LA Teacher Cuts Prompt Walkouts, Arrests, Hunger Strike

Each year around budget time, Californians hear a familiar story from Sacramento: There’s another stalemate, because state law caps property tax rates and requires two-thirds of legislators to approve tax hikes.

The state’s inability to make budgets continues to mean less money for California public schools, which are funded at well below the national average, 46th in the nation in per-pupil spending. This time, Governor Schwarzenegger wants $10 billion in cuts from the state’s $45 billion yearly education fund.

In response, the Los Angeles Unified School District outlined massive layoffs and cuts. Members of United Teachers of Los Angeles—already facing down concessions in a contract year—are making clear they will not take these cuts lying down. A new layer of teacher activists and students have joined the fight with walkouts and a hunger strike.

Teachers packed a March school board meeting and refused to leave, daring officials to arrest them in front of the media. They hoped to stall the elimination of more than 8,000 administration, support, and teaching jobs, but the school board retreated to a back room and emerged calling for pink slips.

Ultimately around 6,000 layoff notices were sent. After much pressure from UTLA, the district agreed to spend more of the $1 billion in federal stimulus funds it had received, and rescinded layoffs for some teachers, academic coaches, and non-teaching coordinators. But around 2,200 classroom positions are still gone—which means that class sizes in some schools could explode to 40-plus students per teacher.


As layoff notices were distributed throughout the district, many of the union’s leaders and members were calling for a one-day strike to protest layoffs. At the end of April, members authorized the strike by a vote of 75 percent. The day would be May 15—Pink Friday.

The union’s contract forbids a strike over layoffs, so the district pursued and was granted an injunction. According to teacher and executive board member Alex Caputo-Pearl, the majority of the board thought the costs of an illegal strike would be too severe.

“Individuals might face fines of $1,000 each and place their credentials in jeopardy. UTLA as a whole could incur multiple millions of dollars in fines,” said Caputo-Pearl, a member of the Progressive Educators for Action Coalition within UTLA.

“There were no good choices,” said Joel Jordan, UTLA’s director of special projects. “It did hurt morale to call off the strike, and if we’d gone ahead despite the injunction, less than half the members would have come out, and that would have divided us.”

UTLA’s leadership voted instead for a civil disobedience action and protests before and after school, where more than 1,000 teachers turned out. Many teachers called in sick and arranged for substitutes. Nearly a hundred protesters sat in front of the district’s office, and about 40 union members, including President A.J. Duffy and Vice President Josh Pechthalt, were arrested for blocking traffic. The majority of union members went to work.


Jose Lara, a UTLA chapter chair at Santee Education Complex, was shocked when the strike was called off. “Duffy told us that the union would strike if it was necessary,” he said. “Everyone thought this was going to be a strike year.”

Teachers at Santee voted “no confidence” in their union leadership, while teachers at Lincoln High delivered a letter of no confidence to UTLA.

Students at Santee sprang into action against teacher layoffs, gathering outside their school a few days after Pink Friday, where they were joined by more students refusing to enter school. Instead, they marched around the campus. Similar walkouts took place at six other middle and high schools.

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School administrators finally convinced students to enter the school with the enticement that Superintendent Ramón Cortines would meet with them—which he failed to do. So 400 students marched three miles to his office a few days later, where Cortines commended them for speaking up. In later news reports he said the student walkouts would not affect the budget or prevent teacher layoffs.


Meanwhile, the majority of the city’s summer school program has been axed, and others, like the one at Crenshaw High School, will have drastically reduced course offerings. Next fall, Crenshaw’s new “Small Learning Communities” model will be crippled by the elimination of courses that define each of the seven SLCs. In the school of Social Justice, the first class to go will most likely be a popular African-American literature course.

Four out of Crenshaw’s five counselors were delivered pink slips, leaving one counselor serving approximately 2,100 students, or more likely, pushing counseling work onto teachers and administrators.

The cuts to seven English Language Arts teachers could drive class size as high as 46 students per class.

After the strike was called off, a UTLA House of Representatives meeting escalated into noisy argument over the next steps of the fight. Chapter chairs at four schools decided to launch a hunger strike and a camp-out.

The hunger strike began immediately. Calls were put out for volunteers to staff the campsite, and the Hungry for A Better Education campaign was launched on May 26, demanding a stop to increased class sizes and layoffs. For weeks, supporters camped out every night at schools facing the most severe cuts, joined at times by state legislators, before moving the encampment in front of district headquarters.

“Things have been happening so fast that the House of Representatives has not been able to keep up with the actions,” Caputo-Pearl said.

As momentum builds, chapter chairs from around the city have been calling fasters, interested in holding their own camp-outs and solidarity hunger strikes. Calls of support for fasters have come from national labor and social justice organizations and the Puerto Rican teachers union.

The hunger strikes and camp-outs are mostly led by young teachers. Many leaders of the Hungry for a Better Education campaign are first-year chapter chairs. “We believe that the union should be led from below,” says Lara.

Meanwhile, members were voting on the results of a contract reopener June 15-17—but it did not address the layoffs, legally not a subject of bargaining. Some members argued for a “no” vote as a message to management that they are angry about the layoffs.

“We can’t both wage war and make peace simultaneously,” argued two elected officials, writing on the section of UTLA’s website devoted to pro and con arguments. Most union leaders argued for a “yes” vote in order to preserve the language improvements won, and said UTLA would continue to fight the layoffs in other ways. For both sides, other issues faded beside the priority of saving jobs and class sizes.

Joshua Cook teaches at Animo Justice High School. Visit the Hungry for a Better Education website at