“The Union Has to Be About Social Justice”

Cecily Myart-Cruz

Incoming LA teachers' union president Cecily Myart-Cruz was a leader of the city’s landmark 2019 strike. Now she explains why it’s important to get police out of schools and what the labor movement can do about it.

Black Lives Matter – Los Angeles supporters protest outside the Unified School District headquarters, calling on the Board of Education to defund school police, on June 23, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

Interview by
Meagan Day

When United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) went on strike in January of 2019, Cecily Myart-Cruz was a vice president of the union. Now she’s been elected president, and will assume her post on July 1 — amid a global coronavurus pandemic and unprecedented social unrest catalyzed by the police murder of George Floyd. Myart-Cruz, who will be the first woman of color to lead the union in its fifty-year history, is determined to carry on the organization’s legacy of social movement unionism, connecting traditional bread-and-butter issues to the political advancement of the whole multiracial working class.

In the lead-up to the 2019 strike, Myart-Cruz and other UTLA leaders, who had begun an effort to reform the union several years earlier, stressed the importance of bargaining for the common good. In practice, what this meant is that instead of restricting their demands to teachers’ wages and benefits, they broadened them to include reforms that would directly improve the lives of students and the broader community. One of these demands was an end to random searches of students, which tended to criminalize young black and Latino students, acting as a valve into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Given this recent history, it’s no surprise that UTLA has responded to this most recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests by eagerly joining in. Earlier this month, the union published a statement titled “Imagine Police-Free Schools With the Supports Students Deserve.” It advanced a new central demand, appropriate for the gravity of the moment: to entirely disband the Los Angeles School Police, which is its own Department. The statement read:

As the Board of Directors of UTLA, an ethnically and racially diverse body, we believe that we do not need armed police roaming our halls, we need counselors who are provided with resources, nurses with sufficient medical supplies, and librarians with enough books. That is why we voted to call for the elimination of the LAUSD school police budget and redirect resources to student needs, with a particular focus on the needs of Black students.

Several proposals to disband the school police were voted down at a school board meeting this past week, but Myart-Cruz says the fight isn’t over. Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to the incoming president of UTLA about the recent protests, social movement unionism, and how the union is also preparing for an upcoming political battle to tax California’s corporations.

Meagan Day

Are you as surprised as I am that we’re seeing mass social unrest and protests against racism and police violence in the middle of a global pandemic?

Cecily Myart-Cruz

It’s like a volcano. It seems to be dormant, but something’s bubbling and rumbling under the surface. And then the murder of George Floyd happens. We’re in a pandemic, nobody’s out at the farmer’s market, everyone is watching it happen online. It takes you back to Tamir Rice, it takes you back to Philando Castile, and all the others. And suddenly it’s an explosion, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere.

Still, of course I’m surprised. If you asked Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza if there would be Black Lives Matter protests in Krakow, Poland in 2020, the answer would obviously be no. We have protests all around the world, and here at home we have more and more people who are willing to do more than just wear a shirt that says “Black Lives Matter” on it, who are willing to do the work.

Meagan Day

One example of that work is organizing to disband the LA School Police. UTLA joined several community and student groups in pushing this demand in the first weeks of the protest. I heard you all just had a setback at the school board meeting yesterday. What happened?

Cecily Myart-Cruz

There were three competing motions brought before the school board. None of them really got at exactly what UTLA is proposing, which is to completely disband and eliminate the school police. The motion that UTLA felt got closest was one put forward by Monica Garcia to cut ninety percent of the school police’s funding over a few years.

Let’s be honest, UTLA doesn’t agree with Monica Garcia on most things, but this motion was the closest to what we were proposing and what the students of Students Deserve wanted to see, so we ended up backing that one. The other proposals were one by George McKenna, the only African American member of the school board, to just create a task force to explore the issue, and one by Jackie Goldberg, who’s very progressive on a lot of issues, which was to take school police out of uniforms and have them in plain clothes. The students didn’t feel that went far enough.

All three of these proposals failed. And it was heartbreaking, because so many students got up to speak about their experiences, and ultimately the school board did not listen to them. I know the pain of this personally. When I was a black student in the time of South African apartheid, we had an Afrikaner teacher who separated our classroom by race, and I remember how hard it was to get her out of our school. And this was in LA. So I know how difficult it is for students to make themselves heard and to be listened to.

Students were pushing to end random searches before we went on strike. UTLA incorporated it into our common-good demands, and working with a coalition we were able to prevail in a pilot set of schools. The students kept pushing after the strike, and eventually were able to eliminate random searches in June of 2019. But it took so long and so much effort.

