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Head Of L.A. Teachers Union Discusses Ongoing Strike


In Los Angeles, the rain keeps falling and teachers keep marching.








SHAPIRO: It's day three of a teachers strike in the second largest school district in the U.S. Yesterday, we heard from Nick Melvoin, vice president of the LA school board.


NICK MELVOIN: You know, we're at the table with an empty chair on the other side. We are talking to the mayor. We're talking to the governor and his staff and asking for all the support that we can get to bring the union back to the table.

SHAPIRO: Today, I put that to Alex Caputo-Pearl. He's president of United Teachers Los Angeles. He told me the union has lost faith in school superintendent Austin Beutner.

ALEX CAPUTO-PEARL: The fact is that we're very willing to bargain, and we actually initiated conversations with the mayor to help us make sure that Beutner does actually show up to bargaining or send members of his team who can make decisions. And we think that we'll be in bargaining soon.

SHAPIRO: Everybody's saying they wish this strike didn't have to happen. But in the past, you've called on the union to get ready for a strike, to create a crisis, to be a shock to the system. Can you really say that you have tried everything in negotiation and that this is a last resort?

CAPUTO-PEARL: We absolutely have. We have been bargaining for 21 months. We would like to have a partner in the bargaining and actually reach an agreement. And we've wanted that over the course of those almost two years. What I was referring to is that big, urban, public education systems like Los Angeles are in a constant crisis. It's just a quiet crisis of 46 students in a classroom, 39 students in a classroom at elementary school, 80 percent of schools without a full-time nurse, not enough counselors. It's a quiet crisis that affects kids. And my point in those statements was that we have to organize and actually make that crisis public. And if that means that we need to try everything we can but then legally strike to make sure that we get what kids need, then we'll have to do that.

SHAPIRO: As you well know, this is a very poor school district. More than 80 percent of kids qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Everyone seems to be saying they're acting in the interests of the kids here. But with each day that the strike goes on, these students are not getting regular education. Ultimately, isn't this harming children day by day?

CAPUTO-PEARL: What's harming children is decades of neglect. And frankly, the strategy of the privatizers to - I mean, look at what's happened in LA over the last 10 years. You've got federal IDEA funding and federal Title I funding for special education and low-income kids underfunded. And then at the local level, you have billionaires who are promoting that we not fund our schools and instead privatize them to create a parallel system that does not serve special education students, that does not serve students who have chronic problems.

SHAPIRO: So ultimately, are you making a calculation that causing students short-term pain through this teacher strike is worth it for the long-term benefits that you hope to get out of it?

CAPUTO-PEARL: I'm not just making that calculation. We have been overwhelmed with the amount of support from students, from parents, on picket lines in our actions. And we've had over 50,000 people marching in downtown Los Angeles over the last two days. This is not just us making that calculation. This is the city of LA making that calculation that enough is enough. And if we have to disrupt things for a little bit of time to take care of a decade of neglect, then that's what we're going to do.

SHAPIRO: Well - and then the question is how much time? You've talked about making a hidden crisis visible, creating a shock to the system. Certainly, both of those things are happening this week. How long does it need to go on?

CAPUTO-PEARL: Well, we're working with the mayor to reinitiate bargaining. And we are serious about that and are going to try to reach an agreement as quickly as we can. But what we're not going to do is short shrift some of these key things that have been causing this crisis to public schools over the last years.

SHAPIRO: Alex Caputo-Pearl, thank you for joining us today.

CAPUTO-PEARL: Thanks a lot for having me.

SHAPIRO: He's head of the LA teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.