L.A. Teachers Union Demands 6.5% Retroactive Pay Raise As Unfunded Liabilities Cripple City Finances

2000UTLA leaders are joined by teachers demanding pay raises and additional hiring. Photo: Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) is on strike for the first time since 1989 over demands for increased pay and the hiring of additional teachers. On January 14, the first day of the strike, only ⅓ of students in the 640,000 student district attended class, thus putting budgets and students’ education on the line as UTLA leaders reject LAUSD’s offer to give teachers a 6% raise and hire another 1,300 teachers. 

UTLA’s wide-ranging demands include a 6.5% pay increase for teachers retroactive to July 2016, the hiring of more teachers and service staff, and greater regulation of  charter schools in Los Angeles.

LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner has publicly stated that many of the demands being asked for by UTLA are unrealistic, due to the financial strain that is put on LAUSD. Superintendent Beutner acknowledges that LAUSD has a rainy day reserve of $2 billion, which, if used, would still fall $3 billion short of UTLA’s new demands, but has already been allocated towards rising healthcare costs and new student services.

California governor Gavin Newsom injected himself into the mix on a Sunday morning interview when he said that he would “avail” himself to assist in the negotiations, but emphasized he would need to be invited by both parties.

Indeed, frustration with the failures of long-struggling LAUSD schools has driven parents to increasingly choose to send their kids to charter schools, which now has the teachers’ union worrying about how to preserve their rapidly dwindling influence; having more staff members and teachers would replenish depleted ranks of dues paying members and thereby grant the UTLA greater leverage in future discussions. Supreme Court rulings like Janus v. AFSCME continue to erode union dominance, leaving local groups with no choice but to use any means necessary to keep their grip on power.

As unfunded liabilities continue to balloon out of control, cities are forced to cut back on benefits and be more effective in their negotiations with public sector unions; what is happening in Los Angeles is but one episode in a national movement to preserve union power.

Mayor Garcetti of Los Angeles, a potential presidential candidate for 2020,  must perform a balancing act between organized labor and governance. Labor, and especially the teachers’ union, is among the most vocal constituencies in the Democratic party, and for Garcetti to have any shot at being the Democratic presidential nominee, he will need their support. In an early morning tweet, fellow California Democrat and likely primary opponent Senator Kamala Harris voiced her wholehearted support for UTLA; regardless of the outcome, Garcetti is undergoing a critical moment in his political career.

Do not expect Mr. Beutner to cave in as long as union demands put at risk LAUSD’s finances, which is already at its breaking point due to rising healthcare costs and unfunded liabilities. However, there is some potential for this standoff to be settled at the state level, where governor Newsom has proposed a record $81 billion budget for education, including $2 billion for municipal districts in return for additional state control.

Mayor Garcetti, Superintendent Beutner, and Governor Newsom all seem ready to strike a deal, but is the union willing to play ball? UTLA must put its students and the district first, or otherwise risk leaving a district where 80% of students qualify for free lunch with no education, and no future.

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