Thirty-five thousand Los Angeles school teachers are on the verge of a strike. Their demands include a 6.5 percent pay increase, smaller class sizes, more funding for school counselors, nurses, and librarians, and a cap on the proliferation of charter schools throughout their city. The strike would be consequential whatever the issues: the Los Angeles Unified School District is the second largest in the nation, with over 640,000 students, 1,000 schools, more than 60,000 employees, and a budget of $7.5 billion. But this bitter conflict is also a fight about the meaning of progressive politics and the character of the Democratic Party as it readies itself to supplant, on a national level, Donald Trump and his allies. Since the Trumpists have little influence or support in California, what happens there could portend how future political conflicts will unfold in an America where liberals are in power.
In California, a bellwether state if there ever was one, a blue tide virtually destroyed the Republican Party in the 2018 midterms, rendering it irrelevant to governance in a mega-state where Democrats occupy the governor’s mansion and hold supermajorities in the legislature. But a deep fissure remains within the main body of Democratic Party liberalism, symbolized by the extent to which the fate of public education and teacher unionism was contested terrain during the 2018 campaign season. A system-wide L.A. strike, now scheduled for January 10, is a continuation of last year’s political conflicts, but now on the picket line rather than at the ballot box.
The conflict over the fate of charter schools is central to educational politics in the Golden State. There are more than 1,250 statewide and more than 200 in L.A., the most and one of the largest proportions in any state. In what was the most expensive school board election in the country, charter backers spent $9.7 million in 2017 to help elect two pro-charter candidates in Los Angeles, flipping what was a pro–teacher’s union Board of Education to one that favors charter schools. Most of that money can from a handful of billionaires, including the Walton family and Eli Broad, a Southern California philanthropist who made his fortune as a homebuilder in the 1970s and 1980s and CEO of SunAmerica, an insurance company that he sold to A.I.G. in 1999, netting him $3 billion.
Public-school teachers are the working-class vanguard, and nowhere more clearly than in Southern California, where the meaning of a new American social democracy is being forged.
In May 2018, after a pro-union, anti-charter school superintendent resigned for health reasons, the new board appointed a former investment banker and Broad ally, Austin Beutner, to head the sprawling school district. Beutner is a Democrat who had served in both the Clinton administration and that of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Beutner, who made at least $100 million when his investment advisory firm went public in 2006, was among the cohort of wealthy businessmen and women, most with no educational experience, who came to run troubled school systems in New Orleans, Detroit, Newark, and elsewhere. They were hired to cut costs and payrolls and defang the unions that stood in their way. All were avid proponents of charter schools.
Their success in the L.A. school board elections of 2017 emboldened charter backers to try to use the 2018 election cycle to advance their people to statewide office. But winning the support of an energized anti-Trump electorate proved far more difficult than during the low turnout municipal election the year before. In the spring of 2018, Villaraigosa, once an organizer for Los Angeles unions but now a charter school advocate, gained little traction in the Democratic primary against Gavin Newsom, who was backed by almost every major California trade union. Then, in the fall, the nonpartisan contest for state superintendent of schools eclipsed even the normally more high-profile ballots for governor and senator. More money flowed into that race —$50 million—than any other in California, save that of the governor. Marshall Tuck, a charter school entrepreneur, had the backing of Broad, the Waltons, Gap co-founder Doris Fisher, several other wealthy donors, and the California Charter School Association. Although nominally a Democrat, Tuck was booed off the stage of the California Democratic Party convention, which then endorsed his union-backed rival, state assembly member Tony Thurmond, who won in November, but by less than a 2 percent margin.
But none of this ensured that in its showdown with Austin Buetner the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) would have clear sailing. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has real problems. Students are overwhelmingly poor and for roughly a quarter English is their second language. Enrollment has declined about 100,000 in the last decade, in part because of the rise of charter schools. Fewer students means fewer state educational dollars, even as school maintenance and legacy pension costs remain high. The UTLA estimates that the growth of charter schools in L.A. has drained $600 million from the district’s coffers.
