Here's What Happened The Last Time LAUSD Teachers Went On Strike

Thousands of L.A. school teachers bearing placards and bad feelings demonstrate for pay raises outside district headquarters. Union leaders threatened an "alley fight" and strongly hinted of a strike unless agreement is reached by Feb. 3, 1989. (Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

It's the first day of the strike for Los Angeles Unified School District's teaching staff. And while they're picketing, hundreds of thousands of students are showing up to school, unsure of what their school day will entail or how long it will be before their teachers are back in the classroom.

But it's not the district's first strike. The teachers who picketed 30 years ago and the students who watched them from inside the classrooms remember a chaotic and stressful two weeks.

WALKING THE LINE IN '89

Teacher Gail Craven remembers what it was like to walk the line in 1989. At the time, she was new to the district, in her early 30s, and seven months pregnant with her second son. She taught first grade at Colfax Elementary in Valley Village.

"I remember it feeling so strange to be outside, and see the kids walking to school and their faces," she said.

Three decades later, she's still teaching there - fifth grade now - but she's not looking forward to the strike any more this time around.

"It was still very stressful; it was something you wanted to end quickly," she said. "[But] we felt like we accomplished something."

Eileen Ramirez stands in her classroom at North Hollywood High School. She taught here during the last LAUSD strike in 1989. (Photo courtesy of Eileen Ramirez)

Eileen Ramirez had been teaching at North Hollywood High School for ten years when she walked out. She's retired now, but this strike feels like déjà vu to her: last time, she was the one doing the striking. This time, it will be the little girl who came with her, who's now a teacher herself.

"I brought my daughter, and pushed her in the stroller. She'll be in the same situation and pushing her daughter in the stroller."

But like Craven, she said last time the fight was simple. And after nine days, it had a happy ending: "It came down to salary, and it was over 20 percent raise so that was pretty nice. It felt like we won."


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More than 20,000 teachers walked out in the last strike. It lasted nine days, and UTLA remembers it as a "huge victory." The teachers got the raise they wanted, their yard supervision duties were reduced, and they won better medical benefits for retired teachers.

But from inside the campuses, students don't remember such a noble fight.

Carmen Romero, who teaches at South Gate High School today, was a sophomore at Bell at the time. She said the first day was chaos.

"When the strike came... it came all of a sudden. The next day the teachers were out picketing. We were sent to the auditoriums some part of the day, we were sent to the gym some part of the day."

Under walkout threats, the students were allowed to march with the teachers during breaks, as long as they came back inside. By the second day, she said the campus resembled a ghost town.

Carmen Romero says during the strike, she'll split time between picketing at her place of work as a teacher, and at her four daughters' schools as a parent. (Photo courtesy of Carmen Romero)

Virginia Escamilla was part of that exodus. She was a freshman at Eagle Rock who walked out on day one, and talked to a TV crew about her support for teachers.

"I distinctly remember calling home from a public phone and telling my mom, 'just so you know I walked out of school, and I might show up on a Spanish speaking news program.'"

And later that night, she did.

THE KIDS ARE MORE INVOLVED

Craven said the students in her class are revved up for the strike, and are asking questions. But 30 years ago, she said she was reluctant to go into the nitty-gritty details of the situation with her class.

"My conversations with my students are different this time," she said. "I'm more comfortable having frank conversations with my students."

She says that's because of the changes in the world her students are living in.

"It's so different now because of social media. That didn't exist in '89. So the conversations, the access to information, you want the kids to really know the truth of what's happening."

But Ramirez said social media has also given teachers more support than they could've hoped for 30 years ago.

Samantha Sher Dorf says her children are more involved in this strike than she was as a student during the last one. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Sher Dorf)

"I really, truly believe that the parents' support [is] making a tremendous difference. I can't even quantify it."

Samantha Sher Dorf is one of those parents. When she was in fifth grade, she said her classmates didn't understand what the strike was about. But that's not true of her kids this time.

"They will not be in school, they've already created their signs," she said. "They're informed and they're following all of this in 1st and 3rd grade in a way that I didn't in 5th grade."

THERE'S MORE AT STAKE

The students and teachers who spoke to LAist/KPCC about their experiences in 1989 didn't remember much more about the strike than its focus on teacher pay. The consensus is that this time around, it's a different story.

"I believe very strongly that there's much more at stake," said Ramirez. "Now I feel that these poor teachers are fighting for the district, for public education in Los Angeles... and I'm worried that the district is willing to wait out the teachers until it breaks the union."

In this strike, UTLA is asking for salary raises, but it's also asking for smaller class sizes and more staff at schools, like librarians and school nurses.

Ramirez said before she retired a few years ago, she remembers being taught how to use an epipen on her students and how to freeze wet paper towels because there was no money for full-time school nurses and ice packs.

As a teacher, Romero is worried about the class sizes. But as a parent, she said the schools need nurses.

"My daughter broke her wrist... and there was no nurse. They were holding her arm until I got there. They didn't even have the supplies for a splint."

Virginia Escamilla stands with her husband at a rally before the teachers strike. (Photo courtesy of Hugo Albuja)

But beyond staffing and class sizes, there's the issue of charter schools as well. Escamilla says that creates a new threat of the school system being at risk.

"It's a bigger situation. It's really undermining what is accessible to all families right now, and back in '89, the charter school system was not an issue, and the whole issue of moving toward privatization is a big element right now."

Craven said the expansion of charters coupled with developing technology makes teachers feel dispensable. She's upset that 30 years later, the union and the district seem more divided than ever before.

"It's very frustrating that it's gotten to this point again, that we actually have to strike again... because it should be all about the kids."

Craven said she would never dare cross the picket line. But 30 years ago, nine days without pay was doable. This time, she's terrified of losing her paycheck.

Teachers gather at LAUSD headquarters in preparation for a demonstration march on Jan. 11, 1989. (Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

But teachers and parents think it could take weeks this time.

"I do feel this strike is incredibly unpredictable. I foresee this going long, at least a week if not more," Escamilla said. "And I'm worried. I'm worried that prolonging the length of the strike might backfire."

Sher Dorf said that's because this time, both sides aren't open to negotiating.

"In 1989, they at least came to the table... there wasn't as far to come," she said. "It'll take longer this time around."

Correction: A previous version of this story spelled Gail Craven's name wrong. LAist regrets the error.


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