Mass strikes don’t happen very often in the US. But when they do, such strikes can reveal important truths about society. By walking out for the schools students deserve, Los Angeles teachers exposed the deepening contradiction between a privatizing billionaire class and the preservation of public education in the city and around the country.
But the victorious strike also demonstrated the existence of two competing, and contradictory, proposals to fight racial injustice in Los Angeles and across the United States. The conflict in LA was a story of two antiracisms.
On the one hand, privatizers and their political lackeys like LA school board president Monica Garcia pushed charter schools as “the civil rights issue of our time.” Ending racial inequality in American schools and throughout American society, in their view, is impossible through regular public schools. Those schools have to be dismantled.
On the other hand, unionized teachers and their supporters showed that the defunding and dismantling of LA public schools was disproportionately hurting black and brown students. To fight racism in the city’s schools, they turned to their union and mass strike action. And they won big.
The conflict in LA has demonstrated that these two visions are irreconcilable — and how a fighting working class can advance an uncompromising antiracist vision that exposes the bankruptcy of education privatizers’ racial justice rhetoric.
By building a vibrant, multiracial mass movement for both economic and social justice, UTLA has put the lie to the constant equation of organized labor, and working-class politics, with old white guys in hard hats. That pundits continue to make this assumption says more about their own class location than it does about the actual gender and racial diversity of the labor movement.
UTLA’s approach was straightforward: combine specific antiracist initiatives with a strategic focus on uniting workers of all backgrounds around their common interests. Upon taking office in 2014, the new UTLA leadership’s first major initiative was to win a 10 percent pay increase for its mostly female, nonwhite membership. “Winning that raise was a necessary initial step towards restoring [our] members’ confidence in the union,” notes UTLA’s Arlene Inouye.
Union leaders subsequently pivoted to a broader fight for more school funding, lower classes, better public schools, and an end to privatization. Significantly, UTLA has raised demands not only for its members, but for working people generally — an approach known as “bargaining for the common good.” And since working-class problems such as school underfunding, low wages, and privatization are especially acute for communities of color, these broad demands are fundamentally antiracist, as writers like Briahna Joy Gray have shown.
The disparities between California’s school districts are some of the worst in the nation, rivaling Mississippi, Alabama, and Arizona. A recent report notes that in California “the highest poverty school districts fall as much as $14,000 to $16,000 per pupil below the necessary spending levels.”
Unlike in many affluent, and predominantly white surrounding areas, LA’s schools have been left to crumble over the past three decades. Not coincidentally, LAUSD students are 73 percent Latino and 15 percent other nonwhite populations. As is so often the case, class disparities translate into racial ones: school segregation has dramatically increased since the 1980s in Los Angeles and nationwide.
The underfunding of public education is also directly related to the displacement of working families by gentrifying real estate developers. Thriving working-class neighborhoods rely on quality public schools; dismantling the education system, in turn, sets the stage for a massive outflow of low-income black and brown families, as has happened in cities like Chicago.
“The corporations and businessmen that run our city have a vision for LA that doesn’t include poor people of color,” insists Rosa Jimenez, a unionized teacher in LA’s Koreatown and a parent of a fifth-grader.
UTLA has consistently underscored that organized labor’s fight for public education is also a fight for racial justice. In a speech to a rally of sixty thousand at city hall on Friday, UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl put it as follows:
When Democrats say that they can’t do anything to raise per pupil funding in a state that has been increasingly students of color over the last twenty years — that is nothing short of racial discrimination and we’re going to challenge that.
In conjunction with organizations like Students Deserve, the union has for years supported Black Lives Matter and opposed discriminatory “random searches” of students at school. And to fight for immigrant rights, UTLA has supported sanctuary schools, opposed deportations, and pushed for the establishment of an immigrant defense fund to pay for undocumented parents’ legal costs.
By withholding their labor for over a week, LA teachers were able to force the district to make major concessions both on broad questions like class size as well as more specific antiracist demands like “random searches” and immigrant rights. “You can’t silo these different issues. We need to fight for all of them together — that’s what labor solidarity is all about,” argues Inouye.
The current leaders of LAUSD, and their billionaire backers, promoted a very different kind of antiracism.
Ever since the charter school movement emerged in the 1990s, privatizers have insisted that “school choice” is essential for achieving equality and justice for black and brown students. As school board president Monica Garcia wrote recently, “the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is on the front line of the fight for justice and access to quality schools for people of color and low-income families.” According to this view, students of color are not primarily hampered by underfunding, but by teacher union intransigence and the public sector’s inherent inefficiencies.
In Los Angeles, charter school networks like Alliance cover their walls with murals of Black Power figures and farm worker leaders like leader Dolores Huerta. (The prevalence of this social justice symbolism has not prevented the Alliance charter network from viciously fighting UTLA’s current charter unionization drive.)
Once LA educators voted to strike, a slew of attacks in the press accused them of hurting communities of color. For instance, a recent anti-strike op-ed in the Los Angeles Times professed to defend the marginalized: “Our city asks black and brown communities, who often have the least, to endure the most. Now it appears the most vulnerable families will be made to shoulder yet another strain: a school shutdown with no end in sight.”
After the walkout began, Telemundo engaged in an ongoing campaign to convince Spanish-speaking parents that their children would be penalized if they missed school during the strike. And the Walton-funded LA School Report promoted an open letter from twenty-one black pastors claiming that “the fortunes of African-American children do not improve on a picket line.”
