LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Amid increasing public rhetoric between their union and the school district, Los Angeles Unified teachers will begin casting ballots today in a strike-authorization vote as contract talks await help from a state mediator.
The balloting will continue for a week. If teachers vote in favor, it does not automatically mean a strike will occur. The vote simply authorizes leaders of the union -- United Teachers Los Angeles -- to call for a walkout of labor talks stall.
But the threat of a walkout, and an overwhelming vote by teachers in support of such an action, can be wielded as a major bargaining chip by the union.
UTLA has declared an impasse in contract talks, which have been going on for more than a year, leading to the involvement of a state mediator who will work with both sides in hopes of brokering an agreement. But even the mediation effort has led to increased tension in the talks, with UTLA accusing the district and Superintendent Austin Beutner of dragging its feet and delaying mediation sessions.
“We find it upsetting that the top public employee for LAUSD has tried to dodge the state mediation process, which labor laws are built on, which protects UTLA members, and frankly is the only way to guarantee that the legal rules of bargaining will be followed by someone who brags about breaking rules all the time,” UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said this week.
The union contends it has been ready to meet for mediation this week and into next week, but the district has “refused to meet until Sept. 27.”
The district denies that it is trying to dodge the mediation process, saying it accepted the Sept. 27 date, which was “offered by the Public Employment Relations Board mediators in accordance with California labor law.”
“L.A. Unified remains committed to continue working with UTLA on a fair contract and will begin the mediation process with UTLA to resolve all open contract issues,” according to a district statement issued earlier this week.
While the union has made multiple demands, including calls for reduced class sizes and tougher accountability measures for charter schools, salaries appear to be the most significant pending issue.
The district has offered annual 2 percent raises over three years, along with a one-time 2 percent bonus and a $500 stipend for materials and supplies. The proposed raises are on line with those accepted by other LAUSD employee unions, including the Service Employees International Union and Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, according to the district.
The union, however, is asking for retroactive 6.5 percent salary increases.
“UTLA has pushed for essential improvements to the student learning environment, but Beutner and the board majority have agreed to nothing and proposed nothing,” Caputo-Pearl has said. “This is a district worth saving, even if the leaders of our district do not believe so.”
The district has insisted that the union's contract demands would increase LAUSD's existing $500 million deficit in the current school year by another $813 million. It also claims that the district's existing $1.2 billion reserve fund cannot be used to cover the union demands since it is already being used to offset the existing budget shortfall.
The six members of the LAUSD Board of Education issued a joint statement Tuesday opposing a possible teacher walkout, saying “students and their families will bear the brunt of a strike action.”
“We hope the shared responsibility to put students first will lead to a common-sense resolution that acknowledges the hard work of our employees while addressing the safety and instructional needs of students and the financial solvency of L.A. Unified.”
UTLA's roughly 35,000 members are working under the terms of a labor contract that expired June 30, 2017.