Will Los Angeles Teachers’ Strike Boost Labor Movement?

 

By Toni Vranjes February 22, 2019
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​Thousands of Los Angeles teachers went on strike in January, protesting working conditions that they described as intolerable. Now there are mixed views on whether the strike will have long-term ramifications for the labor movement.

The six-day strike centered partly on wages, but the teachers said it had more to do with improving conditions for students, which they said could be achieved by reducing class sizes and adding more support staff, among other steps.

On Jan. 22, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and the Los Angeles Unified School District announced a deal to end the strike. The union didn't get everything it wanted, but it did gain some notable victories. The district agreed to raise pay, cut class sizes, and hire more librarians, counselors and nurses.

While some attorneys expect that the success of the strike will help strengthen unions in California and nationwide, others predict it won't have much of an impact.

According to lawyers who represent labor unions, the strike might help counteract the U.S. Supreme Court's 2018 decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which held that nonunion members in the public sector can't be forced to pay union fees—a ruling that could significantly reduce revenue for labor unions.

The successful outcome of the Los Angeles teachers' strike could motivate other workers to join unions, according to union-side attorneys. The strike also shows that solidarity works, which could help with union organizing efforts, they added.

Nevertheless, management-side lawyers said the dispute is unlikely to have a significant effect on the labor movement. In their view, the issues involved in the teachers' strike probably won't resonate with other types of workers.

Mandatory Fees

Some collective bargaining agreements include an "agency shop" provision that requires bargaining-unit employees to either join a union or pay fees to cover certain expenses.

In Janus, the Supreme Court outlawed these mandatory agency fees in the public sector, holding that they violate workers' First Amendment rights. Although the ruling applies to the public sector only, 28 states have right-to-work laws prohibiting unions and private-sector employers from mandating such fees.

Unions must represent all workers in the bargaining unit, regardless of whether they are dues-paying members. So dues payments are crucial for unions in providing the economic resources to achieve labor's goals, according to Howard Rosen, a union attorney with Rosen Marsili Rapp in Los Angeles. While the Janus decision is seen as weakening the labor movement, the Los Angeles teachers' strike is viewed as strengthening it, he said.

The strike sends a broader message: If there's solidarity, then workers can achieve their goals, he said. He expects that the strike will motivate other workers to join unions.

"Now that they see what UTLA was able to accomplish, they might say they want to be a union member," he added.

The Los Angeles labor dispute may inspire more employees to join unions, and it will help with organizing efforts, said Arthur Liou, a union attorney with Leonard Carder in Oakland, Calif. "I do think it's one that demonstrates in a very significant way how workers going on strike can result in big wins."

Limited Reach?

Some management-side lawyers said the issues that dominated the Los Angeles teachers' strike are unlikely to resonate with other types of public-sector workers or workers in the private sector.

The teachers' message was about helping students, which is difficult to translate to other types of workers, said Mark Theodore, a management attorney with Proskauer in Los Angeles.

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Also, public support for a strike may decline the longer it lasts, he said. As time goes by, tensions may grow, and community members may become increasingly frustrated and inconvenienced. Although strikes can be powerful tools, there are limits to how useful they can be, he added.

Thirty-four percent of public-sector workers in the U.S. are union members, compared to 6.4 percent of private-sector workers, according to 2018 data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The California teachers' strike is unlikely to significantly change these numbers in either the public or private sector, according to Jason Kearnaghan, a management-side attorney with Sheppard Mullin in Los Angeles.

"This was an event that received a lot of publicity, but I don't think it's going to move the needle too much with respect to the trends we've seen."

But Liou said the Los Angeles teachers' strike focused on broad goals to help the community, and in his view, this message can be translated to other labor groups. To be successful, unions must connect their demands to broader political issues, such as alleviating inequality and providing access to health care, he said.

"An important lesson for unions is to emphasize that type of message that will resonate with the broader community," Liou added.

Toni Vranjes is a freelance business writer in San Pedro, Calif.

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