And Austin Beutner has gone on the offensive. He has hired at least 400 new substitutes, potential strike breakers. During the fall he developed a still confidential “portfolio” program designed to decentralize the school district into 32 “networks,” ostensibly intended to give parents more say in running the schools. But the UTLA smells a rat: “Getting rid of central oversight and accountability would allow the unchecked spread of the worst of the charter sector abuses: not serving all students, financial scandals, misuse of public funds, and conflict-of-interest charges,” wrote the UTLA in a statement issued in November.
The fight over the Beutner decentralization resembles the half-century-old controversy that erupted in New York City when Mayor John Lindsay and a liberal school board sought “community control of the schools,” a program fiercely fought by the NYC teacher’s union, then led by Albert Shanker. That conflict, which saw the United Federation of Teachers also strike to retain centralized administration, created a decades-long divide that pitted the civil rights movement and many young radicals fighting for community control against a predominantly white—and Jewish—trade union local. Only this time, in L.A. in the twenty-first century, the dynamics are reversed: it is the UTLA that represents the city’s multicultural working class fighting against city technocrats’ decentralization plan that will fragment the school district, make unified collective bargaining much more difficult, and create new opportunities for the growth of non-union charter schools.
The UTLA has spent years preparing for this fight. In 2013 a Union Power Caucus, not dissimilar from the kind of teacher militants who revitalized the Chicago Teachers Union, won leadership of the huge local. Two years later they won a sizable wage increase and new guidelines on class sizes and counselor ratios. Targeted by the anti-union forces that eventually persuaded the Supreme Court—in Janus v. AFSCME—to deprive public-sector unions of so-called agency fees, the UTLA launched an internal organizing drive that succeeded in winning member consent to a 30 percent dues increase. In an interview with Jacobin’s Eric Blanc, UTLA Secretary Arlene Inouye explained, “We said that these resources were needed to defeat the huge political threats against public education in L.A. Eighty-two percent voted in favor—that was the real turning point in the internal union dynamic.” Indeed, when the union held a strike ballot in August 2018, 98 percent of the membership voted yes, and over a thousand teachers who were not yet members joined UTLA in order to cast their ballots too. Post-Janus union density stands at an extraordinary 96 percent, the highest ever.
This kind of commitment could not exist without great community support, which the union had carefully nurtured through its “Bargaining for the Common Good” program that links union demands for better schools to the particular problems faced by L.A.’s often insecure immigrant community. In mid-December 50,000 Los Angelinos joined a demonstration in support of UTLA demands for smaller classes, higher wages, and a cap on charter schools. Wearing “Red for Ed” union shirts, the demonstrators marched from Grand Park in front of City Hall to the corner of 2nd Street and Grand Avenue, ending at the Broad Museum, an institution identified with charter school funder and advocate Eli Broad.
If and when there is a strike, the wind would seem to be at UTLA’s back. Financially, there is no crisis, at least at present. LAUSD has an actual cash reserve of almost $2 billion and the state is still enjoying the fiscal fruits of the recent boom, with almost $30 billion socked away for a rainy day. Says the UTLA: “With supermajorities in the state legislature, now is the time to get California, the richest state in the nation, to pull itself out of 43rd place among the 50 states in per pupil funding.” And of course, the L.A. teachers are riding the crest of a teacher movement that saw red-state strikers win sizable wage boosts from West Virginia to Arizona. The teacher’s union in Chicago, an inspiration to militants throughout the profession, has just organized and won union contracts for more than 500 charter school educators.
Of course, victory is not assured. Public sentiment can turn hostile should the strike last more than a week, and even the most liberal big-city mayors seek an austere budget because they have been starved of funds for infrastructure and operations for so long. But in the United States today, public-school teachers are the working-class vanguard, and nowhere more clearly than in Southern California, where the meaning of a new American social democracy is being forged.
Nelson Lichtenstein teaches history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy.
Correction: An earlier version of this article claimed Eli Broad made his fortune capitalizing on the pre-2008 real estate bubble. That was incorrect. According to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Eli Broad left the business world “entirely” in 1999 to focus on philanthropy.