LAUSD Teacher Contract Talks Almost Fell Apart At The Last Minute. Here's What Saved Them

Mayor Eric Garcetti (center) speaks at L.A. City Hall, flanked by LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner (right) and United Teachers Los Angeles union president Alex Caputo-Pearl (left) after the announcement of a tentative contract agreement with the L.A. Unified School District on Tues., Jan. 22, 2019. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

It was about 5 a.m. Tuesday morning and the deal was falling apart.

Striking teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District were about to begin their sixth morning on picket lines. To avoid a seventh day of the strike, the bargaining teams for LAUSD and United Teachers Los Angeles had to work fast.

But they'd left the toughest issues for last, and an agreement on class-size reduction was eluding them — just as it had for almost two years of failed talks.

They'd been up all night, going in circles, when UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said his team decided around 5 a.m. to walk away from talks — not "forever," Caputo-Pearl said. They just needed a break.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti had been up all night, too. His office had been hosting the talks at City Hall. Caputo-Pearl told the mayor his team was about to walk out. Garcetti asked him to reconsider, but the union leader insisted and Garcetti went away.

Five minutes later, the mayor returned, saying he'd just spoken with LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner.

"[Garcetti] said Beutner was going to give us what we wanted," Caputo-Pearl recalled.

The sticking point was a "safety valve" provision in the contract that gave LAUSD officials broad, unilateral authority to increase class sizes to solve budget problems. The district wasn't willing to give up the safety valve. UTLA refused to sign a deal with that safety valve still in place.

That morning, Caputo-Pearl said Beutner agreed to remove the class-size safety valve from the contract completely — a huge union victory. In exchange, UTLA gave up its fight to improve the district's salary offer.

(Garcetti was unavailable to speak with KPCC/LAist Thursday to personally confirm Caputo-Pearl's account, but the mayor told a similar story to The New York Times.)

In any event, only four hours later, the mayor, UTLA and LAUSD announced a tentative contract agreement.

BECOMING THE BACKCHANNEL

The last-minute drama sheds new light on how hard-won Tuesday's deal was for both the district and teachers union. But the moment also illustrates how central a role Garcetti and his staff played, not only in brokering crucial compromises, but in ensuring that UTLA and LAUSD simply kept talking through an arduous negotiation.

Garcetti offered to assist in the teachers union talks back in August, citing his experience mediating during the 2015 strike by workers at west coast ports. Garcetti said, in his experience, when labor talks go sour, the two parties usually deputize lower-level officials to keep lines of communication open.

But through December, Garcetti said he was "very surprised how little communication was going on" between LAUSD and UTLA. It wasn't just that leaders on both sides weren't talking anymore; it seemed there weren't even any backchannels open between lower-level deputies.

"Most of the dialogue was happening publicly," Garcetti told KPCC/LAist in an interview this week. "In my experience, you can't build a relationship and you can't negotiate the details of a labor contract in the press."

THE GROUND RULES

The process of detoxifying the LAUSD-UTLA negotiations began at City Hall last Thursday, when the two sides agreed to resume formal talks for the first time since the strike began. By that time, teachers union members had been out of work for four days.

Caputo-Pearl, Beutner and Garcetti met first. At that time, the mayor laid down the ground rules: respect confidentiality, no surprises, stay positive.

"I said, 'I want a commitment,'" Garcetti recalled saying, "'that no matter how bad things get while we're here we are going to finish this. Unless something so sinful is done that you have to walk away — go breathe, go vent, yell at me if you need to, but get back to the table.'"


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HOW IT ALL WORKED

Officials from all three camps — the union, school district and mayor's office — gave corroborating accounts of how the City Hall talks proceeded.

After the three top leaders met, the full bargaining teams gathered in a large room with dark wood paneling in the mayoral suite.

At this point, Caputo-Pearl said, UTLA presented a counter-offer to LAUSD's offer from a week earlier — in essence, the first formal revision to its bargaining package the union had introduced since last July.

During this meeting, the mayor's staff also encouraged LAUSD officials to draft substantive responses to several UTLA demands it had previously rejected out of hand.

SHUTTLE DIPLOMACY

Only once more during the five-day talks would the full bargaining teams be in the same room. Most of the negotiations took place in smaller, breakout groups, with each working through specific issues.

Here, the role of the mayor and his staff became critical. At times, the negotiations were carried out with UTLA's team in one conference room and LAUSD's negotiators in another — and the mayor's staff running "shuttle diplomacy," taking offers back and forth between the two sides.

Often, this shuttle diplomacy essentially ran directly through the mayor himself, according to Matt Szabo, the mayor's deputy chief of staff who served as Garcetti's point-person on the LAUSD-UTLA talks.

Garcetti personally led the talks from Sunday on, and Caputo-Pearl and Beutner rarely met without the mayor present.

The mayor "was a consistent presence," Beutner said in an interview with KPCC's Take Two on Thursday.

Often, Garcetti would pull either the union's leader or the superintendent aside to encourage a breakthrough — as Caputo-Pearl said the mayor did on Tuesday morning.

"The mayor and his staff were very helpful," Caputo-Pearl said Thursday. "It let us get deep into the policy and deep into the contract."

FINDING THE FUNDING

The agreement the two sides struck hinges on a "leap of faith" Garcetti had encouraged: LAUSD should meet some of UTLA's most costly demands, the mayor said, even if the two sides didn't yet know where all of the funding would come from.

"If people don't see improvements, people don't feel improvements," Garcetti said he told them. You're all going to be fighting for years to come over declining enrollment ... and schools falling apart."

On Thursday, Beutner said he and Caputo-Pearl spent significant amounts of time during the City Hall talks together lobbying state and local leaders for more funding.

"Both Alex and I individually and together were talking to [Governor Gavin Newsom] and his team on a regular basis," Beutner said. "Folks in county supervisor offices, state legislatures — it was a lot of people engaged to help us find a resolution because all of us understood the consequence."

After the the near-meltdown at 5 a.m. on Tuesday, the three parties emerged from the City Hall talks committed to finding the funding necessary to make the deal work.

But LAUSD and mayoral officials have said explicitly that if a new revenue stream is not in place by 2020, it will be difficult to realize some of the new contract's most expensive provisions at the start of the 2021 school year.

Caputo-Pearl, though, said he's sure the deal "can be paid for."

"Our numbers say that it can be paid for — and Austin Beutner agreed to it," the UTLA leader said, "so it can be paid for."

Beutner has been publicly professing his optimism about finding the funding. But when asked Thursday what will happen if new revenues don't materialize, Beutner tried to maintain that positive outlook.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."