“This is What Democracy Looks Like!”
by Jennifer Garcia, Kaitlin Wright, Amy Manzinas
Streets swarmed with red, picket signs in the air, and car horns throughout the city. A time of chaos, the strike for smaller classroom sizes, higher pay raise, protection against discriminatory charter schools and increase in guidance counselors and nurses lived on for six days awaiting a bargain with the district. Meanwhile students who attended school were packed into auditoriums and gyms viewing videos on growth mindset, a health-class basic. Switching shifts to work as Uber drivers in order to make a fraction of what they need to thrive, teachers chant, “Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” In an attempt to maintain some sort of educational system with the strike, the school board hired 400 substitute teachers however, the district was looking at a pitiful student attendance rate and lesson plans were still being improvised. UTLA negotiators clashed with superintendent Austin Beutner who claimed that budget was strict and already at risk for the LAUSD teacher salaries to be raised, but UTLA suspected that a $2 billion reserve fund was hidden.
Strike days consisted of rain and democracy. 32,000 teachers, students, UTLA members and supporters marched downtown to city hall. With the support of parents, teachers were gifted food and water to hold up the tiresome days of striking. In doors, though sitting in chairs away from rain, students and administrators strongly felt the absence of the teachers. Subjected to repetitive lesson plans, students, particularly those in AP classes, ached for academic time.
Agreement Met… For the Most Part.
After the six-day strike, teachers, staff, and students returned to school on Wednesday, January 23rd. However, the interest amongst the agreement relied on the negotiation of both parties to move forward. In addition to the settlement, having 6% salary raises, investment in nurses, librarians, counselors and class reduction, Section 1.5 of the contract, designed to ignore the class size caps, was removed. Although salary was nowhere near the root of the problem, the superintendent agreed upon a 6% salary raise to be disbursed in amounts of 3% over the next two years. Many argue that teachers settled with a contract previously established and the strike should have lived on, but that is indeed false. Although it is ideal for public schools to hold regular sized classrooms, the expectation of losing 10 kids instantaneously was not realistic. Yet, teachers lost money and put themselves out there for their students and themselves. Regardless of any of the opinions and of the outcomes, there was awareness. Most don’t know how many students are held in a classroom expecting to be taught by a single individual. This strike was more than just standing in the rain expressing demands. It was an opportunity to enlighten issues the community wasn’t aware of. There might have not been much support before, but teachers now know we got their backs. Welcome back, teachers!
Passionate participant of the strike, Mr. Martinez, a Government and Economics teacher for both Honors and AP, gave us insight on the valuable teachers’ perspectives.
- Why did you strike? There are many important reasons that our Union leaders and union members put forth regarding our reasons to strike. By the time that we exhausted our efforts at mediation regarding our proposed contract, and striking became our final option, I had already prioritized my reasons. At the top of the list, were teacher health benefits. As it was proposed, future teachers would be hired with fewer benefits than I presently have. To me, this is unacceptable. I believe that future teachers should have the same, if not better, health benefits than I have. Past teachers in our union left me these health benefits that I now covet. The least I can do is safeguard them for the future teachers.
- How did you feel about those who didn’t strike? I feel sad for them, and disappointed. They missed the whole meaning of “Union”. I believe that “crossing the picket line” is a very selfish thing to do. When you cross the line, you do it for yourself. When you “walk the line” you do it for your colleague who needs health benefits for his family, for the teacher who needs smaller class sizes to more adequately teach, for the school that needs a full time teacher librarian and school nurse. For those teachers who chose not to strike, much respect has been lost for them. They won’t get that respect back for the remainder of their careers. At least not from me.
- How much did not getting paid for the week affect you? Not much. I felt bad to hear that many of my colleagues live paycheck to paycheck. That is a reality that I had not expected in our profession. That same week of our strike, the Federal government was shut down. In the news, we heard about many Federal employees needing to visit food banks and needing to take out small bank loans. Had our strike taken longer than the six days, I fear that some of my colleagues would have had to take a similar option. I am one of the lucky ones because I am frugal, single, and I have some savings. I don’t expect my colleagues to live the way that I do, but I do expect them to be paid like true professionals. Many of them are raising more than one child on a single teacher paycheck. That makes life hard. Seeing them out there, talking to them and learning of their struggles made me redouble my efforts on the line and more clearly defined our reasons for being out there.
- How do you feel about Superintendent Austin Beutner’s response to the teacher’s demands and the strike resulting in it? (Claiming there was no money, failing to compromise, being unable to answer questions, not attending negotiations in court) I realize that those on my side demonized Beutner-and it was well-deserved!- in an effort to drum up the base, to get people riled up and angry. This effort worked. His face was caricatured on many posters and his name was muddied and sullied on many raucous chants. To me, Beutner is just Beutner; a bored billionaire out to cause misery and turmoil with no endgame. He’s been pro charter for many years. The real culprits, the real “bad guys” are the ones who hired him with the intent of reorganizing our district: The School Board. There would be no Superintendent Beutner if the School Board had not hired him. I fault Beutner for nothing.
- How do you feel about how teachers were portrayed in the media? Public schools have been maligned in the media ever since I can remember. Yet, I became a high school teacher, and I truly believe that this is the absolute best job in the world! I am not on social media, and I don’t really watch local news. I care more about the parents who I speak to on Open House, Parent Conferences, and Back to School Nights. I care more about my students. Those are the opinions that matter to me. The media’s negative perception of our efforts, and the negative campaign waged upon our strike seemed to have backfired because we felt nothing but love and support from our community during those six days here in South Gate and, dare I say, it was the same scenario played out throughout Los Angeles.
- How did you feel about possibly interfering with supporters of charter schools and those opposed to the strike (i.e. the female LAUSD district employee at South Gate Middle)? During the strike, I felt nothing less than empowered. We were out there in numbers. There were members of the South Gate community who stopped by to ask questions and wanted to know our reasons for striking. Those folks had a feeling that what they saw in the news was distorted. They found out that it was. We won a lot of people to our side by just answering their questions.
- Finally, how did you feel about the outcome? Every teacher that I know has a different answer to this question. I can only speak for myself. We kept our benefits. That was at the top of my list. Everything else is a bonus to me!
Interviewed by Jennifer Garcia. Photographed by Elizabeth Padilla.
While some students were easily swayed by popular opinion, one student remained firm before, during, and after the strike. Carlos Ramirez, current junior at South Gate High School, stood by his claim: “I strongly support the teacher strike because it is something that has been long called for. Teachers do a lot for us students, they provide a lot of their personal time which is time away from their families and it’s all without being rewarded.” Carlos was out supporting our teachers every day of the strike and was standing alongside them because he believes that the strike “is a sacrifice they made for us.” Recognizing the real motives behind the strike, Carlos contributed to their efforts and helped advocate for lower class sizes.
As an experienced AP student himself, Carlos explained his discontent: “Having class sizes as big as the district has, is unethical, especially in AP classes. These are supposed to be college level courses, but they should be more one-on-one because the teacher is teaching something that a professor usually would, yet aren’t paid more than regular teachers.” Despite being upset that 6 days of valuable instructional time were lost, he also admits, “I had the time to study on my own and also to get caught up with homework.” Interviewed and photographed by Jessica Ramirez.