L.A. Teachers Union To Broaden Its Focus

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The slate of Los Angeles classroom teachers elected last week to the top ranks of their union ousted the former leadership with a call for a 7% pay increase. But the group`s agenda goes far beyond the traditional union concerns of contract and benefit issues.

In interviews last week, the new United Teachers Los Angeles officers — many of whom ran on a social justice platform — said they would take on federal laws, state policies and district practices, including the inequalities among schools.

They intend, for example, to speak out against No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that requires schools to improve their test scores annually. The union leaders say it is a conservative plot to decrease money to schools and to eradicate public education in favor of vouchers and private schools.

They say the Los Angeles Unified School District`s efforts to impose smaller, more individualized learning for students at its most crowded schools represent, in the words of Joshua Pechthalt, a UTLA vice president-elect, “reform at the point of a gun.”

And they voiced concern that the 46,000-member union has been focused on the wrong issues.

“UTLA needs to be fixed,” said A.J. Duffy, who beat out current union President John Perez by about 2,000 votes. “We have to change the direction our union is going.”

The newly elected leaders were critical of the previous leadership for failing to deliver on more traditional labor issues: seeking better wages for teachers, preserving their generous benefit packages and zeroing in on quality-of-life issues. (Previously, most teachers union presidents rose through UTLA leadership, spending years away from the classroom as they worked their way up the ranks.)

Whether the new leaders will help or hinder efforts already underway in the nation`s second-largest school district — to fix its failing schools, cope with a looming budget crisis and raise student achievement — remains to be seen.

District officials and school board members say they expect a marked difference in the way the union and district deal with each another.

“With Perez, the Board of Education members “were feeling a lot of pressure,” said board member Jon Lauritzen, a former teacher and UTLA activist who was supported by the union in his 2002 election. Among the newly elected leaders was Murchison Street School second-grade teacher David Goldberg, whose aunt is former school board member and now state Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles).

Julie Washington, a kindergarten teacher at Normandie Avenue Elementary who will become the union`s elementary vice president, said she sees firsthand the inequalities her students face.

“The new UTLA leaders also say they want to push the union into a national dialogue on issues close to them, such as workers` rights, the funding of public education and No Child Left Behind.

For example, he cited the effort underway to shake up the district`s most troubled schools. Romer said he was not yet sure how the union changes would affect that pressing work.

“School board President Jose Huizar echoed that sentiment. The union elections, he said, represent an opportunity for UTLA and the district “to coalesce and fortify ourselves. The new leadership of UTLA, said Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester, N.Y., teachers union, “will have no choice but to work cooperatively.”

Becki Robinson, a former UTLA official who runs L.A. Unified`s Beyond the Bell after-school program, said the role of the teachers union was to fight to protect public education and influence educational policy — a view that was first suggested by former UTLA President Helen Bernstein. The test of the new union leaders could occur before their terms begin.

Sources say the union and district are close to reaching an agreement; it would give teachers a 2% raise, more than the 1 1/2% the district had previously offered. That proposal must be approved by a vote of union members.

In his campaign materials, Duffy called for teachers to receive a minimum of 7%. Teachers vote on the contract at their schools, not by mail, as they did for the elections. Typically, more than 90% of teachers vote on contracts — far more than the 27% who voted in Duffy`s election, UTLA observers said. Contract ratification, therefore, may test whether union members who did not vote in Duffy`s election support his agenda.

If the district comes up with a better offer, Duffy said, the incoming union leaders can work with L.A. Unified on potentially less contentious issues.

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