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More Than 30,000 LAUSD Teachers Will Decide This Month If They Want To Strike

Members of United Teachers Los Angeles -- the union representing Los Angeles Unified School District teachers -- hold a protest outside district headquarters on June 14, 2016. (File photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)
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The union representing more than 30,000 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District has already taken one significant step toward a strike. Now, it's poised to take another.

Members of United Teachers Los Angeles will begin voting on Aug. 23 whether to authorize the union's leadership to call a strike, if necessary, this fall. UTLA's president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, announced plans for the vote at a gathering of more than 700 campus-based union leaders this week.

"We as chapter leaders, at this defining moment, must lead our co-workers in an overwhelming 'yes' vote," Caputo-Pearl said in a speech. "Can we do this?" he called, prompting applause and audible responses of "Yes!"

The voting will begin nine days after more than 480,000 students in LAUSD-run schools return to class. If the rank-and-file approves, the union's bargaining team would be empowered to call the first teacher strike in the district since 1989.

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UTLA members -- which also include the district's nurses, psychologists and librarians -- have been working without a contract for more than a year.

Contract talks have dragged on for more than 18 months, with both sides accusing the other of refusing to negotiate on key issues, such as teacher salaries, student testing and class sizes. Last week, the union's bargaining team finally said negotiations on a new contract with L.A. Unified had reached an "impasse."

That formal declaration got a state labor relations board involved. The two sides have already begun a mediation process.

Technically, UTLA had already declared impasse once before: on July 2, union leaders said their differences with the district were irreconcilable. But just one week later, union leaders reversed themselves and returned to the bargaining table one last time.

We're not likely to see a similar about-face this time. On July 24, UTLA leaders gave the district their "last, best and final" contract proposal.

L.A. Unified officials said those proposals were unworkable. In a July 26 letter, the district's top labor negotiator said UTLA's final offer would increase the district's deficit by more than $813 million and cost more than $2.9 billion over the life of the agreement.

The district's letter did not explicitly say UTLA leadership is already dead-set on a strike, but it comes close. "UTLA leadership began talking about a possible strike ... well before any negotiations on this contract began," the letter said, "and has continued to talk about a strike throughout the bargaining process."

Caputo-Pearl said any suggestion the union isn't interested in reaching a deal isn't true.

"We want an agreement. We've wanted an agreement from the beginning," Caputo-Pearl said by phone Wednesday.

However, he added, "we are intent on getting an agreement that will not just narrowly be good for educators, but that actually improves the district ... We increasingly believe that the district doesn't want an agreement that improves the district."

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Caputo-Pearl also said LAUSD can afford the union's contract demands and cast doubt on the district's warnings that its budgets are plummeting into deficit.

LAUSD officials, Caputo-Pearl said, have "consistently talked about falling off a fiscal cliff, and then a couple years later, have their projections off to the tune of a billion dollars. There's money there to make movement on these items. We need it for the kids."

The week-long strike authorization vote will close on Aug. 30.

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