Saturday, January 15, 2011

NewTLA: Voice of Reform or Reaction Within UTLA?

Image by los.angelist

An opposition movement, NewTLA, is emerging within United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the second largest teacher’s local in the U.S. In the article “Frustrated Los Angeles teachers now have a progressive voice” Mike Stryer argues that UTLA (and by implication most other teachers unions) is an antiquated organization stuck in the 1950s that needs to get over their obsession with seniority rights and contractual issues. He implies that these are somehow backwards objectives and that to truly be “progressive” UTLA needs to be at the forefront of “pushing through proven education reform.”


Stryer has a naïve understanding of “reform” and very little knowledge of labor history or even the reason to have a union. His new voice for teachers, contrary to being progressive, is a voice of reaction that promotes a collaboration with ed deformers that would set working conditions AND school quality back decades.


Workers and Bosses Have Nothing In Common

Let’s start with why we need unions and what their objectives should be. To really understand this, we need to go back to the preamble of the IWW constitution, which starts with the line, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” This is to say that our interests at work and our social and economic interests are very different than those of the bosses. As workers, we need to always keep this in mind and collectively fight for what is best for us, and not get sidetracked by their false claims that it will harm students. While the point of a union is to fight for the interests of its members, these interests coincidentally are usually good for our students, too, contrary to the rants of anti-union pundits and politicians.


Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons

While administrators and teachers alike always say that they are for the kids, it is a gross exaggeration to say that we have the same interests. Administrators’ idea of what’s good for the kids is often based on abstract policies and “reforms” coming from politicians and billionaire investors who have no education background, or from education researchers who assert that their latest new “reform” is scientifically proven, an assertion that is rarely, if ever, accurate. It is virtually impossible to do a really well-controlled education study. Biases are rampant and data is easily spun to support one’s objectives. Furthermore, even if a reform does show promise, it is generally implemented without taking into account a serious cost-benefit analysis comparing how much students might benefit versus the costs in time, money and labor to implement them. Unlike teachers, none of these people work daily or intimately with our children and are the least credible individuals to determine what is best for our students.


Individually, workers have virtually no power against the bosses. Without a good contract and a union to back it up, the boss can fire you because of the color of your skin, because you criticized a policy, or for no reason at all. If Washington insists that we give NCLB tests, administrators are unlikely to refuse. But if teachers refuse, they can and likely will be disciplined or fired by their bosses for refusal to carry out their job duties, despite the fact the NCLB tests do not benefit our students or schools in any way. Indeed, they actually harm students by taking away instructional time from real learning, forcing teachers to teach to the test, and by adding more anxiety and stress to students. This is perhaps the most glaring example of teachers being compelled by their bosses to do something they know is not in the best interests of their students.


Our working and living conditions are directly linked to our contracts. The better the contract, the better our pay and benefits, and the less stressful the work environment. Without decent wages, benefits and working conditions, we cannot effectively do our jobs and our students consequently suffer. If our pay drops too low, we will find other work and schools will lose the most experienced and the best quality teachers. Bad working conditions have the same consequences, with the additional effect of deteriorating the classroom climate and denying teachers the supplies they need to do their jobs. Both harm our students. Thus, the contract has to be the main focus of our collective union activity, not only from a class perspective, but from a professional one as well.


In Injury to One is An Injury to All

While the contract must be one focus of union activity, I have to agree with Stryer that it should not be the only one. However, I disagree with him why.


Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons

The main reason for the backlash against public sector workers is the desire by the bosses to destroy all vestiges of unionism. They’d like to crush labor entirely so they can continue to lower wages and taxes and enrich themselves more quickly and fully. This backlash is funded by the rich and serves only their interests. Nevertheless, they have convinced many non-public sector workers to buy into the fantasy that public sector workers are the cause of their unemployment, or declining pay and benefits. This, of course, is nonsense. All workers’ pay has declined steadily since the 1970s, including public sector workers. It is just that ours has declined more slowly due to the relative strength of our unions (37% of public sector workers are unionized, compared with just 7% of private sector workers). More to the point, the current speedup of our immiseration is due entirely to the greed of the ruling elite who created the economic crisis and then demanded multi-trillion dollar bailouts AND tax cuts, all paid for by slashing public sector jobs and social services. Despite the crisis and the huge bailouts, U.S. corporations brought in record profits last year due in part to their continued downsizing and refusal to rehire most of the newly unemployed and forcing those still on the job to work harder and longer for less pay.


Declining unionism is a major cause of declining pay and benefits. As pay and benefits decline in one sector, they bring them down in other sectors, too. Therefore, it is in the interest of all workers not only to be in a union, but for their fellow workers in other industries to be unionized, as well. Rather than complaining about public sector workers, private sector workers need to organize and fight for union representation. And rather than worrying about defending ourselves against attacks by our fellow workers in the private sector, we should be standing with them in their fight to organize. So long as a majority of workers are not organized, we are all out risk of further declines in our working and living conditions.


