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What an off-the-radar teachers union election means for the education of L.A. children

When LA Schools Supt. Alberto Carvalho wanted to extend the academic year, but the teachers’ union stopped him. When his predecessor, Austin Beutner, wanted more live Zoom teaching during the pandemic, the union stopped him as well. And as the district prepared to reopen campuses for face-to-face learning, the union demanded that teachers first be given the opportunity to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

When it comes to local schools, United Teachers Los Angeles has significant clout. This week, members will decide who will wield power within the union in an election that is sure to impact public education at a critical time for students’ academic recovery from the pandemic.

The 35,000-member union of teachers, counselors, librarians and nurses is likely to have something to say about renewed efforts to extend the school year or school day, affecting working hours. Union leaders will also negotiate how and where to reduce class sizes and consider whether to shorten the winter break from three weeks to two weeks. There has also been a decades-long debate about who controls what happens in schools, in terms of teacher assignments, hiring, and spending.

The next few months are crucial for teachers, who, like their students, have struggled to return to normal as the pandemic has eased. The stress of catching up with kids who are academically behind and emotionally misbehaving has led many to retire, leave the profession, or consider doing so. High inflation and housing prices make it difficult to live on a teacher’s salary in Los Angeles.

The union’s long list of negotiating priorities includes funding for the Black Student Achievement Program, details of district organizing, building affordable housing for low-income families, environmental justice, healthy nutrition, trauma-informed education, techniques for de-escalating conflicts and better access to ethnic studies.

The union bloc that has been around for nearly a decade is vying to extend its run – and has become the firm favorite of online member voting.

President Cecily Myart-Cruz, 49, is seeking a second term in office with a newly constituted all-woman slate following the takeover of coalition leader Alex Caputo-Pearl, who served as president for up to two terms. Myart-Cruz has positioned the union as a progressive voice for underserved black and Latino students; she is also pushing for a 20% increase over two years in ongoing negotiations.

In January 2019, teachers went on strike for six days and won some important concessions – such as a class size limit – although the strike itself did not result in higher wages or benefits. To avoid another strike, the union and the school district must agree on wages generous enough to hire and retain teachers as the district faces economic uncertainties.

The union’s internal challenges include recruiting dues-paying members – now that the Supreme Court has banned compulsory membership in public unions. According to data from LA Unified, obtained by California Policy Centerwho has the self-described mission of ruling in “government union power”.

It is difficult to estimate where the union stands with parents. Union leaders point out that members’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions — they have a common interest. Union critics, however, question whether the leadership is serving members well, let alone district families.

A statewide poll last year indicated no major political shift in attitudes toward teacher unions. Voters remain sharply divided, especially along partisan lines, while Republicans and conservatives are much more critical. However, overall confidence in schools had declined in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“The real question for the union, no matter who runs it, is: Is what’s good for the union, in terms of what they’re advocating, also good for the students?” said Pedro Noguera, dean of the USC Rossier School of Education. “Parents want to know that. To the extent that parents do not see this as the case, the union may lose support.”

Myart-Cruz did not make herself available for an interview, but issued a statement expressing pride in the union’s work and its commitment “to fighting for our school communities”. She put her vision into that of the union campaign forum for members. Each candidate was allowed to answer briefly to the same three questions.

When asked to name three major problems, Myart-Cruz mentioned “educator burnout, attacks on public education, and the attraction and retention of educators because of pay disparities, (lack of) living wages, and housing.”

She also talked about her leadership approach.

“My vision for UTLA is to build on the collective work we’ve done over the many years,” she said. “We have to listen to our members. … We need to engage students and parents and community voices. We must be anti-racist in our practices. And we must continue our work with coalitions locally, statewide and nationally.

She also spoke about building power on campuses, reducing standardized testing, and fighting for racial and social justice. She also underlined the fight against “privatization,” which for union members means opposing private public charter schools, blocking the use of taxpayer money for private school education, and taking on initiatives and candidates backed by hostile donors and foundations.

