In the wake of Los Angeles schools Supt. Bill Anton's sudden resignation, some fingers are pointing again at the district's influential teachers union and its high-profile tactics to stop proposed record pay cuts.
Anton, the second superintendent in as many years to leave the district after repeated hammering by United Teachers-Los Angeles, says one of the chief reasons behind his decision was interference by the union in board policy-making and district management. Critics of UTLA's president, Helen Bernstein, citing her vociferous pledge early last month to "do anything we can to stop" the double-digit pay cuts proposed for district employees, are reinvigorating a longstanding debate over whether the union exerts too much power in the nation's second-largest school system.
Anton "just could not function . . . with four board members who are backed by UTLA calling the shots," said Barbara Boudreaux, who won election to the seven-member Board of Education last year against a UTLA-backed candidate. She referred to board members Warren Furutani, Jeff Horton, Julie Korenstein and Mark Slavkin, all of whom gained office with UTLA's help but who have repeatedly challenged accusations they are controlled by it.
"If we were that powerful, we wouldn't be facing the largest pay cut in the nation," said Bernstein, whose union represents about 35,000 teachers, school nurses, counselors and librarians--more than half of the district's full-time employees.
UTLA's techniques--including threats to strike, calls for Anton's ouster and a Labor Day demonstration that tied up traffic around Los Angeles International Airport for hours--have brought the enmity of some parents, community leaders and other district employees.
On Wednesday, the day after Anton blasted the union in a news conference to discuss his resignation, Sal Castro, a longtime UTLA member, said he and other Latino teachers are considering dropping out of the union and forming their own group because of perceived "anti-Hispanic bias by a white-dominated organization."
Anton was the first Latino in modern times to lead the 86% minority district. UTLA, which counts several minorities in its leadership, has denied the union is racist.
"When Helen went after Bill like she did, it reminded us of the old Texas rangers who went out to shoot all the Mexicans in sight," said Castro, a counselor and teacher at Belmont High School.
On Tuesday, Boudreaux called for the recall of every board member, including herself, if Anton is not dissuaded from going through with his resignation.
The rancor among various school factions stands in stark contrast to what is going on in other districts around the country. While large numbers of teachers started the fall semester this year without contracts, and strikes have accompanied the back-to-school bell in about two dozen districts, the vast majority of America's schools are enjoying a period of labor peace.
Bernstein is right when she claims no other school district in America is asking its teachers to take such deep cuts (as much as 17.5%), according to the nation's two major teachers organizations--the National Education Assn. and the American Federation of Teachers. Despite the sluggish economy that has cut into school budgets in many states, the vast majority of districts are freezing salaries or giving modest increases, says NEA Vice President Bob Chase. While a few are proposing pay cuts ranging from 1% to 5%, "Los Angeles gets the prize as far as what's being asked" of its employees, said AFT President Albert Shanker.
So far this year, teachers in 23 districts--in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois, Montana, Rhode Island and Vermont--have gone on strike, according to the NEA, which regularly tracks teachers union activities around the country. The biggest is in Detroit, where a judge on Wednesday ordered 10,500 teachers, on the picket lines since Sept. 1, to go back to work.
About the same number of strikes took place last year, but far fewer than the peak of 218 recorded in 1975, about the time collective bargaining laws for teachers were gaining wide acceptance.
Linda Babcock, professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said the adversarial relationship between management and labor in private industry does not work well for school districts, cities and other public agencies.
"That is exactly where they went wrong, to have the model from the private sector where you have an adversarial relationship," Babcock said. She noted many districts are experimenting with a technique commonly known as "win-win" negotiations, in which both sides try to identify some common interests and goals. Teachers, for example, might be willing to have more say in how the schools are run in exchange for little or no salary increase.
"But it won't work if the (primary) issue is salary; then there is nothing to trade off," Babcock said.