Finding Middle Ground in a New UTLA
The first time I gave birth, it took 28 hours. It was painful. I had hallucinations. My doctor threatened me several times with a C-section, throwing me into a panic of pushing. When my baby arrived, my dad took the glass of Dom Perignon out of my hand and said, “you’re not going to poison my granddaughter with that!” And even though my baby was sweet and lovely, that was the moment the real pain began, (and it lasted 25 years).
Kind of like giving birth to a new United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).
It’s been almost three years since I first met Jordan Henry, Jeff Herrold, Geroge Crowder, Wes Farrow, Bob Scott, Mike Stryer, Kathy Hagerman, James Encinas and Kelsey Cushing – the nucleus of NewTLA who made me feel welcome and showed me the ropes. We sat together at UTLA House of Reps meetings and gaped at each other in wonder while then- president A.J. Duffy led fabulously riotous meetings where people hissed (hissed!) whenever certain politicians were mentioned. Mike and Bob guided us in using Robert’s Rules of Order. In 2011, Warren Fletcher took the reins of the union and started gently guiding our rhetoric in a different direction. James wrote, and we supported, an initiative that demanded a moratorium on layoffs and teacher participation in a fair evaluation system, which was supported by a majority of voting members. We had a taste of the change that is possible.
Last year, Jordan brought up increasing participation in the UTLA House of Reps, a message that was supported by the NewTLA core group and well-received in various teacher policy venues in LA. Through one-on-one conversations, informational events and speaking engagements in which Jordan and Warren encouraged teachers to run for House membership, there was a flood of self-nominations for the House. Some of it was also generated by UTLA Area reps and chapter chairs, who also saw a chance to bolster representation for their own perspectives.
When the dust settled, it seemed that there were (and I don’t know the exact number) 40 to 50 new representatives — mid-career teachers, teacher-of-the-year and National Board Certified types, outspoken, action-oriented professionals — who are now voting members in UTLA’s policy-making body. It’s a full house now.
On Wednesday, January 30, the freshmen had their first house meeting. The first 45 minutes were absorbed by debate over the rules under which we would operate, another 45 minutes in determining endorsements for school board and local elections, and then another 45 for the president’s report, and that of the Political Action Council of Educators (PACE). There were several heated exchanges during which a veteran UTLA member severely castigated a UTLA officer for his perceived failure to take aggressive action against various attacks on labor. And then we were down to 104 members, not a quorum, and ended the meeting before considering any of our 86 agenda items. Joy Lee, math teacher and freshman rep, looked bewilderedly around the room and said, “I thought the meeting was from six until nine. Why are these people not staying until nine?” Clearly, a professional expectation.
Baptism by fire, freshmen reps! This is what we asked to be involved with when we said we wanted a new UTLA. This may be where the pains of giving birth to our new and beautiful baby may really start to kick in.
I surveyed a small sample (about 25 teachers) of this freshman group, and here’s what I discovered:
55% are members of a teacher policy group such as Educators 4 Excellence or Teach Plus
58% have over 10 years of classroom experience
When asked what they saw as the most needed UTLA reforms in the coming two-year term, the responses were varied — it was an open-ended question — but here are some representative quotes:
“Redefine the mission of the organization to be inclusive of the negotiation, political, and moral values therein.”
“Change how we are viewed by the media and our own members.”
“To get more teachers involved in policy that directly affects them.”
“Work with the district to find common ground to benefit the staff and students. Teacher performance issues.”
“Negotiate on critical issues, RIFs, class size and evaluation systems.”
“I would like to see the union continue to work towards appearing professional and more dignified as a professional group who is asking for professional respect. I would like to see management level people make more efforts to accept all UTLA members and push the chapter chairs to spread this message, irregardless of our stance on policies and reforms. Be open to change. Embrace differences.”
“UTLA needs to do more to protect its members from the continuing threat of reduction in staff/force and our forgotten colleagues that were laid off last year and the year before and never hired back…. Pretty much forgotten about. And then there’s the issue of teachers substituting for themselves. Many of our teachers are teaching the same line of classes, only instead of getting paid for holidays and days off, LAUSD has managed to spend less money, use its employees by getting the same level of productivity and paying less money in salaries.”
Joe Zeccola, a very involved, senior, informed and proactive UTLA member said it best in the Professional Rights and Responsibilities (PR&R) Committee meeting, prior to the House of Reps: ”It’s OUR union. You’re talking about US. Be careful with your wording.” He went on to say that rather than attack someone else’s idea or position, we should be prepared to offer a solution. AMEN!
Other PR&R members were invited to “pick a nit”:
- They’re not “these kids,” they’re our classroom children, or at the very least, OUR kids
- We should emphasize our rights, AND the responsibilities we have to our children
- Remember to present a professional image to and in the media – comment positively on articles about education, and take naysayers to task on newspaper websites
- Invite the opportunity to work with non-profit think tanks
- Understand that perception = reality. Play well with others.
This is not the first wholesale shift in UTLA in recent years. In March of 2005, “a coalition of militant, reform-minded teacher unionists swept… local elections for the UTLA/AFT,” as Joel Jordan wrote on labornotes.org in April of that year. Every contested seat on the union’s board of directors was taken by a Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC) member. They were organized, they had a platform of reform and social justice that they continue to pursue, and they continue to take the necessary risks to preserve and protect the rights of teachers. PEAC still represents valuable perspectives gained from hard-fought battles and hard-won gains. But they evince a very different rhetoric from that of the experienced teachers who came out this year for the House.
The new freshmen are accustomed to staying until nine and to getting things done, from having policy group papers considered at the District level, to meeting and influencing politicians and school board members, to swaying elections. These new reps would be well-served to take a page from the PEAC playbook now, in anticipation of December UTLA elections. Do they, do we, have the stamina and the real commitment to our children, to move forward? Are we willing to stay the course, to forge new relationships within UTLA and really walk our talk? The future of UTLA as a professional association depends on that commitment. Those of us on the “inside” who have put ourselves forward need like-minded newcomers to reach back and bring a friend. Just as PEAC reshaped UTLA in 2005, educators who have come this far forward have a chance to make a difference, and the time is now.
Somewhere between this willingness to take a risk, and the aims of the freshman reps, lies the new future of UTLA and the children of LAUSD. We must be prepared for the occasional hallucination, for a respected colleague to say we can’t celebrate yet, and for the inevitable growing pains of rearing a new individual voice in UTLA. For the sake of our children, and their future economic and social viability, let us support any group of solution-speaking teachers who are willing to lead from the classroom. Adelante, UTLA!