By Isabel Nunez
Isabel Nunez is Professor and Director of the School of Education at Purdue University, Fort Wayne. She is the co-editor of Diving In: Bill Ayers and the Art of Teaching into the Contradiction and co-author of Worth Striking For: Why Education Policy Is Every Teacher’s Concern (Lessons from Chicago)
When Alex Caputo-Pearl was elected the president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) in 2014, I knew that children, families, and communities would soon have a newly energized and empowered defender in the teachers union. Today, as a Los Angeles native and a supporter of public schools and their teachers, I am on the edge of my office chair following the news of the first strike by L.A. Unified School District teachers in 30 years.
Caputo-Pearl’s election was part of a nationwide wave of teacher activism and movement building that hit closest to my then-home in the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012. After witnessing a decade-plus of destructive educational policy making, teacher deskilling and disempowering, and inroads to school privatization, I felt like the Chicago teachers strike saved my life. The Chicago Teachers Union under President Karen Lewis led a united teaching force in a labor action that was supported by a majority of the residents of the city—and a bigger majority of Chicago Public School parents. The strike taught me that resistance to the neoliberal project in education is possible.
And it didn’t just teach me. From the Seattle MAP test boycott to the elections of progressive (dare I say radical?) local (Caputo-Pearl) and state (Barbara Madeloni of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, also in 2014) union presidents, the Chicago teachers’ strike inspired educators around the country to embrace the social organizing model of teachers unions. The wave of activism in teachers is not losing momentum, as evidenced by the past year’s statewide actions by teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Colorado, and Arizona.
However, teachers aren’t the only ones learning these lessons. Significantly resourced pro-privatization forces in Los Angeles spent nearly $10 million to elect a market-friendly Board of Education and have been waging a strategic public opinion battle to frame the striking teachers as selfish and out for their own gain. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel had the advantage of being able to appoint the members of the Chicago school board, in addition to highly supportive media outlets. The L.A. Unified School District should be forewarned that the Chicago Teachers Union emerged victorious from that fight nevertheless.
I haven’t lived in L.A. since 1997, but the metropolitan area is where I started my teaching career in a first-grade classroom in a Mexican immigrant community. I still identify with the public school teachers of greater Los Angeles. In the media photos and images of L.A. teachers on strike today, I recognize the same commitment to children, the same passion for justice and educational equity, of the teachers I worked and studied with over 20 years ago. I am proud that my hometown is the site of the latest instance of teachers standing up and standing together to defend their students and their schools.
A strike isn’t easy for anyone, and it’s a decision that is never taken lightly—yet 98% of L.A. teachers have determined that one is necessary now.Despite the hardships that families and schools will endure, one consolation is that education is not being sacrificed. Students in Los Angeles are learning about participatory democracy and the power of workers in solidarity. During the Chicago teachers strike, a news photo featured a student holding a sign at a demonstration in support of their teachers. It read: “I am in the middle of a lesson.”
Featured Image: Chicago Teachers Strike by Brad Perkins, September 2012. CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.