Teachers in Los Angeles became the latest to join the strike wave in education across the US in January, winning historic gains after their first strike in 30 years.
A year ago, teachers in West Virginia staged an explosive strike that inspired similar action to spread through Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, North Carolina and Colorado.
Educating over 600,000 students, Los Angeles is the second largest school district in the country, so all eyes were on our fight.
It’s also the first solidly “blue” state to join the strike wave, raising political questions about why the Democrats have led the charge on privatisation and the defunding of public schools across California for decades.
California is the wealthiest state in the country (its economy is bigger than that of most countries), but it is 46 out of 50 US states for per-pupil spending.
Teachers won back-dated and future pay rises, more librarians and nurses in every school, an enforceable cap on class sizes, and a commitment from the district to fight the statewide expansion of publicly funded but privately operated charter schools.
Social justice unionism
The district is almost 90 per cent students of colour, with almost 75 per cent from Latino backgrounds and large African-American and Asian populations. The vast majority of the workforce are women of colour too.
Thanks to the concerted effort of left activists in the teachers’ union, the strike was widely understood by both teachers and the community as a fight to defend the last public space that kids of colour can access in the US.
The district tried to say that social justice demands didn’t count as union issues and to confine teachers to their claims for pay, staffing, and class sizes. But the union also won a reduction in the daily security searches for weapons in schools and legal assistance for undocumented students and their families.
“We won a reduction in the ‘random’ searches”, high school teacher, union activist and socialist Gillian Russom explains, “although obviously they should be eliminated. The district’s admitting they’re racist or don’t work, and the answer to that is eliminating them, not reducing them. But it’s something they moved on that we technically had no bargaining rights over.
“Then there’s the immigrant defense fund. Our original demand— again completely outside the box of what a union can usually get—was a $1 million fund. What we got was the district hiring a dedicated attorney for immigrant families to receive support. That’s a big expense. I think it’s tremendous that we won on that.”
I helped organise a community solidarity campaign called Tacos for Teachers, along with other activists in the International Socialist Organization, Democratic Socialists of America, and California Educators Rising.
Not only did we raise over $40,000 to deliver tacos to thousands of striking teachers across the district, we raised the profile of immigrant rights in the city and opposition to Trump’s racist border wall.
I spoke to a teacher at one picket who explained that she was marking students as present even though they were respecting the picket-line, to ensure Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) couldn’t use non-attendance to deport them later.
She also explained why getting more counsellors in schools was important to her. “When these kids that Trump has stolen from their families get to us, they are going to have serious trauma,” she said. “We need to give them the support they need.”
The strike was a stunning victory with mass community support. One survey from Loyola Marymount University found that more than 80 per cent of the county supported the teachers.
But there is much left to win. The city’s superintendent is a former investment banker who plans to break the district into several smaller areas in what’s called the “portfolio model”—in which schools are treated like stocks in an investment portfolio.
Wherever this plan has been implemented in the US, it has brought privatisation, school closures, and increased racial segregation. Teachers got a taste of their own power in Los Angeles and they are in an excellent position to rise up against these plans for the district.
This strike wave has already put class politics back on the agenda across the country in a profound way. And it’s far from over. Teachers in Denver, Colorado began striking in February and teachers in Oakland, California are next.
At the same time that Los Angeles struck, aviation and other federal workers started to show their class power in the face of Trump’s government shutdown, threatening to close down major airports. This working class confidence and self-activity show the power that could bring down the Trump administration.
By Clare Lemlich