Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political and social issues. The American Prospect is co-publishing this piece.
In 1973, Philadelphia teachers went on strike for nearly two months. Cleveland teachers walked off the job in 2002 and didn’t come back for 62 days. Last year, teacher strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma lasted 10 and nine days, respectively.
Nevertheless, just three days after teachers hit the picket line in Los Angeles, the media started to frame the strike in dire terms. One headline in a prominent news outlet asked, “Are the kids all right? LA teachers strike drags into third day with no end in sight,” while another asserted, “LA teachers bask in support for strike, but pressure grows to settle amid financial losses.”
It goes without saying that no one wants a protracted teachers strike; earlier today both sides agreed to return to the negotiating table, with LA Mayor Eric Garcetti serving as mediator. All things being equal, kids are better off in school, as are teachers.
But strikes usually happen because all things are not equal. Indeed, the goal of a strike is almost invariably to even the playing field.
Sometimes this happens quickly. Fifty years ago, Chicago teachers staged a two-day walkout that led to pay increases and greater job protections. A year earlier, in San Francisco, a one-day strike resulted in raises and smaller class sizes. But as the teacher strikes in Philadelphia and Cleveland illustrate, quick resolutions are not always possible if progress on the underlying problems is to be achieved.
Part of why some in the media are anxiously wondering when a settlement will occur is the relative scarcity of strikes in modern American society, particularly open-ended work stoppages that affect a much larger number of people than the employees in question. This was a major factor in the reaction to last year’s teacher strikes—we are simply not accustomed to seeing labor strife, and having it impact our day-to-day lives.
The unusual nature of a citywide teachers strike in Los Angeles is underscored by the now well-reported fact that the last teacher walkout here was 30 years ago. That means an entire generation has never witnessed picket lines massed in front of a public institution they rely on. Janitors and hotel workers have staged high-profile strikes, but for most of us the direct connection of these actions to our daily routine is minimal.
Conventional wisdom is that the LA teachers strike will not last more than a couple of weeks. But the problems at the heart of the strike have been building for 40 years, and may not lend themselves to a quick fix—especially given the stark divide that has arisen between the two sides.
The strike has its roots in the radical defunding of public schools in California, triggered by the 1978 passage of Proposition 13. Layered on top of this is the two-decade-old battle between charter school advocates and defenders of traditional public schools, which has intensified in the past several years.
One silver lining of the LA teachers strike is a long-overdue civic conversation about charter schools. This is critical, because a thriving public school system and an inexorably growing charter school movement may not be compatible. Another important byproduct of the strike is a robust dialogue on how much we are willing to invest in public education. Critics of LAUSD have long focused on low test scores and graduation rates, but have seldom been willing to address the fundamental issue of how limited financial resources affect student outcomes.
As the union and the district resume talks, the questions of charter school growth and reinvestment in public schools loom large. If the two sides punt on these in order to achieve a quick settlement, we may see a replay of teacher walkouts in the not-too-distant future. The long-term interests of students, parents and teachers may be better served if the overwhelming public support for teachers forces the district to change course. That could mean looking for new revenue sources, slowing the growth of charter schools that siphon money or Superintendent Austin Beutner pulling back from the expected breakup of the district.
Whether a one-week walkout can produce such a sea change is unclear. For now, the most important question is not how long the strike will last, but how it can achieve the greatest good.