After that, the students started talking about things like ending the use of pepper spray in schools. At first the district denied that even this happens, then right before their huge demonstration last Tuesday, the superintendent came out to say, “We are no longer going to be using pepper spray.” It was like they were trying to calm the students down so as not to talk about the real issue, which is school police and criminalizing youth in the schools.

So all of that is to say, I know how difficult it is for students to be heard. Yesterday at the board meeting, student after student poured their heart out, and parents and educators did as well. And to watch students stand up and talk about their experiences and say, “We want to eliminate the school police, and put that money into psychiatric social workers and mental health counselors and and college counselors,” and to have the school board turn them down, that was hard.

The students had a rally outside the school board, and there were fifteen hundred people there. But the school police organized too. They bought shirts for people to wear that said “I love the school police.” And they ended up walking away from that meeting with a victory. We’re all a little shaken from that. But even though we’re at an impasse now, this fight isn’t over.

Meagan Day

I wrote an article, published last week, about how teachers’ unions all over the country are demanding police-free schools. I made the point that this is part of a shift in orientation for teachers’ union locals toward social-movement unionism and bargaining for the common good, a shift that started in many ways with the Chicago Teachers’ Union in 2012, and was really embodied by the UTLA 2019 strike. How significant is this trend?

Cecily Myart-Cruz

When Chicago did it in 2012, a lot of us looked at them and thought, “Oh they’re really going for it,” and that was definitely in many ways the beginning. Other people started to pick up on it. In St. Paul, in Milwaukee, people were talking about what it means to be a union committed to social justice. When our Union Power slate here in UTLA came on in 2014, we pushed the union to start thinking about how to use social justice issues to engage members, parents, and students.

We were really trying to think of a way to tie the bread-and-butter teachers’ issues that unions need to fight for to issues affecting the broader community. And that’s when we started talking about bargaining for the common good. When the strike came, we had laid the groundwork to highlight and lift up community issues along with ours. And we saw the result in the streets, with over sixty thousand people coming out for the strike, hitting the streets day in and day out in the rain. We saw that and it was clear. This is the movement, this is why we’re doing what we’re doing.

The union has to be about social justice principles of the common good. And this is especially important right now, in this pandemic which brings to the surface and lays bare all of the inequities in our society. We know that black folks are passing away from COVID-19 disproportionately. Some people say, “Oh it’s because they have preexisting conditions.” But let’s get to why there are preexisting conditions in the first place.

And then we all watch someone’s life get snuffed out in eight minutes and forty-six seconds. All of this says to black people, “Your life does not matter. Period.” It’s moments like this when the union has to say to black educators, black parents, and black students, “We see you.” Then we have to begin figuring out what it means for the union to work to break down the systems, structures, policies, and programs that have oppressed people over the years.

Meagan Day

“Defund the police” means different things to different people, but one framing I’ve seen emerge is that it’s a demand with essentially three components. First, drastically cut funding for police and reduce their scope of operations. Second, invest in public safety alternatives and social services that should have been there all along, from housing to education to healthcare. And third, understand that the pot of public money needs to grow to fund the kind of society we deserve, so we have to go beyond diverting funds and commit to taxing the wealthy.

In that sense, the upcoming fight over Schools and Communities First [SCF], a ballot measure coming up in California this year, is consistent with the work UTLA has done around defunding the police. Tell us about the upcoming battle.

Cecily Myart-Cruz

Schools and Communities First is not new on the scene. It used to be called Make It Fair. People have been trying for a long time in California to tax corporations and make them pay their fair share. UTLA was an early signer onto this year’s ballot measure, back when it didn’t have a new name yet, when we were just calling it Make It Fair.

And we’re not alone. Teachers unions are throwing down for SCF. We have a statewide coalition, the California Alliance for Community Schools, and through that we’re working with locals up and down the state. Oakland, San Francisco, Richmond, San Jose, Berkeley, Fresno, Bakersfield, San Bernardino, Santa Ana, Anaheim, San Diego, these are some of the large urban locals we’re working with to get SCF passed.

We ended up doing a lot of this legwork of statewide organizing ourselves early on, because the leadership of the California Teachers Association [CTA] under a different president was not willing to move on it. So we ended up educating ourselves on it, and every time there was a CTA event we would pass out flyers about it that UTLA made. We worked really hard to tee it up and build support for it.

It’s been amazing to see what grassroots organizing can accomplish. And then once CTA got a new president, it was just like, “Okay we’re going to be talking about SFC every day.” So yes, we’re getting ready for a big push to make corporations in California pay their fair share so we can fund public education.