Teacher strike delayed in second-largest US school district

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The union representing teachers in Los Angeles — the nation’s second-largest school district — postponed the start of a strike until next Monday because of the possibility of a court-ordered delay of a walkout.

United Teachers Los Angeles previously said its 35,000 members would walk off the job yesterday for the first time in 30 years if a deal was not reached on higher pay and smaller class sizes.

However, a judge was considering last Wednesday whether the union gave legally proper notice of a strike and could have ordered teachers to wait.

Union officials said they believe they would have prevailed in court but decided to postpone a strike to avoid confusion and give teachers, parents and others time to prepare.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, with 640,000 students, said the delay provides an opportunity to keep talking and avoid a strike.

United Teachers Los Angeles Union President Alex Caputo-Pearl speaks during a news conference at the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters. – AP

Teachers are hoping to build on the ‘Red4Ed’ movement that began last year in West Virginia, where a strike resulted in a significant raise.

It moved to Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado and Washington State, spreading from conservative states with “right to work” laws that limit the ability to strike to the more liberal West Coast with strong unions.

“What you’re seeing with unions is real enthusiasm and a belief that you can actually be successful,” said Professor of Labour and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois Robert Bruno. “The educational sector is rife with deep grievance and frustration, but there’s now a sense that you can actually win.”

The walkouts in other states emboldened organised labour after a critical defeat at the United States (US) Supreme Court, which ruled last year that government workers can’t be required to join unions and pay dues.

“Each state is different, but the commonality across all states is teachers, and parents are sick of schools not being invested in,” Union President Alex Caputo-Pearl said.

The Los Angeles district has offered a six per cent raise over the first two years of a three-year contract. The union wants a 6.5 per cent hike that would take effect all at once and be retroactive to fiscal 2017. Health care fully paid by the district and a pension plan would be unchanged under both proposals.

The union also wants significantly smaller class sizes, which routinely top 30 students, and more nurses, librarians and counsellors to “fully staff” the district’s campuses in Los Angeles and all or parts of 31 smaller cities, plus several unincorporated areas.

The district has said the union’s demands could bankrupt the school system, which is projecting a half-billion-dollar deficit this budget year and has billions obligated for pension payments and health coverage for retired teachers.

Negotiations were continuing, but little progress was evident in the contract dispute.

Superintendent Austin Beutner travelled last Wednesday to Sacramento to ask state lawmakers for additional resources for Los Angeles schools in hopes of averting a walkout.

Unlike other states, schools in California stay open if a strike happens. The Los Angeles district has hired hundreds of substitutes to replace teachers and others who leave for picket lines.

The union said it’s “irresponsible” to hire substitutes and called on parents to consider keeping students home or join marchers if a strike goes forward.

Larry Sand, a retired Los Angeles and New York City teacher who heads the California Teachers Empowerment Network, said he believes the Los Angeles union sees its showdown with the district as a public “sales pitch” for organised labour now that teachers have a choice about joining.

Sand, whose organisation describes itself as a nonpartisan information source for teachers and the public, said overly generous benefits for teachers in the past have overburdened the district.

Teachers earn between USD44,000 and USD86,000 a year depending on their education and experience, according to the Los Angeles County Office of Education. The district said the average teacher salary is USD75,000, which reflects the older, more experienced workforce.

The union argues that the district is hoarding reserves of USD1.8 billion that could be used to fund the pay and staffing hikes. The district said that money is needed to cover retiree benefits and other expenses.

Beutner, an investment banker and former Los Angeles deputy mayor without experience in education, has become a lightning rod in negotiations. The union said Beutner and school board members who voted him in are trying to privatise the district, encouraging campus closures and flipping public schools into charters — privately operated public schools that compete for students and the funds they bring in.