Looming Teachers Strike Brings Political Risk to 2020 Hopeful

If Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti intervenes in the labor dispute, political observers say practically every potential outcome could hurt his future.
by | August 31, 2018
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (AP/Richard Vogel)

Last Updated Sept. 4 at 7:33 a.m. ET

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has all the markers of a rising star in American politics. He won his last election by more than 73 percentage points. Since then, he has traveled to Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina, all four of the early presidential primary states, prompting political observers to believe he will make a run for the White House in 2020.

But a labor dispute between the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the teachers union threatens his popularity. On Friday, teachers in the nation's second-largest school district voted to authorize a strike if negotiations continue to stall.

“There’s nothing more fraught with political risk than a school labor strike,” says Stephen Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis, who now teaches public policy at Harvard University. “It affects a lot of people, and it affects the future of your city indirectly because the schools are the feeder to the future of the city.”

In Los Angeles, unlike Chicago and New York, the mayor has no control over the schools. Garcetti could theoretically sit this one out. But instead, he has offered to referee.

“I will do anything that I can to make sure there is not a strike, or, if a strike is called, to directly intervene in negotiations," he said last week.

If Garcetti intervenes, Goldsmith says practically every potential outcome comes with inherent risks for the mayor's political future. A deal that leaves the district with a fiscal crisis could sully his reputation as a manager. A deal not fully supported by the union could cost him a key constituency.

“I am not sure the benefits to Garcetti’s intervention, for him, outweigh the risks,” Goldsmith says.

Labor tensions have been high this year. Teachers walked out in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia this spring, citing low pay, poor benefits and inadequate education funding. In Oklahoma and West Virginia, statewide strikes lasted two weeks. Last week, teachers in Washington state went on strike, and teachers in Seattle voted to strike at a later date.

In Los Angeles, teachers are demanding a 6.5 percent raise, more guidance counselors and smaller class sizes. Student enrollment is dropping and with it funding has decreased. But teachers are weary of the district’s financial forecast. In early 2017, it predicted a deficit beginning in July of this year. Those estimates have been pushed back twice. Now, the district says it won't run a deficit until fiscal year 2020.

Because the district has in the past claimed to be in financial crisis and then funded faculty and staff raises and met some teacher demands, the district's negotiating strategy may not work this time.

“It seems that the history in L.A. is they have always found the money. So the union says you cried wolf 10 or 15 years ago and you found the money,” says Darline Robles, former superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education and an education professor at the University of Southern California.

Garcetti’s plan to interject in the dispute comes as the relationship between the two sides continues to deteriorate. Last Monday, the teachers union filed an unfair practices charge with the state’s Public Employee Relations Board. It claims the district interfered with the strike vote and failed to provide financial documents crucial to the negotiations. The district fired back less than 24 hours later, filing its own complaint accusing the teachers union of not bargaining in good faith.

Garcetti’s offer to mediate the dispute comes with the support from national education advocacy groups like Great Public Schools Now and from LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner, who was once the mayor’s political rival. (Both men vied for the office in the 2013 mayoral race.)

For its part, the teachers union has balked at Garcetti getting involved in the negotiations. In a statement issued this week, the union said: “We appreciate the Mayor’s offer of assistance with negotiations. ... At this point, UTLA believes the most productive pathway is through what is in the law -- state mediation.”

That sentiment would make any further involvement by Garcetti troublesome for him and the contract talks.

“Both sides, management and labor, have to see the person as someone they respect. It has to be both sides who see this as helpful to negotiations,” says Robles, the education professor. “If they don’t, that third party [Garcetti] is set up for failure.”