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LA Unified teachers went on strike in 1970, 1989. The gains sometimes didn't last

Doug Smith, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

But the district's funding problems grew worse as Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax reduction measure, cut into the primary source of local school funding.

Proposition 98, a teacher-backed initiative approved by voters a decade later, set minimum levels of state funding.

But the measure turned out to be a ceiling, not a floor, said Wayne Johnson, the fiery UTLA president who launched the 1989 strike.

"Education, unfortunately, has deteriorated to a terrible level in this city," Johnson said during the strike, decrying "a badly underfinanced school system that suffers from a 40 percent dropout rate, overcrowded classrooms and shortages of school books and other supplies."

The 1989 strike proved to be another contest for public opinion. In the run-up, the union provoked student protests by announcing that teachers would not file grades with the district.

The district and then-Superintendent Leonard Britton overreacted by docking the pay of teachers who boycotted unpaid duties such as playground supervision and after-school meetings. Johnson successfully used media coverage to portray the union as the underdog.

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Britton was a respected administrator who was sympathetic to the teachers' goal of shared decision-making. But he did not understand that the politics of the district "was no longer that of an 'all-powerful superintendent' who was a benefactor of a comparatively weak teachers union," researcher Stephanie Clayton concluded in a 2008 analysis of the strike for Claremont Graduate University.

Demonstrations by teachers and students, some degenerating into rock-throwing by students, helped turn the tide toward the teachers.

The 1989 victory, like its precursor 19 years earlier, proved fragile. As the recession of the early 1990s plunged LAUSD into the red, teachers faced a 10 percent pay cut at the end of the contract.

A more far-reaching gain involved district politics. Elections shortly after the strike seated a union-friendly majority on the school board that added agency fees to the contract, allowing UTLA to collect dues from all teachers until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the practice in 2008.

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