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The recent teachers strike in Los Angeles was resolved on terms that have generally been regarded as a victory for the teachers against the embattled Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The LAUSD is financially strapped because of ever heavier pension obligations for retired teachers and high operating expenses. Nonetheless, the LAUSD capitulated to the demands of the teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). It agreed to a 6% pay raise for the teachers to be phased in over two years, and class size was reduced by two students per class. The District also vowed to beef up its employee base by hiring 300 nurses, 82 librarians, and 17 counselors by 2020.
LA mayor Eric Garcetti, who has higher political ambitions, crowed: “When we see a problem, we fix it.” AFT President Randi Weingarten noted optimistically, “Everything teachers are demanding would strengthen public schools.” Going out on strike, she said, was about “ensuring that all public schools have the conditions they need for student success.” But those remarks, as Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal notes, must be taken with a large gain of salt, for self-interest offers a better explanation of the AFT’s strategy than its supposed altruism. The AFT thought that its gambit was worthwhile for its members, but a closer look at the settlement shows that in the long-run, the union teachers got less than they hoped for, while everyone else lost big time.
The initial sticking point is the interim costs—none of which are recoverable—that stemmed from the shutdown of the school system for six days. The teachers took a big salary hit—about $2,250 in wage losses per teacher, or three percent of salary. The District lost around $100 million because state funding is tightly tied to the days that students are in school. The teachers were willing to roll the dice because they thought that their losses would be offset by long-term gains, but that outcome depends on their political ability to persuade the California legislature to raise taxes to fund the expensive settlement, which given the state’s tricky financial condition is far from certain.