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Teachers Paid to Walk Off the Job?

The United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) union contract negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) have broken down. UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl called the contract offer from the school district “unacceptable.”

As such, the UTLA made good on its promise to strike starting on Monday. It has been reported that about 30,000 union members walked off the job, which disrupts the education of nearly 500,000 students.

Similar to the demands of teachers unions in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Arizona, where teachers staged massive walkouts in 2018, the UTLA wants pay raises and greater education funding. Despite the LAUSD facing an operating deficit of $500 million this year, the school district offered the union a 3 percent raise this year and retroactive 3 percent pay raise for last year. It also proposed spending $75 million to cut down on class size and hire more school support staff.

On the other hand, Caputo-Pearl suggests at least $200 million is needed to actually reduce class-size. Further, the UTLA wants teachers an immediate 6.5 percent raise, made retroactive for one year.

Though teachers have gone on strike in several states recently, this immediate instance is a little different. California is one of twelve states that permits teacher strikes, so there are no legal barriers to walking off the job. In addition, teachers in California, and in the LASUD, earnings are much higher than in Arizona, West Virginia, and Oklahoma, where we have seen teachers strike. In California, annual mean wage is $74,940 and $75,000 in the LAUSD. In comparison, the average wage for an Oklahoma teacher is $42,460.

Another difference from the past strikes is that the UTLA is making the focus of its public messaging about shrinking class-sizes rather than the pay increase it is demanding. This is all well and good, but the LAUSD can use this to its advantage during negotiations.

In the current collective bargaining agreement between the UTLA and LAUSD, the union is granted a significant amount of release time, or paid time off to perform a variety of union business. According to the contract, release time may be used for contract negotiations, general UTLA business, grievances and arbitration procedures, union meetings, among other activity.

While a numerical figure is unavailable for the cost of release time in the LAUSD, other large cities and counties the cost can amount to millions of dollars per year. A sticking point in collective bargaining for the LAUSD should be to eliminate release time. If the top priority of the UTLA is to decrease class size, it should stop negotiating provisions that permit teachers to leave the classroom to perform union business on the taxpayer dime.

The school district should also be aware that during the Oklahoma teachers strike release time was granted. As I wrote in the Oklahoman:

The Competitive Enterprise Institute sent a public records request to Oklahoma City Public Schools asking for union leave records. Below is the response in its entirety:

On the advice of the General Counsel, under the Open Records Act you are only entitled to receive a summary report of the total amount of leave taken by each union's members. Names or salaries will not be provided since those are considered personnel records. Below you will find the total number of hours of union leave reported for the last school year.

American Federation of Teachers (certified) — 20,116 hours (attributed heavily to the teacher walkout in the spring)

American Federation of Teachers (classified) — 50 hours

American Federation of School Administrators — 40 hours

Due to the limited response, it is impossible to calculate the cost of union leave taken by Oklahoma City teachers to go on strike, but it likely was not cheap.

Ultimately, public-sector unions should put their money where their mouth is. If teachers' unions are concerned with a lack of education funding and large class-size, then they should not bargain for provisions that take teachers out of the classroom to perform union business and waste taxpayer funds. In addition, under no circumstance should any school district provide a union with release time while a strike is ongoing.