What LA’s Teachers Taught America During Their Strike

Why This Topic Is Significant:  The 2019 LA Teachers Strike ended with a resounding victory for educators and their allies who demanded smaller class sizes, more resources for students, and many other socially just reforms. Their victory has already inspire similar actions in Oakland, Colorado, and Virginia, and it’s becoming clear that direct labor action is working in 2019. They provide a model not just for other teacher, but other members of the marginalized majority.


“When [Diogenes the Cynic] was sold as a slave, he endured it most nobly . . . When the auctioneer asked in what he was proficient, he replied, ‘In ruling men.’ Thereupon he pointed to a certain Corinthian with a fine purple border to his robe . . . and said, ‘Sell me to this man; he needs a master.'”

-DIOGENES LAERTIUS

The success of the recent LA Teacher’s strike reminds us what happens when the marginalized majority comprehends our power to dictate the terms of the conversation and push back with the reality we insist on. Make no mistake, this was a victory not just for teachers, but for everyday people tired of being told by the privileged that equality in education is an impossible dream:

The capitalist class [pulled] out all the stops to discredit striking teachers, claiming that their struggle puts students at risk. But the district, backed by billionaire charter moguls like Eli Broad, have failed to convince parents and community members with their tricks and lies. Eighty percent of LA County stands with the teachers. In just over a week, the socialist-led Tacos for Teachers fund raised over $30,000 from around the city and the country. It is clear that the community stands with teachers, because it understands that teachers’ working conditions and students’ learning conditions are the same. It is crucial that we continue to build this solidarity and prevent the district from driving a wedge between parents and the strike.

After months of systematic organizing and over a week of striking, United Teacher Los Angeles (UTLA) and their allies forced the privatizers on the school board to make a series of major concessions that will benefit every student in the school district, not just charter school students. These wins include the promise of a nurse in every school, more counselors, more librarians, smaller class sizes, and steps against the expansion of the charter school system. Furthermore, the teachers secured a series of “common good” wins for their students related to social justice issues like protecting the rights of immigrant students, fighting racial profiling, and building more greens spaces at schools.

As with many issues, Democrats are still divided when it comes to the merits of charter and magnet schools. But this strike is an inspiring victory for the rank-and-file of the party. The UTLA’s win has already inspired moves toward future strikes in Oakland and Colorado, but as The Nation argues, workers all over the country should also be heartened by their success for the following reasons:

Strikes Work: For decades, workers and the labor movement have been on the losing side of a one-sided class war. A major reason for this is that unions have largely abandoned the weapon of work stoppages, their most powerful point of leverage against employers. Rallies, marches, and civil disobedience are good, but they’re not enough.

Like the red state rebellions of 2018, the depth of the victory in Los Angeles underscores why the future of organized labor depends on reviving the strike. LA also shows that the most powerful strikes, particularly in the public sector, fight not only for the demands of union members, but on behalf of the broader community as well—an approach the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) calls “bargaining for the common good.”


The Status Quo Is Discredited: LA’s educator revolt is a particularly sharp expression of a nationwide rejection of decades of neoliberalism. Unlike many labor actions, this was not primarily a fight around wages—rather it was a political struggle against the billionaires and their proxies in government.


Like the electoral insurgencies of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, the upsurge of Los Angeles rank-and-file teachers, and the overwhelming support they received from the parents of their students, shows that working people are looking for an alternative to business as usual. Work actions like LA’s will be an essential part of any movement capable of defeating Trump and the far right.

Don’t Rely on the Democrats: Liberal pundits and politicians framed the 2018 teacher walkouts as a “red-state revolt,” as if the crisis of public education was limited to Republican-dominated states like West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma. But the Los Angeles movement has made it clear that Democratic politicians have imposed the same policies of privatization and austerity.


Rather than sticking with the labor movement’s self-defeating reliance on backroom deals with mainstream Democrats, UTLA did not hesitate to confront LA’s Democratic Party establishment. One of the union’s crucial tactical moves was to continually reject Democratic Mayor Eric Garcetti’s multiple offers to mediate an agreement—only after radically changing the relationship of forces through a powerful strike did UTLA accept mediation. Unions across the country should take note.


The Tide Is Turning on Charters: Convinced that LA public schools were faced with an existential threat from investment banker turned superintendent Austin Beutner, teachers made privatization a central theme of their strike. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Los Angeles walkout was that almost every teacher or parent on the picket lines could provide you with a clear analysis of the deep-pocketed backers of charter schools—and what it will take to defeat them. UTLA’s chief negotiator Arlene Inouye explains that “through this movement and this strike we’ve shown the power and beauty of public education—and why it needs to be preserved. We made that the new narrative.”

All of the gains won on Tuesday were in essence anti-privatization, since the push for charters is predicated on the continued deterioration of public schools. But strikers also wrested more specific concessions, including an agreement to expand Los Angeles community schools, which the union has promoted as an alternative to privatization. And aiming to seize the moment in California, UTLA is now pushing for a statewide cap on charter schools.

May the 2019 LA Teacher’s Strike forever remind us of our power, as well as the hollowness of predominant narratives that collective action is doomed to fail more than it succeeds, protest is ineffective, the Left is hopelessly in disarray, “objectivity” is a more effective change agent than passion and ideology, and the powerful must always be listened to and taken seriously. We, the marginalized People, have always been (consciously or unconsciously) the force behind change (positive and negative) in this country.

Let this victory remind us that while we may be subject to the whims of billionaires and the market, we can rule the rich and priviledged if we stand together in solidarity.


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