Progressive Coalition Sweeps L.A. Teachers’ Union Election

A coalition of militant, reform-minded teacher unionists swept March 2 local elections for the United Teachers-Los Angeles (UTLA/AFT)—the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union local. The election marked the first time in UTLA’s 35-year history that the incumbent officers were turned out of office, in large part due to their unwillingness to mobilize the membership to win a contract over the last 20 months.

The United Action slate—headed up by candidates Joshua Pechthalt for UTLA/AFT vice president; Julie Washington, elementary vice president; David Goldberg, treasurer; and several other candidates it endorsed—won every contested seat, giving the coalition a sizable majority on the union’s 49-member board of directors.

A.J. Duffy, endorsed by United Action for UTLA president, beat the incumbent president, John Perez, 60 percent to 40 percent.

The new leadership will take office July 1. Reformers will then have the opportunity to make good on their promises of organizing and mobilizing rank-and-file teachers and building alliances with other school workers and parents to take on issues in the school district.

Some of the key issues include class-size reduction, salary increases, maintenance of health benefits, teacher participation in curriculum planning and implementation, and a sharp reduction in standardized testing.

BEHIND THE VICTORY

United Action took the union by storm, waging an intense, multi-faceted campaign.

In September, it formed core groups in seven of the eight geographically-based UTLA Areas. These began to seek out endorsements and support, especially from chapter chairs, the shop stewards of UTLA.

United Action developed a clear, detailed platform, and then in its literature focused on a few of the key issues affecting teachers in the district.

Through aggressive fundraising, United Action raised almost $35,000, making it possible to mail out a “United Action Voters Guide” to the union’s 42,000 members, as well as to get flyers into most of the 600-plus schools in the district.

Hundreds of volunteers made phone calls to chapter chairs and members to get out the vote. As a result, turn-out increased by more than 1,000 over the previous election.

The victory would not have been possible were it not for the emergence of a rank-and-file caucus—Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC). Over the past two years, PEAC both pushed UTLA’s reluctant leadership to take action and criticized the leadership for its timidity and excessive reliance on elected school board members.

LEADING FROM THE RANKS

Through its presence in many of the UTLA Areas (where chapter chairs meet monthly to discuss union issues and vote on policy), PEAC was able to convince the Areas to organize several demonstrations around working conditions. Teachers rallied around issues such as excessive testing, paperwork, and class size.

All where issues that the old leadership initially opposed, but then reluctantly supported. That PEAC could lead such initiatives from the ranks put PEAC in the position of acting as the alternative leadership of UTLA.

But PEAC was not ready to make a bid for the union presidency. It had not yet developed a sufficient base of leaders and activists to run a full slate and win, much less give adequate support to such a slate once in office.

So PEAC decided to forge United Action—a broader coalition and slate including several well-known and respected teachers who shared many of PEAC’s goals but were less comfortable with PEAC’s organizing perspective.

In the same vein, United Action endorsed several other opposition candidates, including A.J. Duffy for president, who agreed with important elements of United Action’s platform.

The mutual endorsements between United Action and Duffy helped both to win. Just as important, they set the stage for a closer working relationship between Duffy, PEAC leaders, and other elements of the United Action slate, who have already begun to form a “kitchen cabinet” based on mutual respect for what each brings to the table.

BASE BUILDING

United Action and its allies take office at a critical time for public education and for the labor movement. Standardization of the curriculum has been accompanied by increased harassment of teachers and pressure on students to pass an ever mounting array of standardized tests.

Yet UTLA, as well as the state and national affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have done little but lobby for relief from state and federal testing policies. United Action will have to literally start from scratch in building an alternative.

To fulfill its promises, the new leadership will have to find a way to expand the base of UTLA activists. Despite the 10 percent increase in the vote, only 27 percent of UTLA’s members voted in the election.

The obvious place to begin is to rebuild the UTLA chapters at every school, most of which have died or atrophied because no strategy had been in place to energize them. To do this, the new leadership will have to recruit and train as many members as possible in bottom-up organizing methods and strategies.