For those of us who work and study at CUNY, the story of Los Angeles schools is all too familiar. For decades, LAUSD was kept alive on a starvation budget, the inadequacy of which was exacerbated by a rapid rise in charter schools which further ate up public reserves. Teachers were asked to do more with less. Teach more students. Prepare for more (standardized) tests. Work more hours. Accept less pay. Lose support staff. Note that, though your students and their families are often in crisis—struggling to make ends meet in a hyper-segregated city where affordable housing is a thing of the past—you are to deliver better academic results. Do not focus too much on the alienation and fear of your students as they attempt to make sense of their place in the City of Angels, where all new infrastructure is built for the rich.
With class sizes of 40 and upward, there is no time to pause and no money to pay a counselor or school psychologist anyway. If you as a teacher are also struggling to find your place in the city, do not question it. Never mind that you, too, are increasingly being pushed to the city’s edges, giving more of your waking hours to your commute. Watch as your Democratic elected officials bend over backwards to lure billion-dollar tech companies into your town, but cry poor when you ask for funding so that your buildings might stop crumbling.
The story is familiar because it is part of a nationwide pattern of attacks on public education, a chronic defunding of the kind CUNY has been subjected to since the 1970s. The end goals of these attacks—to incrementally shut down public institutions and keep the working class in survival mode—are no longer hard to see. We at CUNY Struggle find ourselves in rare agreement with PSC President Barbara Bowen, who noted in her most recent email: “UTLA’s fight is, in a very direct way, our fight,” since “we at CUNY know exactly what austerity education means.”
But there is a fundamental difference between what is happening at CUNY and what is happening in LA. Three years ago—taking their cue from the historic Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012— unionized teachers at Los Angeles successfully ran a rank-and-file caucus to oust their ossified leadership and breathe new life into the union. This caucus worked with the membership to build a comprehensive contract campaign that fought for more than bread and butter issues. This was a campaign to end privatization, fund public schools, lower class sizes, and restore neighborhood control of education. This was a campaign that was not going to wait for the benevolent intervention of elected officials. It was a campaign that was going to force elected officials to either endorse the rank-and-file upswell or get out of the way. It was a campaign willing to call out racist disinvestment strategies for what they were and a campaign to build mass pressure against Wall Street leaders whose pockets are getting fat stealing from the poor. Finally, it was a campaign that knew from the onset that forty years of austerity would not be reversed in the slightest without a strike.
When 34,000 Los Angeles teachers walked off the job on Monday, January 14 2019, they drew a line in the stand. They made clear where their power stood. And only one week later, the Board made concessions to teachers and public education on every major issue on the table. Money was found where there had been none. The teachers voted this week in favor of this new contract, with the understanding that many more years of fighting lie ahead.
The conditions that plague LA public schools and CUNY are the same. The true difference between CUNY and LA public schools is that public education in Los Angeles has a union willing to fight in its name. Where UTLA teachers have struck for the survival of public education, the PSC has squashed attempts to even discuss a strike. Where UTLA has built a grassroots campaign to mobilize against privatization, the PSC has channeled its members’ energies into endless, futile lobbying of millionaire politicians, while bargaining behind closed doors and rushing contracts through approval before members can even get a grip on what’s in them. Where UTLA has made reducing class size its single most important bargaining demand, the PSC has repeatedly fed its members the canard that topics like class size are beyond the scope of bargaining. Three years ago, Los Angeles teachers made a choice to oust its leadership and build a union worthy of its name. PSC’s rank-and-file can do the same.