Her message, said Joel Jordan, a retired district teacher and former UTLA director of special projects, “demonstrates the overwhelming victory of militant, progressive unionism in UTLA. Gone are the days of pure and simple union work in UTLA. It is the new standard that UTLA will try to negotiate, not only on salaries and benefits, but also on class size, extended support services and other non-traditional contract priorities.”

The union’s broad priorities are necessary because children and families have so many needs, said Theresa Montaño, a district grandparent and Chicana/Chicano undergraduate professor at Cal State Northridge.

“We have to look at the whole community, and you can’t choose a competitive salary over a nurse on the school grounds,” she said. “That’s all important for education.”

The labor dynamics are a change for Carvalho, said school board president Jackie Goldberg, because in Florida, where Carvalho worked, unions had more limited rights, as she put it, only to “meet and beg” for pay and benefits.

Antonieta Garcia, an engaged parent at Griffith Middle School in East Los Angeles, said she “fully supports” the union’s platform because it was developed in partnership with parents and community members: “It has everything our kids need: small classes, nurses, counselors, green spaces and much more.”

Parent Rocio Elorza, who has kids in Harvard Elementary and King Middle schools, thought otherwise, saying the union seemed more focused on telling parents what to think than listening to what they have to say.

“The biggest thing the union doesn’t do is consider the parents,” she said.

Discord areas

A major priority for Myart-Cruz is justice for people of color. She has joined student activists and related groups advocating for the abolition of school policing — with that money instead being redirected to student services, especially for black students.

That’s a point of contention with her two opponents, who advocate letting each high school decide whether having an officer on campus would help. They accuse incumbent leaders of not interacting with members at large and making it difficult for dissenting voices to be heard.

In addition, her challengers say Myart-Cruz has dropped the day-to-day work of enforcing the contract and protecting individual union members, sacrificing it in the name of political organization.

Myart-Cruz is opposed by two old substitute teachers – each of whom has held mid-level leadership positions in trade unions.
The two challengers have strikingly different personalities.

Greg Russell, 57, has a more combative personality; he was briefly banned from meetings of the unions’ House of Representatives — wrongly, he said — and focuses on a long list of leaders’ misdeeds that he would undo.

Leonard Segal, 67, is more inclined to speak in diplomatic terms, a practice he says would be extended to negotiations with Carvalho. He also highlights previous business experience as helpful in running a “$50 million venture.”

Segal has gathered a rival slate of candidates and said his team is in favor of ending the COVID vaccination mandate for employees and rehiring employees made redundant as a result. Two members of his slate work at the district’s virtual academy — an alternate post for some employees who refused to get vaccinated.

Opposition to the Myart-Cruz slate has little chance, said Mike Antonucci, a professional union tracker and a critic.

“UTLA has had hard-fought battles between incumbents and challengers in the past, but this one will be a walkover for Myart-Cruz’s slate, with low attendance,” Antonucci said.

Some active parents said they accept that the union should take care of its members and that teachers have difficult jobs, but said the pendulum is too far from students’ needs.

“When teachers asked for a raise, parents went out with signs to march on their behalf, and the district gave them a raise,” says Maria Baños, who has children in Lizarraga Elementary and Franklin High. “I care about this election because I believe the union is only looking out for its own interests.”

The union enjoyed widespread support from parents across the city during the 2019 strike, as teachers drew attention to overcrowded classrooms and funding shortfalls. A year later, the union aggressively advocated for strict pandemic safety measures, including early and extended campus closures.

A related debate ensued over how much live remote instruction should be provided. Given the rigors of the pandemic, the union stressed that more live time online was not necessarily better. District officials ended up accepting less live online instruction than in other major California school systems.

Parental opinion is sharply and passionately divided on such moves.

While student test scores fell in LA, the drop wasn’t notably worse than in districts that offered more remote live learning or reopened sooner, according to test data and analysis from researchers looking at student performance across the country.

When Carvalho pushed to extend the school year by adding four optional acceleration days, the union said the calendar change had been unfairly imposed without negotiation. After the union filed a legal challenge and threatened a teacher boycott, Carvalho changed course and moved two optional extra days of teaching to the winter break. Two others are scheduled for spring break.

The job of union president pays just over $121,000 a year, according to the most recent federal tax disclosures, which are for 2020.