Leaders of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) have agreed to accept four more furlough days to help LAUSD close a $408-million budget gap. Teachers have already accepted furloughs for the past two years, which amount to de facto pay cuts. According to the Los Angeles Times, the deal will “save” 3,400 jobs.
With continued attacks on wages (directly, or through furloughs), attempts to kill tenure and seniority rules, and escalating pressure on teachers to work longer and harder to improve test scores, teaching jobs are seeming less and less worth saving. Furthermore, even with the concessions, LAUSD is still expecting to cut 1,700 jobs due to declining enrollment and the loss of federal stimulus funds, according to 4 LA Kids, and even all this is contingent on the passage of regressive tax extensions that Gov. Brown has been pushing. Thus, UTLA is guaranteeing a pay cut for its members, while getting nothing concrete in return.
It could be argued that other city workers are taking furloughs and it is only fair for teachers to share the pain. However, all local, state and federal budget crises are due to a combination of the economic crisis, which was caused entirely by the greed and crimes of bankers and investors, and declining tax rates for corporations and the wealthiest Americans. None of them are being asked to bail out school districts or states. Rather, the burden is being forced onto the rest of us through lower wages, unemployment, slashed public services and possibly increased taxes.
The only way to rectify this situation is for teachers and all other workers to refuse to accept any further austerity measures and demand improvements to their working conditions and living standards. For UTLA, this would mean not only refusing to accept the furlough days, but also refusing to accept the alternative of mass layoffs. Of course this would require a work stoppage or other job action, something that union leaders have assumed would never fly in this time of heightened public hostility toward teachers and public sector workers. However, continuing to allow teachers to get beaten up, or publicly declaring teachers’ desire to get beaten up, as the unions have repeatedly done, only increases the public’s disdain for teachers, while strengthening the stereotype that teachers will do anything for their students, even sacrifice their own living standards (See Teachers: Madonna and Whore).
It is probably true that if UTLA or any teachers union went on strike right now, the Right would try to spin it as selfish and insensitive to the needs of children (but they would anyway, regardless of the unemployment rate or fiscal crises). Californians, who are still struggling with high unemployment, might even be unsympathetic, especially with all the misinformation about teachers having jobs for life. However, the problems of the rest of California are the problems of teachers. Low student achievement and graduation rates result primarily from the poverty prevalent in so many communities in the state. From a purely professional stand point, if we want to improve student achievement, we must fight to improve living standards for the 90% of families that have seen their incomes and wealth decline over the past few decades. Furthermore, public sentiment currently supports the idea of making the rich bail out the state. Therefore, while teachers acting alone or making selfish demands are unlikely to meet much success, teachers acting in concert with all workers across the state could be very successful, but only if they are willing to take some risks and make some short-term sacrifices, such as work stoppages or a general strike.