Teachers in Los Angeles want more than a raise—here's why over 30,000 just went on strike

Some of the more than 30,000 teachers in the Los Angeles public school system hold a rally at City Hall after going on strike in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 14, 2019.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

Over 30,000 teachers went on strike in Los Angeles County today. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) serves 640,000 students and is the second biggest school district in the country. The last time Los Angeles teachers went on strike was 1989.

The protest follows a string of successful teacher strikes across the country. Teachers in states like West Virginia and Oklahoma — who are among the lowest paid educators in the country — have organized and participated in strikes in order to advocate for higher wages and improved conditions for students.

Prior to negotiations, the average annual mean wage for a teacher was $45,240 in West Virginia and $42,460 in Oklahoma. After going on strike, teachers in both of these states received pay increases.

"What you're seeing with unions is real enthusiasm and a belief that you can actually be successful," Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois tells the Associated Press. "The educational sector is rife with deep grievance and frustration, but there's now a sense that you can actually win."

The annual mean wage for teachers in California is $74,940 and $75,000 in the LAUSD, and while teacher pay is a significant issue for protesting educators, the current teachers strike in Los Angeles is also about class size.

People march through the streets of downtown in the pouring rain during a United Teachers Los Angeles strike on January 14, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Teachers from the country's second-biggest school district have gone on strike after weeks of negotiations for more pay and smaller class sizes went nowhere.
Barbara Davidson/Getty Images

On January 11th, the LAUSD offered United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the union organizing the strike, a proposal that included a 6 percent salary increase for teachers and promises to enforce a maximum class size of 39 students at secondary schools and increase the number of nurses, counselors and librarians at all schools.

UTLA called the proposal "woefully inadequate," arguing that the district is "hoarding" $1.86 billion in reserves that could be used to fund the union's requests, which include a 6.5 percent pay hike and smaller class sizes. The district maintains these reserves are needed to cover expenses like retiree benefits.

So on Monday, Los Angeles teachers and their supporters took to the uncharacteristically wet streets, many wearing red to represent the Red4Ed labor movement that has swept across the country. According to USA Today, strikers chanted "Hey hey! Ho ho! We're fighting to keep class size low!"

In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Alex Caputo-Pearl explains why class size was such an important issue for educators. "Class sizes often exceed 45 students in secondary schools; 35 students in upper elementary grades; and 25 students in lower elementary grades," he writes. "It is downright shameful that the richest state in the country ranks 43rd out of 50 when it comes to per-pupil spending."

Mike Finn, a special education teacher in Los Feliz, tells USA Today that he has 46 students in one composition class, and calls the conditions "unmanageable."

"I have watched class sizes go up and up," he says. "Everybody's talking class size."

Some of the more than 30,000 striking teachers in the Los Angeles public school system march after holding a rally at City Hall in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 14, 2019.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

The strike has gained attention and support from progressive politicians.

"Very proud of L.A. public school teachers today for taking a stand. Teachers are the unsung heroes of American democracy. Today they're putting everything on the line so our nation's children can have a better shot," tweeted New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

"Los Angeles teachers work day in and day out to inspire and educate the next generation of leaders. I'm standing in solidarity with them as they strike for improved student conditions, such as smaller class sizes and more counselors and librarians," tweeted California Senator Kamala Harris.

"The eyes of the nation are watching, and educators ... all over the country have the backs of the educators in L.A.," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said at the protest on Monday, according to the Los Angeles Times. "We need the conditions to ensure that every child … gets the opportunity he or she or they deserve."

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