The Battle for Los Angeles

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Unions are supposed to work for their members, but it seems there is only one candidate who will do that in the upcoming United Teachers of Los Angeles’ (UTLA) elections, one of the most powerful teacher union affiliates in the country.  Instead of listening to its members, it appears the union hierarchy will continue to play politics.  Current president Alex Caputo-Pearl cannot run for a third term due to term limits, but that does not mean he will not crown his own successor from the Union Power slate (his handpicked officers).  Only one candidate is running on a platform of more union transparency and democracy, which will benefit for members.  And he is not on the Union Power slate.

It is also clear the current union hierarchy is afraid of the power the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation-won Janus decision has given teachers to resign their union membership at any time, and to stop paying forced dues.  If the union hierarchy plays politics and elects the Union Power (Alex Caputo-Pearl’s handpicked officers) slate, members who want more transparency and a return to union democracy may exercise their Janus rights and stop paying dues.

Additionally, as Howard Blume notes in the Los Angeles Times, the election affects the public in many ways other than education.

One ballot this season is off-limits to the public but carries far-reaching ramifications for hundreds of thousands of youths and their families — the election of a new president and other officers for the Los Angeles teachers union.

United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl, who led 30,000 teachers in a strike that gripped Los Angeles last year, is barred by term limits from running for a third three-year term.

The union election represents an internal referendum on how all that worked out, whether the gains of the strike justified losing six days of instruction and 3% of last year’s salary.

“Many members are questioning what they gained,” said Howard, and the election will determine how the union wields its influence going forward and the extent to which it remains “a critical voice in school reform.”

Teachers unions remain among the most powerful interest groups in California — they played a key role in last year’s legislation that could limit the growth of new charter schools. However, long-term union influence has been threatened by a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that allows public employees to stop paying fees to the unions that represent them. One internal goal of the L.A. strike was to build solidarity and membership.

In an unusual, perhaps unprecedented move, Caputo-Pearl is vying to remain a key part of the leadership team he helped assemble. He’s campaigning for one of four vice president slots, hoping to swap roles with Cecily Myart-Cruz, who is running for president on their Union Power slate, which includes candidates for all seven citywide offices.

In board elections, the two major financial players have been the teachers union and charter school advocates, each with its favored candidates. Both spend big, although the charter supporters have spent more, with the teachers union trying to compensate with its ground troops of union members.

The message from union leadership is that last year’s strike was triumphant, achieving smaller class sizes, as well as the hiring of more nurses, librarians and counselors — all of whom are among some 32,000 voting members. Union Power counts some of the biggest gains in nontraditional bargaining areas, such as expanded social services at more schools.

“Why wouldn’t we continue to move forward the powerful work we have all accomplished together?” said Myart-Cruz, a 25-year teacher who has risen through union ranks. “It would be a mistake to not continue to build off the strike, relationships, movement building and groundbreaking work of the past years.”

Within schools, she wants teachers to gain control over teacher training and opposes the sharing of campuses with privately operated charter schools, which compete for students with district-operated schools.

Charter schools, most of which are nonunion, are typically criticized in union elections, although about 900 charter school teachers are also represented by UTLA. About 1 in 5 L.A. Unified students attend charters, an increase since the last union election.

The Union Power slate is being challenged by candidates with conflicting viewpoints: Some find the incumbents too militant; others not militant enough.

Marisa Crabtree, a veteran English teacher at Lincoln High School who is running for UTLA president, faults the union leadership for being too engaged in outside politics.

“It is not my goal to make UTLA a ‘political powerhouse’ as it’s been deemed under Caputo-Pearl’s tenure,” Crabtree said. “It is my job to resource, protect and defend every educator within LAUSD to do what it is we all signed up for — to build an educational powerhouse.”

Candidate Greg Russell, a secondary substitute teacher for 23 years, said he wants a more democratic union, with recorded meetings that members could view. He was especially critical of Caputo-Pearl’s effort to remain a citywide officer, calling it a maneuver to remain in control.

Caputo-Pearl said such concerns are misplaced.

“I want to continue building our momentum, working under Cecily,” Caputo-Pearl said. “Working in L.A. — the epicenter of underfunding and privatization — with UTLA members, is the most important thing to do in the United States in the fight for public education.”

Caputo-Pearl’s opponents for vice president are Gabriel Serrano, who is part of Crabtree’s slate, and Wil Page, a veteran union activist and King Middle School technology coach. Page participated enthusiastically in the strike, but he said union leaders lacked a solid “strike exit plan” and have not developed a strong political strategy for electing sympathetic and capable school board members.