Gains and Losses in LA Teachers Union Election

A bread-and-butter candidate won out over a reformer running on a social justice platform to lead the LA teachers union. Cooperation will be key to surviving the onslaught against teacher unions, including mass layoffs, which the union protested last year (above). Photo: UTLA.

The future of teacher-led education reform in Los Angeles was thrown into question in March, when Warren Fletcher won a surprise 53-47 percent runoff victory over Julie Washington to become president of the Los Angeles teachers union, UTLA.

Washington, currently a UTLA vice president, came to office six years ago as a union reformer supported by the influential Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC) caucus. Washington had PEAC’s endorsement in the March election, on a social justice platform that links teacher interests with student and community interests, and she was the frontrunner in the first-round vote.

Fletcher beat Washington relying on a narrow bread-and-butter, wages-and-benefits platform. At first glance, his victory in the 40,000-member local seems a defeat for a social justice vision of unionism, especially at a time when attacks on teachers and their unions are at an all-time high. But a closer look reveals an anti-incumbent sentiment born of suffering attacks year after year despite the union’s vigorous protests.

Neither side can actually claim a mandate, as almost every candidate won by a slim margin of the 9,000 votes. Only 24 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the runoff.

The Progressive Caucus lost the top office, but won a majority of officers and board members in the Los Angeles teachers union. Photos: UTLA

Fletcher’s priorities—protecting salary and benefits—will be augmented in the new UTLA leadership by the progressive values of four officers from PEAC, out of seven. The union’s board of directors, too, has a healthy new PEAC majority, with many new activists winning seats.

In the campaign, the progressives warned that Fletcher’s proposal to hire a “professional negotiator” wouldn’t succeed if groundwork inside the union and with the community is neglected, especially when administrators and politicians are pointing to budget shortfalls to demand mass firings and privatization of schools.

“The power we need to rescind 5,000 layoff notices won’t come with a professional negotiator talking ‘tougher’ at the bargaining table,” PEAC said in an open letter to new union leaders.

Fletcher says he is committed to working with his PEAC colleagues. “I do not run away from the progressive wing of the union—which happens to be the wing that does most of the work,” he said.


The election came at a precarious time for teachers.

Seven more new and existing LA public schools were given to charter operators in mid-March, effectively privatizing and de-unionizing them. Two others were put up for “reconstitution,” which fires the existing staff and forces them to re-apply for their jobs—creating major instability for students.

These decisions were handed down by the school board, which is closely allied with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, an open advocate of charter schools. Villaraigosa has attacked UTLA, calling it “the biggest obstacle to education reform.”

On the same day, the board issued 5,000 layoff notices, pointing to a $400 million budget shortfall. UTLA has questioned not only the district’s budgeting but its priorities, pointing to the large number of consultants, outside contracts, and out-of-classroom personnel the district funds.



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In addition, a recently settled lawsuit, pushed by the ACLU, weakens seniority throughout the district under the guise of helping the hard-to-staff schools. The settlement is considered a major victory for critics of teacher unions.

Finally, the new schools superintendent, John Deasy, has made tying teacher evaluations to standardized test scores one of his top priorities—despite no consensus among experts on the accuracy of such systems, and warnings that reliance on tests dulls education and narrows curricula.

Deasy comes to Los Angeles after working for Bill Gates’s foundation. The billionaire has been a principal proponent of teacher evaluation based on test scores.


Yet more battles are coming for UTLA’s new leadership, which takes over July 1. Another 42 schools could be lost to charters this December. And the union enters contract and health care talks this fall, at a moment when the state education budget is shrinking almost as fast as health care costs are rising.

In such difficult terrain, how will a president who promised to focus on bread and butter work with reformers who want to fight alongside parents and students to center schools around a vision of social justice?

“We have to talk the language of bread and butter in order to be credible on the campuses,” says Fletcher, adding, “We aren’t going to win if it’s just us. We have to have parents and the community on our side. The road to parents and the community goes through teachers at the [school] sites. The key to those teachers is bread and butter.”

While it’s clear that Fletcher’s victory sprang at least in part from dissatisfaction in the wake of layoffs and monetary concessions in recent years, many teachers sat this election out.

The low turnout was a sign of union disconnect with younger teachers, many of whom accept the right-wing idea that unions just want to protect ineffective teachers.

Fletcher doesn’t buy it. “Young teachers understand that the current teacher evaluation system is nonsense,” he said. “It doesn’t help teachers to improve their practice. They would love to see an evaluation system that would help teachers.”

PEAC members have helped UTLA create its own professional development plan. Piloting this plan effectively could win new teachers to the union fold.

Though social justice issues weren’t in his campaign platform, Fletcher has been open to PEAC’s advances, calling the caucus’s agenda his “initial planning sheet.”

“Take a look at whose education is being destroyed—inner-city kids,” he said. “If we keep moving in the way we’re moving, it’s a disaster for inner-city kids.”

Fletcher and the progressives agree that the only way UTLA will succeed is with a more activist approach. “We need to get more militant,” he said. “We need to have more cards to play.”

Joseph Zeccola teaches drama and academic literacy and is the UTLA chapter co-chair at Los Angeles Academy Middle School. He is a member of PEAC, newly elected to the union board of directors.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #386, May 2011. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.