A Seat in the Room?
United Teachers Los Angeles may be on the brink of an unwelcome change. Currently, there is a groundswell of teachers nominating themselves for the UTLA House of Representatives – teachers who have not been actively involved in UTLA in the past but who are motivated to do something now. For teachers who are alienated by the current brand of union rhetoric or feel de-professionalized by narrow perspectives, this is a terribly important time. It’s election time at the union.
The UTLA House of Reps is the policy-making body of the union. Decisions made here are binding on UTLA leadership. A UTLA member can nominate herself and likely be “elected” in an uncontested race until November 9. What an excellent opportunity this is for bringing children and education to the forefront of policy debate, and for hearing education professionals who currently feel alienated or unrepresented. This is also, perhaps, not in the best interest of the status quo.
Imagine if a critical mass of current teachers – those who were protected from layoffs at underperforming schools by the Reed decision, for instance, and have just seen that settlement nullified – became a voting majority in UTLA, and active in making new policy for the second-largest teachers union in America? These schools are finally, after three years of stable staffing, making gains in all-important test scores, among the more humanitarian aims of providing an educational hub for their communities and improving access for underprivileged children. These teachers know better than most about compassion, decent learning conditions, the school-to-prison pipeline, and how important the daily structure of school can be for children who may otherwise be underfed and have unstable homes through no fault of their own or that of their families.
What would happen if, say, fifty teachers who believe that “last in, first out” (LIFO) is less valid than some other means of determining layoffs, became policy-makers in UTLA? It may yet happen. Would they be welcome in our current union environment? How would union leadership respond? Could sharp, moderate, motivated teachers focus our attention on creating a win-win situation in the worst of times, with respect for labor and an eye on what will be best for children, their education and democracy as a whole? We are on the edge of finding out, because new blood is self-nominating for UTLA House of Representatives.
On Tuesday before Halloween, Jordan Henry (of NewTLA) and Warren Fletcher (UTLA President) held a panel discussion with about 40 classroom teachers. At the end of the evening, a courageous teacher (currently at a Reed-protected school) asked, “Why should I support my union, when they voted to get rid of me?” Fletcher’s answer was a carefully constructed argument pointing out that dues-paying teachers rely on current policies. The words “education” and “children” did not enter into the discussion. Should they have? Fletcher recommended that teachers who want to state opinions go to their local area meetings; some said they had tried this only to be received with hostility. And then two of our very dedicated, active, senior members, who are chapter chairs, said that House of Representatives membership is a privilege earned through service as a chapter chair. They later told individual attendees that House members hold sway (my words) over chapter chairs, and that unless one had first served as a chair, one would “never get elected.” All due respect to the ladies’ dedication, and for the work they do, but this isn’t my experience and it isn’t in the bylaws or the constitution.
Warren Fletcher correctly pointed out that as enrollment shrinks, so will school staffs; this is simply math and business. Fletcher rightfully claims that his job is to protect the property rights, i.e. jobs, of teachers; this is the role of our union’s president, and he does it well. I must be clear that, in the two years that I have been in the House of Reps, Warren has instilled a new tone of tolerance and professionalism that for me, and others like me, is a welcome relief. The one time I managed to corner John Deasy and asked him to tone it down when he was talking about our union, he said he actually liked Warren Fletcher and they had good conversations. To me, that’s a positive thing. Warren is professional, visionary, strong and well grounded in the purpose and history of the labor movement. He’s exactly who I want taking UTLA into the future. I want him enforcing the will of the group, whatever it is. That will is on the edge of changing.
Through the efforts of various ground-level teacher policy groups in Los Angeles, there are dozens of teachers nominating themselves for the UTLA House of Reps. People are angry for many reasons, and this is why they are willing to step into the one role that bypasses all the static and allows one teacher to genuinely have a vote in making or changing outcomes in UTLA. The deadline is November 9, 2012. LAUSD teachers – are you in?