Los Angeles Times
March 8, 2005

L.A. Teachers Union to Broaden Its Focus
Newly elected leaders to take on social justice concerns in addition to contract, benefit issues

By Cara Mia DiMassa
Times Staff Writer

March 8, 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. It was the first time in 35 years that an incumbent was voted out of office. "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. But they want to go further.

Most of them will ascend to leadership directly from the classroom, and they say their experiences have shaped the way they will interact with the district.

"People who have never been in a classroom always come up with the panaceas" that don't meet students' individual needs, said Duffy, who plans to remain a Palms Middle School special education teacher until he takes the union post July 1. (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.

"I approach this relationship with optimism but realism," said Supt. Roy Romer. "There are issues, and we need to solve them."

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.

"To have an even more militant group take power.... It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out," Lauritzen said.

Several of the new leaders teach in L.A.'s urban core, and they said those experiences in particular have solidified their push for a social justice focus for UTLA. 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.

"There is too wide of a variance between what children get at sites like mine and what they get in Brentwood or Palos Verdes or the west [San Fernando] Valley area," Washington said. "It's not fair. Many of my students are doomed to low-paying jobs or prison because they are not getting what they want out of the system."

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.

"We can't be naive," Pechthalt said, and "believe we can simply struggle to protect healthcare benefits on a local level without being part of a national fight."

Romer said he was "very willing to be a partner" in that regard. But he also acknowledged that he would have to learn more about the new union leadership as he moved forward on certain key issues.

For example, he cited the effort underway to shake up the district's most troubled schools. Responding to federal pressure for improved student performance, L.A. Unified leaders are considering wholesale staff changes for next year at more than one-third of the district's 49 high schools. Romer said he was not yet sure how the union changes would
affect that pressing work.

"I need to find a way to know their positions, and know them and include them in the process -- find ways of agreement if we can," he said.

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. We are under the microscope from a lot of different areas. We need to work together."

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. Whether the new UTLA leadership will be able to find that balance, she said, remains to be seen.

"Individually, each officer has his or her own instructional strengths," she said. "The big question mark is, do they have the background and knowledge and experience to be able to put it together as a whole and be
more than just activists fighting for a contract? Will they also be educational leaders in this city?"

The test of the new union leaders could occur before their terms begin. The union and district have been negotiating a new teachers contract for 19 months -- a factor that some say could have led teachers to oust their president and most of his officers. In an interview the night of his defeat, Perez said he thought teachers wanted the union to take a more aggressive tack in the negotiations.

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%.

Though Duffy has sat in on the current round of negotiations since his election Tuesday, he is not participating in the discussion. Asked last week whether he would consider accepting the lower salary offer, he said, "I don't know what my position is going to be."

But, he added, "I stand by my campaign materials. When I said I thought there was 7%, I meant it -- I meant that there is more money.... I think it would be very wise for ... Romer and the people who sit on that side of the table to go back and find a little more money. They'd get labor peace."

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.

"It creates an environment that allows us to work on the other important things," he said.

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