Taking this argument even further, the ruling elite are dependent on us for their profits. They make their profits by paying us less than they earn from our labor. Our only weapon in our struggle with the bosses is our labor and our power to withhold it. This is not only the case at our workplaces, but on a grander scale, as well. For example, as governors impose severe austerity measures on the majority of us while refusing to make the rich pay more in taxes, workers have the power to fight back through the general strike. The problem is that this requires a much better organized labor movement than we currently have. With only 12% of all workers unionized, it will be impossible to convince enough people to stay home from work to make a general strike effective. However, by not doing so, we allow our living conditions to further stagnate, while the ruling elite further enrich themselves at our expense.


Unions Should Not Push Reform—They Should Resist It

Stryer’s argument that unions should be at the vanguard of reform suggests that he knows very little about education “reform” or that he is a true believer in the bogus reforms currently being pushed by Duncan, Gates, Broad, et al. It is against the interests of teachers and their unions to collaborate with administrators in the implementation of vouchers, charter schools, merit pay, value-added schemes, high stakes testing, or the destruction of tenure. Each of these “reforms” will cause an exodus of experienced good teachers and harm students, too. Yet many of our unions do collaborate with management to implement these reforms, contrary to Styer’s myopic impression of unions. UTLA’s parent unions, CFT and CTA, certainly collaborate with Sacramento in implementing anti-teacher and anti-student reforms.


NCLB is a good example of this. While unions complain about NCLB, they accept it in practice, taking the stance that since NCLB is not a contractual issue they can do nothing about it. Yet we know it is bad for our students and a phenomenal waste of money. We even know that it is designed to cause more schools to fail, rather than improve. Yet year after year we continue to comply, to accept it as inevitable or untouchable. This is nonsense. Teachers can and should refuse to participate. If we all refused, they would not be able to pick off individual teachers to punish. If we all refused, eventually it would wither away. This is exactly the kind of direct action that requires large-scale collective participation that unions should support. But alas, our unions are too concerned with appearing reasonable and maintaining their seat at the table with the political, educational and corporate bosses, with whom we have nothing in common.



The children of L.A. are not being harmed by UTLA’s clinging to the status quo or failure to change with the times. They are being harmed first and foremost by a socioeconomic system that allows the rich to get richer and the poor to become much poorer. This is the number one cause of poor academic success. For those privileged kids who come to school academically and socially prepared, it is the ed deformers like Eli Broad and Bill Gates who are destroying what’s left of their schools with privatization schemes and corporate pseudo-fixes, and all the wealthy Californians who demand the budget deficit be paid for by poor and working class people, and by gutting education, while they enjoy continued low tax rates. Consider this: if the richest 19 Californians paid a wealth tax of 10%, the entire budget gap could be closed without cutting any programs or raising any income or sales taxes on the rest of us.


However, all working people are harmed by unions continued collaboration with bosses and their failure to invest in organizing, educating and mobilizing workers to fight together against all bosses.


  1. If I was working on a unionized auto line and would not follow management direction, i.e., did not test the circuit I was asked to test, the cars from my line would be flawed. Would I keep my job? Even in the face of clear incompetence or refusal to do the job I was being paid to do, would you justify my union protecting my employment?

    That is what UTLA does and has done -- protect teachers who have no business being in a classroom. It is not all they do -- I value having a union to protect me from capricious management and to provide me an opportunity to negotiate the value of my labor as a group rather than as an individual. But when my union protects the incompetent, they make my job more difficult. When they lie about how many members they have, or about what meeting they were or weren't invited to, or when Cortines hands Duffy his shirt yet once more, I question my affiliation. And when they feather their own bed with outrageous salaries and benefits, and are still only reactive and behind the times, then they waste my dues and make me question the benefits of my continued union affiliation.

  2. Bad example. The auto executives are far more responsible for malfunctioning automobiles that injure and kill than are assembly line workers. The executives calculate the costs of lawsuits and payouts and balance this with the cost of recalls and better production and quality control. When the math is in their favor, they readily put defective cars on the road that kill and maim.

    Do they lose their jobs or do time for such greed and heinous disregard for human life?

    Teachers unions are constantly accused of protecting bad teachers, but there are very few examples of this. If a teacher is truly bad, then it should be relatively easy for admin to chalk up a few grievous examples and then fire them. Teachers who molest, hit or otherwise abuse children, or allow children to abuse each other, are easily removed from the classroom. These are the ONLY ones who we can say for certain "have no business" in the classroom. However, even those accused of such abuses are entitled to legal and union representation. Without this protection, frivolous accusations could be leveled against anyone and get them fired, even when innocent.

    I agree with the sentiment expressed in your last point, and have made similar criticisms repeatedly on Modern School. Most teachers unions, UTLA included, share the same dysfunctions, not the least of which is overpaid chickenshit collaborationist bureaucrats who readily sell their members out to "keep the peace."

    "Behind the times," however, is an ambiguous statement that could easily be interpreted as support for the Gates, Broad, Duncan, Walton privatization agenda. In contrast, defending union members during grievances, fighting for strong contracts that benefit workers, and resisting "reforms" that drive the best teachers out of the profession and damage the quality of education for children, this was, is and always must be the focus of unions.