The Day My Union Died

Our strike wasn't about us teachers asking for better health care or more money, we were going to protest Cortine's decision to hold back funds allotted for education.
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As I cruise around L.A., his eyes follow me. He's in my face when I stop for a coffee or pull up at an ATM. This blond, 30-something, smiling white dude on the ubiquitous billboards looks like he might have sold sub-prime mortgages and enjoyed it. In his hound's-tooth suit and bow tie, I'm pretty sure he fights tax cuts for the rich, and above his head I read these words:

Hiring dropouts is just good business. Honestly who else would work that cheap?

Below his beaming face, I read:

High School Dropouts make 42% less money.
Stay in school.

But on May 15, 2009, I planned to do just the opposite. I was going to stay out of school for just one day, for the work stoppage. I planned to join my fellow United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) union members; we'd voted to picket outside our respective schools to protest the proposed layoffs of 5,100 of our colleagues, 2,500 of whom are teachers, who have received pink slips for the next school year.

UTLA, the second largest teachers union in the country, called this action weeks in advance. I gave my students plenty of notice. I explained it all to them -- that our strike wasn't about us teachers asking for better health care or more money.

I explained that we were protesting Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Ramon Cortines's decision to hold back as much as $167 of the $554 million dollars of federal stimulus funds the LAUSD received until the 2010-2011 school year instead of spending that money next year.

This is the LAUSD which dumped $400 million on the Belmont Learning Center, a new high school that was built, then demolished, then rebuilt on a toxic waste site. The same LAUSD that dolled out $186 million taxpayer dollars to outside consultants in 2006-2007. The same district that paid $95 million dollars for a new payroll system that caused chaos with teachers' paychecks for two years. This same district that has assured us that our 9th and 11th grade English classes of 20 (mandated by law) will next year be ballooning to 35 to 38. Our classes of 35 will mushroom to 42 or more.

At Venice High School where I teach English, 55% of our students drop out. If LAUSD fires teachers, APs, deans, college counselors, and librarians, and axes arts and vocational programs, those dropout numbers are likely to soar, sending undereducated teens into a national job market that's losing more than 15,000 jobs a day.

So that's what I planned to march in protest of on May 15.

On May 12, a judge granted the LAUSD a restraining order, forbidding UTLA to strike.

When I heard the news, I knew we were in for a fight, and I was ready to stand up for what I know is right. Sure we were threatened with a fine of a thousand dollars and loss of our credentials if we chose to fight against these layoffs, to challenge Cortines' decision to hold on to the stimulus money, but if we weren't willing to stand up for our rights, we'd never have any.

So I was ready for UTLA leadership to come back to ask for our vote, ready to support them in storming into court to appeal the injunction, ready to stand in solidarity with my fellow teachers. And I was eager to see how many others were.

Instead, none of that happened. Our leadership simply caved. They called off the strike.

And my union died.

For as any middle or high school kid could tell you, if you challenge someone to a fight, you'd better show up.

On Friday, May 15, 39 of UTLA's 48,000 members, at least one of whom had been responsible for calling off the strike, defied the court order and were arrested for sitting in an intersection near LAUSD headquarters. That same day hundreds of teachers called in sick. Others marched legally outside their school sites before school, but when the school bell rang, they timidly entered their classrooms so as not to defy the court order.

I taught that day. I taught and felt despair that boomeranged around my school in a thousand directions -- despair for my fellow teachers, the young, energetic ones who are who are being fired and will never return to the LAUSD, despair for my students whose classrooms are too large and growing larger, despair for my fellow union members whose leadership failed us.

I couldn't think about much else that day, and that night I turned on the local TV news to measure the impact of UTLA's actions on the city.

The third story on the local news that night was an LAPD interview of a suspect not guilty of kidnapping.

The fifth story was about how our city's commuter trains soon will be equipped with on-line cameras.

I was falling asleep, but I waited, and finally the 10th story, 48 seconds long, was about 39 teachers sitting in an intersection and being arrested for blocking traffic.

Now Superintendent Cortines -- puffed up with success -- has implied that he'd keep most of the pink-slipped employees in their jobs -- that is if the rest of us agree to accept furlough days. That's a fancy name for working for free.

And tonight, May 19, 2009, the tax-raising propositions that Governor Schwarzenegger begged and bullied us to vote for, went down in a crushing defeat. Surely, he'll now move to what he's been hinting at, that he'll move to cut the school year and teachers' pay by one week.

So come fall when UTLA teachers are complaining about the chaos and exhaustion that accompany their overcrowded classrooms, we union members will have to remember that when it came time to stand up for our students, we stood down.

By not appealing the injunction or striking in the face of it, we have insured that tens of thousands of our students will one day come under the spell of that smiling guy on the billboard -- the man eager to hire what LAUSD produces best -- high school dropouts.

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