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.
Now that it's tentatively over, the first teachers strike in 30 years to hit the Los Angeles Unified School District can be said to have given students at least one critical lesson. Since last week, when their teachers began picketing in the pouring rain across LA, demanding both better wages and essential support and staffing, a new generation of kids has experienced first-hand the purpose and power of organized labor.
"What they are witnessing is unions standing up for the rights of teachers—but really also for the rights of the students, the needs of education," said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center. "That's an important lesson about power, no matter what happens."
The scenes that unfolded outside their schools had been dramatic by any measure. Each weekday at sunrise 30,000 teachers, dressed in their union’s red shirts and jackets, gathered across the city to demand not only a 6.5 percent pay raise but also that schools be fully staffed with the nurses, librarians, counselors and other support personnel once standard at LA Unified. This flexing of collective muscle came at a time when public awareness of labor activity had faded—along with the number of Americans who belong to unions, a membership that has dropped by nearly half since 1983, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The strike could have a lasting influence on today’s children and teens in Los Angeles. Back in 1970, Kent Wong was a student at LA’s Thomas Starr King Middle School, and walked his first picket line there as a teenager during a month-long teachers strike over wages and class sizes. It changed the direction of his life.
"I realized even then that my teachers had dedicated their lives to the teaching profession, and were deeply committed to ensuring an education for all of us," said Wong, now director of the UCLA Labor Center. "It was a transformational event in learning about the power of collective action and the sacrifices that my teachers had to make to fight for something as basic as quality education."
The experience set a path for Wong, who later participated in a high school walkout against the Vietnam War and would work as a volunteer for the United Farm Workers. Like his own experience, Wong said, labor activity and social movements "absolutely inspire large numbers of people to become politically conscious and aware."
In the early 1970s California still ranked among the very best public school systems of any state in the country, which, Wong noted, put it at No. 1 in terms of per-pupil funding. After the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 made severe reductions in property taxes—the main source of school funding—the Golden State's position dropped precipitously over time. Per-pupil spending here is now at No. 43 among all 50 states.
AS ONLY THE THIRD STRIKE in the LAUSD's half-century history, this month's action by United Teachers Los Angeles came after 21 months of bargaining had brought no agreement, and it emphasizes universal benefits to the school community over modest salary demands. One result is broad public support for the strike, even as student attendance dropped below 20 percent the first week, which has already cost the district millions in attendance-based state funding.
"In previous decades, students in the LA school district were more likely to have family members who belonged to a union … and to have been exposed to unions that way," John Logan, director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University, said in an email to Capital & Main. "In most recent teachers disputes, unions have aligned their goals with those of parents and community members, and in that sense students are more likely to gain a positive impression of labor groups than, say, in the case of a transit dispute, [when] the only impact was to inconvenience parents and students."
Wong added that the strike is also a new experience for teachers, since most of them were not involved in the last strike, in 1989. Many became politically aware just a few years later, after voter approval of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and an ensuing debate about pushing a half-million immigrants out of state schools. "They confront the daily issues that their students confront in terms of immigration, poverty, homelessness," Wong said of the current era of educators. "This is a very conscious group of teachers."
That consciousness will inevitably leave a lasting impression on students, said Julian Vasquez Heilig, professor of education policy at Sacramento State University and the education chair for the California NAACP. "What students see is a resurgence of resistance," said Vasquez Heilig, who grew up in a union household in Michigan. "Teachers are standing up for the students, and it is a moment that the students get to see [them] in action—teachers demanding opportunity and equity. … The wealthy provide excellent public education for their kids. It's quite unfair that students in LA are dealing with long-term problematic conditions.
"You don't have to go to Finland to see an example of well-resourced schools, fully unionized, that are successful," he added. "All you have to do is go across the tracks or [to] Beverly Hills—wherever you provide a nice home, you will get nice public schools. It's a straight correlation. Everyone knows that's the case in their country and it's despicable."
UC Berkeley’s Ken Jacobs noted that even as popular media and U.S. culture emphasize the power of the individual, the teachers strike shows another way: "You have a generation of kids in the city that will understand something more about labor and the possibilities of collective action. This is a big demonstration of what happens when people come together."