Why Strikes Matter

January 10, 2019 10:12 pm

The strike by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) against Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), set for Thursday, January 10, has roused local corporate media to oppose it well in advance of the actual event. Commentators, none with any significant experience in public-school teaching or administration, have warned of impending chaos and dire consequences for students of color from families struggling with poverty in LA’s dramatically unequal society, the same students who comprise the majority of LAUSD. All these warnings are gross misrepresentations of reality or, put more bluntly, direct lies. The teachers’ strike, if it takes place, will be the best thing that could happen for poor students of color and their families.

The 1% Versus the Teachers

This strike, like all strikes, is a dramatic contest between two power groups rarely seen in public confrontation. Using terms popularized by Occupy Wall Street protesters in 2011, we can characterize the strike as a standoff between the 1%, the corporate capitalists and their supporters, and the 99%, all the rest of us. LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner, former Wall Street power broker with no experience in public education, represents the 1%, while the tens of thousands of teachers preparing to risk their livelihoods and go on strike soon are advocates for all of us who do not own or sit on the boards of major corporations, including, obviously, the students of color from economically disadvantaged families.

Strikes illustrate a basic law of social interaction. In 1819 English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote “Mask of Anarchy” in response to the Peterloo Massacre, an attack by British cavalry officers on peaceful protesters and their families in Manchester, England that left many dead and hundreds wounded. At the poem’s conclusion, Shelley exhorts the terrorized and demoralized survivors to remember, “Ye are many—they are few.” We, the 99%, tend to forget this most of the time. The 1% never forget. Hence their pushback against the teachers’ strike even before it takes place.

The 1989 Strike

Strikes produce many positive outcomes, and not just the securing of higher wages that the 1% pretend is the only reason workers go on strike. Few Americans stop to think that the eight-hour workday and the five-day workweek are the results of workers willing to risk their jobs, and lives, in earlier, dangerous strikes that made the world better for all workers, then and now. More locally, the 1989 UTLA strike, as bitterly opposed back then as the planned strike is now, produced not just higher wages for teachers but freed them from onerous unpaid supervision and class coverage duties that took time away from meeting with students and parents during their conference periods. The ’89 strike also established the School-Based Management model of school governance, a world away from the top-down breakup of the District currently planned by Superintendent Beutner.

Today’s Demands

Today teachers are demanding smaller class sizes. Anyone who has tried to teach 50 students (or more) in a classroom knows that it is a disservice to students and teachers alike. And these overstuffed classrooms are common not in the few LAUSD middle-class schools but in the majority of schools that serve children of color from poor families. The strike, if it achieves its demands, will free these students from this manifest inequality. The strike will also put more nurses in schools serving poor communities of color, so that when a sick student is sent from a 50-plus classroom to the Health Office, she or he will see a health professional, not another student aide with a Band-Aid. The strike will defend these students because, like any strike, it is the will of the people in action.

Concessions or the Cavalry

Of course, the strike doesn’t have to take place if Superintendent Beutner and the LAUSD School Board are willing to negotiate. Some corporate media commentators have suggested that Beutner, in simply sitting down with UTLA, has shown his willingness to negotiate. But there’s more to it than taking a seat at the table. Real negotiation involves making concessions, especially those you do not want, or claim you cannot afford, to make. Ironically, if the strike takes place, Beutner and the Board will have to make concessions, unless they plan to bring in the cavalry, Peterloo-style, or fire tens of thousands of teachers and replace them with whatever unqualified workers they happen to have at hand. Why not make real concessions now to reasonable demands that will benefit students, their families, and their communities? That way everyone wins, even the 1%, who sometimes forget that money isn’t everything.

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