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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

"UTLA got enough money that they bought their headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard," Johnson said.

And the teacher engagement didn't prove as big a hit as Johnson had hoped.

David Tokofsky, a young teacher who walked the picket lines in 1989 and later served three terms on the Board of Education, looks back on his time on school-based management committees as a waste.

"I could have been earning a master's degree and I sat there arguing over small amounts of money," Tokofsky said. "What was disappointing to me as a young teacher in 1989 is the class-size thing just melted away compared to the salary thing."

Though three decades separate that strike from the current one, the underlying grievances, and the hostile rhetoric surrounding them, have hardly changed.

"Desperate, despicable people" was Johnson's epithet for district officials when he told 7,000 teachers at a Sports Arena rally: "They are lying, they are lying, they are lying."

Alex Caputo-Pearl, the current UTLA president, has called Austin Beutner, a businessman who had no experience in school administration before being named superintendent, an out-of-touch millionaire with "an agenda to dismantle the district."

Hardball tactics took all three labor disputes into court. Teachers in 1970 ignored a Superior Court order declaring their strike illegal, ultimately resulting in $12,000 in fines for the union and five of its officers.

The union went to court in 1989 unsuccessfully seeking an order to prevent Britton from withholding pay from teachers who refused to turn in grades.

In the current dispute, the district asked a court, also unsuccessfully, to require special education teachers to continue working during a strike, and the union went to court over the strike start date.

But Kerchner, the Claremont Graduate University historian, sees the background themes of past strikes as greatly magnified today because of changes in the city itself -- no longer a mecca for socially engaged corporate leadership -- and the emergence of charter schools.

"This is a strike about the soul of public education," Kerchner said, calling it a contest between "two prophets" preaching opposite visions.

On the one hand, Caputo-Pearl "has a very clear idea of what he thinks schools in Los Angeles should look like, community schools with wraparound services."

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Beutner, he said, has been "manifestly unclear about his plan, but given who supported him ... making a safe haven for charter schools is much more in his wheelhouse."

For Tokofsky, this debate pits an unrealistic idealist against an unseasoned ideologue with a "lack of reality on both sides."

"There is a lot of anger here that feels different," Tokofsky said.

Johnson also sees the current situation as fundamentally different from the 1989 strike he led.

"UTLA keeps saying publicly it's not about the money," Johnson said in an interview. "With us, it was almost 90 percent about the money."

The mock funeral was a Hail Mary stunt to avoid a strike by getting more money from the state to meet the teachers' demands, he said.

Even without additional state money, teachers got an immediate bump of 16 percent, with another 8 percent the following year, he said. The 1993 pay cut clawed back about half the gain.

Johnson has no regrets.

"I want that on my tombstone," he said.

(c)2019 Los Angeles Times

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