused a brain drain not just of students but also adults who can devote more time, money and energy to local schools than working-class parents. A divestment of social capital from parents removes a crucial check against both district and union power, which allows impasses to escalate into situations like the one we now have.

But a big reason why people don’t care for what UTLA fights for is UTLA itself.

Take what happened last week, when a so-called “fact-finding panel” suggested that LAUSD’s salary offer was reasonable, only to have union leaders flatly reject their suggestion. One of the bigger issues? The panel suggested a two-tiered, 6% raise retroactive to July 2017; the union wouldn’t budge on its demand for a 6.5% raise retroactive to July 2016.

“How about be happy you’re getting any raise, let alone a retroactive one?” screamed what remains of Southern California’s working class.

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And when Beutner told reporters that there was agreement on the pay hike, the union threw a fit.

“Beutner’s latest stunt proves he wants to create confusion and chaos,” a union press release railed, “rather than be a willing partner in the reinvestment and sustainability of our school district.”

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute from L.A. Times Opinion »

The superintendent is at the negotiating table, isn’t he? And now they want to walk out?

I’m all for hard-line negotiating tactics when necessary. But UTLA is in a different spot. The optics of such a strike, in an era when family budgets are stretched to snapping, are not good. Will the union offer to pay for the day care of all these parents who are now screwed? Or give kids an extra A for inconveniencing their lives?

L.A. teachers would’ve been better off staging a wildcat walkout like so many others did earlier this year across the country. Such mass actions were mostly well-received and made the financial distress of public education systems a nationwide issue. In most of those, teachers returned to work quickly afterward, invigorated and with the public sentiment advantage.

If UTLA goes out on a protracted strike, on the other hand, we’ll either collectively shrug or shake our fists at them instead of raising them. Good luck in presenting your case to frazzled parents and frustrated Angelenos, teachers, because you’re going to need it.

mexicanwithglasses@gmail.com

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Twitter: @GustavoArellano

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