These media attacks parroted the talking points put forward for months by LAUSD leaders. Antonio Villaraigosa — a former union organizer who quickly abandoned his pro-labor commitments upon becoming LA’s mayor in 2005 — was rolled out by the district in a last ditch effort to avert a strike. Villaraigosa’s bilingual video for parents argued that “a strike will only hurt the students most in need.” In response, teacher and union activist Rosa Jimenez told me that “the school district says it’s for racial justice and equality — but everything it does in practice is the opposite.”
Nobody embodies this hypocrisy better than LAUSD head Monica Garcia. The daughter of working-class Mexican immigrants in East Los Angeles, Garcia has leveraged her personal background to climb the city’s power structure. She consistently paints her political project — which mostly consists of promoting charters and opposing the strike — in activist colors.
When it comes to issues she has no control over, Garcia is as progressive as can be. Her Twitter account is full of Nelson Mandela quotes, denunciations of Trump’s xenophobia, and praise for Elizabeth Warren. Despite her hard opposition to today’s strikes, Garcia is nevertheless fond of hosting conferences that raise the banner of the 1968 Chicano student walkouts.
The rhetoric often works. As one member of Eastside Padres en Contra la Privatizacion (Eastside Parents Against Privatization) posted on Facebook, “[m]any times we do not know who they are, [we] hear some Spanish and her story about being from the community and feel [Garcia] will support us.”
By speaking as the supposed voice of all East LA Latinos, Garcia has, until very recently, succeeded in carrying out the wishes of the corporate funders who back her. Garcia’s contribution to the book Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out! Voices from the Front Lines of the Educational Justice Movement notes that “during the Great Recession, I had to explain the budget and ask for support for the horrible cuts we were forced to make. That was hard, but in the end I think it created levels of trust and appropriate levels of partnership.”
Garcia’s billionaire-backed antiracism reached new heights over the past few weeks. On day one of the strike, she dutifully repeated Superintendent Austin Beutner’s absurd claim that only 3,500 teachers were on the picket lines. And at LAUSD’s daily press conferences, Garcia was the official Spanish-language voice of opposition to the strike, which she claimed was “only hurting students, families and communities.”
Garcia and Beutner expected that this demagoguery would convince parents and the public to oppose the walkout. Remarkably, the opposite occurred. It’s a testament to the depth of UTLA’s systematic three-year organizing drive that, despite torrential downpours, public support for the strike actually increased over the course of the strike. Tens of thousands more students missed school on Friday, January 18, compared with day one on Monday, January 14. And the final polls showed that an astoundingly high 77 percent of the Los Angeles public supported the strike.
The Visions Collide
The clash between these two antiracist visions was one of the major, and overlooked, stories of the LA teachers’ strike. No moment better epitomized this collision than the night of Wednesday, January 16, when hundreds of parents and students responded to the call of the Reclaim Our Schools Los Angeles coalition to march on Monica Garcia’s house.
Braving the pouring rain, these strike supporters held a speak-out at Garcia’s doorsteps. High school student activist Cheyanne McClaren from Students Deserve took the mic to ask why district leaders “want to pay the police, but they don’t care about their students?” Parent Julie Regalado — who emerged as a leader of Eastside Padres Contra la Privatizacion in the successful fight to stop a Kipp charter “co-location” at Marianna Elementary in 2017 — told the drenched crowd:
This strike is not only a teachers’ strike — it’s a strike of teachers, parents, students and the community. . . . We came here tonight to ask [Garcia]: Which side is she on? The side of the privatizers and Beutner, or on the side of the Eastside community?
Few protest participants that night had any doubts about Garcia’s real allegiances — particularly since she called the cops rather than meet with them. In a memorable chant, parents and students connected Garcia to the head of Trump’s Department of Education: “DeVos, Garcia, la misma porquería!” — a message that roughly translates as “DeVos, Garcia, the same old crap!” Others made the same point, yelling “Vendida [sellout]!” Facebook comments on the event’s livestream were similarly blunt: “MONICA GARCIA IS A TRAITOR TO THE EAST LA COMMUNITY. . . . This [protest tonight] is what happens when you sell out your community! They are coming for you!”
At that evening’s speak-out, parent leader Eloisa Galindo explained to the crowd the roots of Garcia’s betrayal: “In our school district, the rich and the big corporations are treating our children like they’re for sale — and they’re paying for the political campaigns of many people who are now on the LAUSD school board. One of these is Monica Garcia.”
As Galindo indicated, corporate antiracism is not primarily a personal failing, but a structural one. Like all major racial and ethnic groups in this country, African Americans and Latinos are deeply divided by social class. And unlike in decades prior, the ruling rich today use a racial-justice veneer, and promote leaders of color, to push through regressive policies.
That’s why figures like Garcia and Villaraigosa were pushed forward to attack (in the name of racial justice) a movement of, and for, a predominantly nonwhite workforce and student body. It’s also why the Democratic Party establishment and its pundit apologists will continue to use antiracist rhetoric to attack Bernie Sanders and the resurgent socialist movement.
UTLA’s historic strike has shown that the response to this hypocrisy is to advance the fight for racial justice through class struggle. By winning their walkout for better schools, Los Angeles teachers struck a blow for both racial and economic justice.
Over the past week of rallies and picket lines, teachers frequently chanted, “billionaires can’t teach our kids!” The victorious Los Angeles strike has also shown that billionaires, and their diverse political proxies, also can’t fight racism. The working class has to lead this battle — and LA strikers showed the entire country exactly how it can be done.